Who Gets in and Why is the more general book. Selingo – who I admire because of his ability to straddle the line between freelance journalism and academia – strikes a balance between policy-relevant stuff for wonks and writing for students and parents navigating a complex system. That’s a hard balance to strike and his books haven’t always quite managed it, but this book nails it perfectly. If you’ve ever wanted to understand why admissions to selective US institutions is one enormous game of Calvinball, this is the book for you.
Many ways are used globally to match individual high school graduates to universities. Most of them involve some form of streaming before age 16 and some form of curriculum-based national examination at age 18 or so. The US, which dislikes streaming and lacks a national curriculum, cannot really do either. Moreover, it has a strong prestige hierarchy (as I’m sure you are tired of me pointing out, U of T alone is bigger than the entire Ivy League; Canada’s top three universities account for about 15% of the country’s enrolments while America’s accepts only about 0.1%). Add in the financial pressures of maintaining an incredibly expensive higher education system – the US is one of a very small number of countries where per-student expenditures are higher than Canada’s – and you have a recipe for a perplexing admissions system.
Selingo’s book is a complement to Paul Tough’s The Years That Matter Most, which excellently showed how the American system perpetuated intergenerational inequality. But Who Gets In differs in that it takes the institutional perspective, not the student one. It quickly reveals that what selective American institutions attempt to do in the admissions process borders on bedlam.
It’s not just that American colleges attempt to look at students “holistically” rather than on the basis of pure academic results. That’s fine if it takes a student’s context into account and does not distribute bonus points for lived experience that only children of the upper class partake in (though it is very unclear whether most US universities are capable of this). It’s that there are multiple ways of interpreting academic results depending on the high school you attended, your marks and your standardized test scores. There are also multiple ways of scoring “the individual” – how impressive are those extra-curricular grades anyway? Most schools, as Selingo notes, turn these into “a cryptic recipe wrapped up in what is supposed to look like a mathematical formula.” This much is generally understood – if not always viewed favourably – by American students and parents, and they arrange their high school careers accordingly.
But less understood is that these considerations are a very small part of the equation. Universities themselves operate under the (frankly unproven) illusion that they can “craft a class” – that is, create a “balanced” frosh group – meaning that the exact balance of academics and “character traits” are always in flux. At all but the wealthiest schools, ability-to-pay gets factored in – and at wealthy schools there is also the additional barrier of seats being held for the children of alumni, or “legacies.” And then, because of early admission/early decision, there is a layer of game theory laid on top of this. Charitably, this produces a system where each individual college’s decision to accept or reject an individual student has a rationale, but one that is inconsistent from year to year or even within a cohort. Less charitably, the whole thing is unhinged. Certainly, it is not a system built with the student in mind.
The great thing about Selingo’s book is that while none of this is new, exactly – if you’ve paid attention to US press on higher education over the last decade you’ll know about most of this stuff. But he assembles it in a way which makes you realise what a Lovecraftian monster the system can be.
And that’s even before athletics, which is a whole other Stygian nightmare. Though athletics are portrayed as a vehicle for equal opportunity (think of Black athletes in the big-money sports of basketball and football), athletic spots skew white and male (think track, rowing, soccer and lacrosse). And at very selective schools, where demand for spaces outstrip supplies and parents are willing to pay well over sticker price to get their mediocre offspring through the door, it turns out that there was a massive market in allowing parents to do precisely this. This is what became known as the Varsity Blues Scandal, and is the subject of the book Unacceptable.
Now, Unacceptable is basically a campus crime procedural, but an entertaining one. Rich folks – including Hollywood B- and C-listers (Felicity Huffman and Aunt Becky from Full House, respectively – are shown to be utterly obsessed with the idea of getting their children into A-list universities. Rick Singer, who had developed various schemes to fake test scores and bribe college sports coaches to recommend specific individuals to their respective admissions departments, was able to convince all of these deeply insecure parents to pay him hundreds of thousands to get their kids into a top university. It wasn’t “the back door”, Singer told them (by which he meant straight-up cash-for-admissions deals like the one that got Jared Kushner into Harvard) but rather the “side door.” And by swallowing this lie, rich parents were able to sleep at night.
What makes Unacceptable a worthwhile book is not just the voyeuristic insight into the way money-hungry institutions (or their employees) can fleece status-hungry parents, but rather the moral insight into the rottenness of the whole system. The system already gave these rich kids untold levels of advantage and privilege, and yet their parents were prepared to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to work the system to give them an even greater advantage. These were not victimless crimes: for every wealthy scion that got scammed into these top universities, there was a less-well-off kid deprived of a spot. For hard examples of how the American class system is becoming more rigid as the wealthy find ever-less salubrious ways to pass on their privilege, Unacceptable is hard to beat.
Read these books. Think hard about how and why Canada is different. And then do whatever is in your power to stop is drifting even a small way in this direction.