Every now and then we come across a phenomenal piece of journalism on highly selective college admissions. Sure, we are often the first to criticize inaccuracies presented in the press about the admissions process. After all, a core objective of our college admissions blog is to debunk misconceptions that cloud the process. But when we come across a piece of journalism that contributes to a better understanding of this same process, you bet we’re going to tout it. And that’s what we’re doing today. Daniel Golden’s piece in “Town & Country Magazine” entitled “Jared Kushner Isn’t Alone: How Wealthy Families Manipulate Admissions at Elite Universities” is the best piece of journalism on highly selective college admissions of the year. We’ll use the superlative. It deserves it. It wins our Emmy for Outstanding Journalism on College Admissions.
We wrote a few days back about Jared Kushner. Kushner is the husband of Ivanka Trump, which makes him the son-in-law of President-elect Donald Trump. He is also, by all accounts, the closest advisor to the president-elect. In Daniel Golden’s 2006 book, “The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates,” Golden writes of how Jared’s father, Charles, made a donation to Harvard and the son would subsequently earn admission — much to the surprise of folks at his high school who felt he wasn’t deserving of admission to one of America’s most selective institutions.
Parents often ask us, “How much do I need to donate for my child to get in?” The answer is that there is no amount of money that can guarantee your child admission to a school like Harvard. And, in most instances, the figures these parents are thinking of donating would fall short — significantly short — of having any positive impact whatsoever. Sure, Harvard will take your money. Happily. But they won’t admit your child. And, no, they aren’t offering you a refund. Maybe they’ll send a Christmas card? The fact is, there is a right way and a wrong way to donate money to highly selective institutions and there is an amount that matters, and would make a difference, and there is an amount that doesn’t, and wouldn’t. We help clients, from time to time, make their donations properly but we always tell them that even then, there are no guarantees of admission for their children.
What we found to be most interesting in Golden’s piece is this bit: “The percentage of alumni donating to the country’s top 20 universities dropped over the last 10 years, but the average alumni contribution nearly doubled—meaning that this crucial source of support is coming from large checks written by a relative few. In 2015 alone, seven individuals made gifts of more than $100 million apiece to higher education, including one bequest. And as the ultrarich boost philanthropy to universities, the price for giving their progeny an admissions edge has escalated correspondingly. ‘People think that if they give a couple hundred thousand or a million they’re big donors. That’s just no longer the case at major universities,’ Notre Dame’s Bishop said. On the other hand, if someone gives $15 million, ‘which could fund 10 to 15 scholarship kids in perpetuity, do you let their children have some special interest? Yes. But they still have to be quite good.'” It’s interesting because it’s true. Very true.
We firmly believe that legacy admission is a violation of law — of tax law. But someone has pledged to rewrite the tax code, that someone being the father of four Penn legacies. We have a feeling this won’t be addressed. It’s just an intuition.
Is legacy admission unfair? You bet. Is it unfair that the children of major donors can have an advantage in admissions? You bet. Like Richard Kahlenberg, we’d also argue that the latter practice is a violation of law since folks should not receive gifts (admission for their children!) in return for tax deductible donations. It’s a violation of our tax code, which interestingly an alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania — and the father of four Penn legacies, including Jared’s wife Ivanka — intends to rewrite. Does the notion that highly selective colleges admit many minorities, first-generation college applicants, and low-income students make up for it? No. And we agree with Golden’s assertion that it’s a cruel twist of irony that Georgetown University will be offering the same preference in admission to the descendants of the folks who were slaves at the university as they are to the children of their alumni. In other words, they’re going to offer slots to privileged students to the disadvantage of underprivileged students, but they’ll also offer some slots to students whose ancestors worked as slaves at the institution. Naturally.
But we’re curious to hear from our readers. What do you think about this piece by Golden? What do you think about the practice of legacy admission? Do you think the children of major — and we do mean major — donors should have an advantage in admission? Let us know your thoughts by posting a Comment below. We look forward to hearing from you.