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on September 5, 2006
While it's widely believed that the rich and powerful can buy their way into top colleges, this book replaces rumor with hard evidence: dozens of specific, juicy examples, captured with a Pulitzer Prize winner's journalistic precision. This is a difficult job, since it can rarely be said with certainty that someone would not have been accepted without their big financial donation or famous parent. Golden understands this, and doesn't stretch facts or pound points. He just presents dozens of cases of apparent corruption, letting the facts speak for themselves.

The author repeatedly contrasts the academic records of wealthy students who were accepted with the records of better but poorer students who did not get in at the same college in the same year. Sometimes, these stories are even supplemented by internal evaluations made by the admissions offices themselves -- as when Golden notes that Senator Bill Frist's son got the lowest possible rating from Princeton's admissions office for academic achievement, and was admitted anyway. While it is standard for college admissions staff to point out the "complexity" and "context" of each case to defend seemingly incongruous outcomes, the author makes these acrobatics difficult with his relentless stream of examples and hard facts.

Golden manages to weave this rigor and precision into a sharp, interesting narrative, moving easily from Princeton and Harvard's affinity for the undistinguished and undisciplined sons of Bill Frist and Al Gore to Brown University's pandering to the children of movie stars to Duke's wooing of the children of the rich. It is a juicy read. Undoubtedly, at least part of what drives this book is the author's muckraking anger. He admits to being outraged on behalf of the Asian students who have to meet higher standards than the wealthy children of white donors and politicians. This outrage, from my perspective, was a plus and not a minus.

Golden's idealism is also evident in the positive chapter about Caltech, The Cooper Union, and Berea College, three institutions where wealth, connections, and power play no role in admissions. He lauds Caltech for being one of the nation's best private colleges despite having an admissions process based on merit alone. It is certainly tempting to believe that this purist idealism could spread to other institutions, too. Still, everybody admits that giving handouts like easier admission is a simple way for universities to cozy up to money and power. Golden is honest about the fact that the only way to deal with corruption in the long run is to institute conflict of interest rules similar to those which exist in law school admissions and other fields.

This is a smart, scathing, provocative, and angry book that shines a bright light on affirmative action for the rich and is guaranteed to produce some embarrassing questions for those who perpetuate it.
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on October 13, 2007
Daniel Golden's The Price of Admission is a ten star read on Amazon's five star scale-- a triumph of hard-hitting investigative reporting combined with thoughtful suggestions on potential reform of college admissions policies.

The thesis of The Price of Admission is simple: a talented "unhooked" student is at a disadvantage in gaining admission to a prestige college, versus less talented alumni legacies, the scions of wealth ("development admits"-- while colleges may contend that admissions are "need blind" with respect to students, the colleges' own financial needs are keenly considered during the admissions process), faculty and staff children, and players of sports of wealth favored under the federal Title IX program, such as crew, polo or lacrosse. The only edge favoring "unhooked" studients is the preference for federally-designated minorities, including blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans-- a group that excludes Asian Americans and poorer immigrants.

Golden proves his thesis handily, using both broad-based admissions statistics and individual case studies. To my mind, Golden's willingness to name names and cite individual cases is a plus-- it is hard to brush off repeated instances of highly-credentialed "unhooked" candidates denied admission for less-talented but better connected children of donors, celebrities and alumni. As a result, this volume is a must-read for college admissions counselors, parents and college applicants. The sting of a college rejection of a talented "unhooked" student will hurt less if the context of that rejection is understood more fully. And perhaps the lure of the Ivy League plus Stanford and Duke will abate a bit if the public realizes that admissions to these institutions are hardly decided on a level playing field.

Especially heartbreaking in The Price of Admission are the stories of top tier students, frequently but by no means uniformly Asian American, rejected at multiple Ivies, while lesser-credentialed but better connected classmates are admitted. Poor foreign immigrants and, ironically, unhooked applicants whose parents have sacrificed to move to strong public school districts or to send their offspring to elite private schools (where they are more likely to compete with "hooked" classmates), are also disadvantaged in college applications. The Price of Admission offers must-read information for such students and families by helping them to realize that the college admissions process is biased and that rejection from top colleges does not signal personal failure. On the basis of personal experience, I would also suggest that talented students who are not admitted to Ivies will typically do well in life on the basis of their talent and drive, and should not let college admissions decisions define them.

Golden also highlights three colleges that do not admit on the basis of alumni preference, family wealth or athletic prowess, illustrating that alternative admissions systems can work effectively. Cooper Union admits strictly on academic and artistic merit, while Caltech admits solely on mathematical and scientific ability. Berea College, which serves a need-based population in the Appalachian Mountain area and in part of Ohio, admits students on the basis of merit, financial need and place of residence. The stories of Berea, Caltech and Cooper Union demonstrate that alternative admissions policies can and should flourish.

Golden concludes The Price of Admission with recommendations for moving college admissions more fully in the direction of merit. Many of his recommendations are thoughtful ones and deserving of careful consideration by college admissions staffs and policymakers.

Altogether, a ten star read on Amazon's five star scale. Recommended with keen enthusiasm.
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on March 22, 2011
Golden's researching ability and ability to write is clearly superior to any journalist working in mainstream American journalism that I know. This book exposes the secret that the powerful do not want exposed, the lie of meritocracy in our education system.

Using substantial evidence to support his arguments, Golden shows that the already privileged are privileged again in the college admission process by de facto affirmative action for whites such as legacy, wealthy donor, and certain athletic preferences. Golden's recommendation of abolishing such preferences for the privileged but maintaining affirmative action for under privileged minorities and some socioeconomic groups is sensible. He shows that such models do work quite well rebutting the common excuse given for such preferences based on the ability to raise sufficient funding. Golden gives three well-known examples of excellent institutions of higher education such as Caltech, Berea College and Cooper Union that actually disadvantages the already privileged but manages to raise enough funding for world class quality of education and student services. His argument here as elsewhere is very convincing.

Many of the negative reviews claimed that Golden only used individual example cases suggesting limited evidence or even bias in this work. Did these reviewers even read the same book I did? I got the 2009 edition and it includes a diverse amount of convincing evidence such as studies by independent organizations and scholars, internal records and investigations from the universities in question and many surprisingly candid testimonial evidence from current or former admission staff that such preferences exist all to the detriment of certain groups. There is overwhelming evidence of that preference and the fact that the principle groups that are harmed by them are Asians of all socioeconomic classes, both foreign or American, and low income but academically talented whites. I have to question the motive of anyone raising such criticisms. Perhaps they are some of the very people so privileged and having a sense of entitlement threatened by the meritocratic and egalitarian dream this country is supposedly founded on. This book wishes to affirm through well researched investigative reporting that dream.

As good as this book is, however, I think I should warn the potential reader that in the kindle edition, there are many typographical errors and the links to the notes section has not been put in the body of the text (in my version anyway).
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on January 2, 2007
After reading this book I was embarrassed by my naivety. I had always thought that our country's "premier" colleges were special places where the best and brightest gathered. Obviously that is not the case. The admissions practices outlined in the text appeared to me to be little more than discrimination by wealth.

I must confess I am very grateful to Mr. Golden for writing this book. As disturbing as it was to read, I could not put it in down. It has changed the way I look at higher education, the business world, and politics.

In the future when I see the resume of a CEO or political leader I will be looking for a state university as a mark of merit and real world experience.
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on January 24, 2010
This book is written magnificently, and the journalism is first-rate. Golden has certainly done his homework, and he provides the reader with revealing quotes from interviews with prominent people. I had no idea the extent to which one could essentially purchase a slot at our nation's elite colleges. The sections about faculty children and the counterintuitive consequence of Title IX were particularly creative, as I had never associated such things with aristocratic privilege.

That said, the overall argument of the book doesn't appreciate the complex means by which merit is defined and prestige is acquired. In spite of a disclaimer at the beginning of the book claiming that he is agnostic about the value of the SAT, Golden constantly makes subtle points to the effect of "The child of {wealthy person} was admitted even though his SAT score was 150 points lower than the school's average." More often than not, these well-connected kids who got admissions breaks were not total dunces; they received excellent educations at premier prep schools where competition was fierce and a B GPA may have been difficult to earn. Golden often harps on class rank and SAT scores to determine whether a student was qualified. So while I agree with him that there is injustice in this whole process, I disagree with some of the reasoning used to make the point.

To a large extent, elite schools are elite precisely because they are in bed with the aristocracy. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton didn't rise to the top solely due to academic prowess. Far from it-- Chicago, Berkeley, and Michigan have long rivaled these schools in terms of sheer academic strength. If you read the following Penn dissertation, you'll see that the "upper ivies" maintained their status by catering to the elites of their respective towns, not by offering better academics: Prestige in the Ivy League: Meritocracy at Columbia, Harvard and Penn, 1870-1940' by Richard Albert Farnum.

As such, one might imagine that if Golden's wish were to come true, that which gives Harvard its Harvardness could vanish. It's almost as though he assumes that the education itself at these places is inherently valuable, which is almost certainly untrue. As a graduate of a rather unknown liberal arts college with superb academics, I can attest to the fact that elite-level academics are only one piece of the formula that determines future success. Elite schools are more valuable for the connections-- including the fact that one may share a dorm with the president's child.

Golden ends the book by citing all of the wonderful opportunities that he was given as an undergraduate of Harvard, lamenting the fact that so many qualified students will not be able to have that experience because of admissions preference for the rich. But I wonder whether these wonderful opportunities are contingent on being intimate with the elite; perhaps this quid pro quo system is the only way to get this level of institutional investment. After all, elite schools in other countries have nowhere near the social cachet and endowment value of the Ivies. Think of all the excellent research that is funded thanks to this investment.
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on January 22, 2015
I really enjoyed this book. I hope Mr. Golden will do a follow-up volume that looks at graduation rates for students admitted with reduced requirements. I would also like to know more about students rejected from the Ivy League schools - where they attend school and their career paths.
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on December 27, 2013
If only I'd known I'd be a future crossword champion, I probably would have gotten into the schools that rejected me. Or perhaps if a parent was a huge celebrity, active alum, or zillionaire. Or if I'd played an obscure sport (nope, crosswords aren't a sport). This book talks about all those things (not the crossword angle). It's a little disheartening, but that's reality. As an example not discussed in the book - assuming she's remotely qualified, would any college reject Emma Watson? Yet most of these child stars leave to continue their careers (hello, Olsens!), which admittedly are more happening than sitting in a classroom.
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on September 10, 2006
I hope that the countless real examples in this book will awaken the majority of the Chinese community in the US, who have been absolutely stupid in favor of Affirmative Action, who have consistently supported such politicians and who have stubbornly regarded themselves as part of the "minority" - a term was created and has been carefully refined over the years to serve one single purpose: Give unconditional racial preference to the "under-represented" particular ethnical groups of which Chinese have never been and will ever be part at all.

Yes, during the college admission, many factors ought to be considered in addition to SAT or other academic scores. History and statistical analyses have shown repeatedly that perfect scores in SAT don't necessarily imply scholastic excellence in college; excellent GPA in undergraduate studies or GRE doesn't necessarily predict good academic achievement in graduate school or in the future academia. Besides, a harmonic society needs not only scientists, but many other good-will personalities with great virtues. I strongly agree that other personal characteristics such as moral, integrity, empathy, and capacity to love and give should be given more weight than SAT scores in the admission process. Yet the current admissions system has gone so far to the other extreme. "It's silly to pretend that every low scoring applicant (from under-represented minority) should be admitted to one of America's premier universities with the expectation that somehow these students will learn materials that they missed in K-12".
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on August 20, 2015
In this book, veteran WSJ reporter Daniel Golden explains how the admissions system of America's premier universities are stacked heavily in favor of the rich, powerful, and famous. Bright and hardworking students have to fight tooth and nail for the very few slots available, and Asian-Americans are heavily discriminated against in this system.

That private universities should put their institutional prestige and self-interest above that of the national interest is a pretty well-established fact, but what Daniel Golden does is reveal how they actually do it.
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on October 28, 2006
Inside of Daniel Golden's 300+ page expose of college admissions is 30 or so thought-provoking pages on equality and class-mobility in modern America. He's a good story teller, and organizes his book as a good story rather than as a piece of academic research. Each chapter revolves around stories of profound unfairness, inequity, and disillusionment. No matter how much you ultimately buy Golden's argument, he'll succeed in invoking flashes of pity and outrage.

That one trick, though, is so overdone that it quickly goes from driving the book's energy to becoming one of its most serious drawbacks. Even 100 pages of insider gossip on this rich alum's SAT scores or that celebrity's donations would be justified... but fully 90% of The Price of Admission feels like it was written for People Magazine. That's fine if that's what you expected. I was anticipating something centered around hard studies rather than specific anecdotes. I really didn't need to know how my rich classmates at Stanford did in high school. In fact, Golden almost makes me feel bad for them: how is it their fault that elite universities make them offers? Can we honestly blame them for accepting such an opportunity? I think had Golden given his main argument more thought, he would have seen that the juicy tidbits on Bill Frist's and Al Gore's children were distractions from the main culprits.

Plus, even where Golden does bravely embark into the realm of analysis and recommendations, he leaves glaring and unfair gaps stand without comment. He only passingly admits that "some" alumni children would have gotten into these institutions on their own, never delving into the question of whether children whose parents went to elite colleges are significantly more likely to excel on their own merits, a finding mentioned in, among other works, Freakonomics. He also doesn't cite inconvenient evidence. In his otherwise insightful chapter on Asians, for example, he mentions that UC Berkeley was 25% Asian in 1984 before admissions revoked their status as an underrepresented minority and began looking for ways to bolster Black and Hispanic applications at their expense. That's where he leaves it, so one remains with the impression that Berkeley is a hostile environment for Asians... an impression disabused with a simple visit to Berkeley's website, where you learn that Asians today are a plurality at Berkeley: 43% versus the next largest group, whites, at 32%. Of course, these facts complicate Golden's argument, so they're left out.

To give him credit, on some issues Golden is refreshingly balanced. He grapples with the implications of his anti-legacy argument on affirmative action programs on more than one occasion. He also gives admissions officials a fair amount of room in which to plead their case for preferences. When I put The Price of Admission down for the final time, I felt I understood the perspective from which the adcoms were coming: that pleasing the myriad of interests that sustain an elite university was difficult to balance with meritocratic ideals. I still ultimately agree with Golden, but he doesn't want to leave you with the impression that the culture of wealth is anything but pervasive, deep-rooted, and difficult to change.

Ultimately, I judge a book by whether or not I feel like keeping it in my bookshelf. I'm selling this one back. Golden's a good investigative journalist, but he should have written this with someone a little more given to thorough analysis.
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