just asking questions

A Sociology Professor on the Long History of Elites Gaming the College Admissions System

Photo: Mark Airs/Getty Images/Ikon Images

In 2007, Wake Forest sociology professor Joseph Soares published a book, The Power of Privilege, that explored how the metrics we use to measure high-school students’ achievement have a way of shifting over time to favor the wealthy and well-connected. In the wake of the revelation last week that some parents were actually committing crimes to ensure their children’s placement at elite institutions, Intelligencer spoke with Soares about the less lurid ways in which American parents have long taken advantage of a system that is meritocratic in name only.

Your book poked holes in the notion that college admissions were really just based on academic merit. Parents have been using their money and means to help children get ahead for a long time, of course. But I was wondering if you were shocked by the brazenness of this week’s revelations.

People are expressing a lot of outrage because clearly there were immoral and illegal acts, but it strikes me as what you would expect nouveau riche, really wealthy elites to pursue, because academia does have these two industries that play an inappropriate role. One is standardized testing. In my book, I document the extent to which the SAT was embraced, in the beginning, because it was thought that an IQ test would discriminate against Jews. The Ivy League was blatantly anti-Semitic, and people introduced the test because they thought, hey, all these Jewish boys from New York City are getting into Columbia, and we don’t want Princeton and Yale and Harvard to suffer the same fate. This guy called Brigham thought that the IQ test showed that Jewish boys were less intelligent, and that if you use used an IQ test, they wouldn’t be able to get in. So the Ivy League pivoted away from subject tests. The Power of Privilege is a story about how the upper class in our society has always sought to conflate the criteria that matched with it with the criteria that was most desirable.

It turned out that the IQ test didn’t work very well to filter out Jewish students. Places like Yale, which didn’t drop its Jewish quota until about 1964, insisted upon having photographs and family history. You had to give dad and mom’s place of birth as part of the application. They figured out ways of maintaining a quota system. None of this is news, but people forget that the test was introduced for that reason. So why did they keep it around? In the beginning, it was because the private universities wanted bragging rights over the public universities.

You got into the University of Michigan by graduating from a certified public high school in the state of Michigan; they weren’t using the SAT. The SAT didn’t become adopted by public universities in a widespread way until the late 1960s. Between when it was invented in 1927 and the ’60s, the private sector kept it for bragging rights, so that they could say: Our boys are achieving this gold standard of merit.

And the other reason they kept it around was they were trying to figure out how can they could fill their incoming class with boys whose parents’ bank accounts were big enough to be able to afford them. Arthur Howe, who was the admissions director [at Yale], and in charge of the commission that investigated this thing, calculated that Harvard and Yale and Princeton had to get 60 percent of their incoming class from boys whose families were in the top 5 percent of America’s income group.

So, how do you tell people you’re selecting for brains and not bank account? Well, it turns out they figured out, as early as 1964, that there’s a very robust correlation between family income and standardized test scores. It works with the ACT today as well as with the SAT. But that correlation meant that you could use it as a proxy for bank accounts.

The cruelty of this is that the test doesn’t predict college grades — but it does correlate well with family income. The upper class always cares about thinking that it really deserves its privileges, so it wants to claim that it really is the best and the brightest.

The thing that surprises me is the journalists and intellectuals and talking heads who have been all expressing outrage about this. Many of them have thrown around the term “meritocracy.” The professional, managerial class, the people with high incomes, they like to think they deserve to be where they are. And this sort of crass, vulgar, illegal, immoral, side-door attempt to get into these private institutions offends everybody’s ego, and makes them think that they’re somehow themselves undeserving. Meritocracy is part of the mythology and identity of the upper class in the United States.

And when the Brookings Institute and others, say, oh, we can fix this problem just by making things more meritocratic? That’s bullshit — that’s never going to work. No matter what kind of criteria you set, if you’ve got a private sector in the United States as we do, which enrolls 25 percent of the undergraduates — the private sector gets to define what matters most to them. And I guarantee you, whatever they decide is important, the professional, managerial class are going to do a better job of getting their kids into those institutions than anybody else. So it doesn’t matter what the criteria is.

Do you think that colleges should get rid of the SAT altogether? It seems like it may be one of the more difficult criteria to game — would losing it ultimately backfire to the benefit of the elites?

Test-optional is definitely part of the solution. With the University of Chicago signing on, there are over a thousand colleges and universities that are test-optional in the United States today, including public institutions like George Mason and Virginia. And that does remove a proxy for social class that means ou’re going to be selecting more for high-income families than just for people’s academic ability.

Texas and California both have a formula for their public universities. I think it goes back and forth a little bit in Texas. It was originally written as a top 10 percent rule.

But in California, it’s the top 9 percent in the local high school who are all admitted to the University of California. They use the test to sort out which campus you go to, but you get admitted by being in the top 9 percent. Given the economic stratification and local control of America’s high schools, that means if [students in] every single public high school in a state get into the public university in the state, you’re going to capture a lot more social class diversity than you’re going to get through a test, like the SAT. So that’s part of the solution, surely.

A lot of the families named in the lawsuit were rich to begin with, and it seems like what they’re purchasing had little to do with the future earnings of their kids. What do you think they were buying? Is it just prestige?

I think most of them were interested in buying prestige, of buying social networking, or, in a few cases, at least, being able to ensure the social media brand of their offspring.

Lori Loughlin’s daughter — I don’t know if she was already friends with the daughter of the board of trustees chairman for the University of Southern California before she went there, but either way, this was cementing a social tie with a powerful network.

I mean, the news broke to her while she was on this guy’s yacht in the Bahamas. You can’t make this stuff up.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

A Sociology Professor on America’s Meritocratic Myth