Blogs > HNN > Luther Spoehr: Review of Joseph A. Soares’s The Power of Privilege: Yale and America’s Elite Colleges (Stanford University Press, 2007).

Jul 13, 2007 5:20 pm

Luther Spoehr: Review of Joseph A. Soares’s The Power of Privilege: Yale and America’s Elite Colleges (Stanford University Press, 2007).

Do we really need another study of Yale University’s admissions policies over the past century? After all, we already have (among others) Marcia Graham Synnott’s “The Half-Open Door: Discrimination and Admissions at Harvard, Yale and Princeton, 1900-1970” (1979), Dan Oren’s “Joining the Club: A History of Jews and Yale” (1985), and, most recently and comprehensively, Jerome Karabel’s exhaustive “The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton” (2005).

Joseph Soares, a sociologist at Wake Forest University, addresses this concern directly: “Karabel’s conclusions,” he says, “are consistent with my own. I think it fair to say that both of our works show that Harvard, Princeton, and Yale never desired or attempted to create an academic meritocracy.” His work, he says, is “complementary,” because his use of “documents and reports, particularly from [Yale’s] Office of Institutional Research [OIR], that were unavailable to Karabel” allows him to demonstrate that “the alleged shift in admissions after 1950 from character to brains” never happened.

Indeed, Soares’s book is useful for several reasons. First, he shows in considerable detail how Yale’s postwar policy of “selecting [students] for leadership” was implemented. As the number of applicants grew, academic criteria were less and less helpful when the Admissions Office had to make decisions: as with Lake Wobegon, all the applicants were above average. So while Yale dutifully continued to publish profiles of its students’ SAT scores, the Admissions Office and the OIR worked behind the scenes to define and clarify the non-academic criteria that would produce the kind of student body Yale wanted. For a time, even students’ posture pictures were part of the analytical mix.

Second, Soares explains why Yale’s leaders, even Kingman Brewster, had relatively little to say about using the SAT to promote “meritocracy.” During the same years, Clark Kerr and his successors at the University of California pushed for better instruments of academic assessment to guarantee college access for students of demonstrated ability. When, in the late 1950s, Cal determined that the SAT “did not improve California’s ability to select first-year [students], and it helped even less with transfer students from junior colleges,” an alarmed College Board and Educational Testing Service were galvanized to modify the tests. By the late ‘60s, students applying to the Cal system had to take the SAT (now called SAT I) and three Achievement Tests (now SAT II’s). When, in 1999, UC President Richard Atkinson criticized the SAT I, the CB modified it by eliminating the analogies section, the part of the Exam most criticized for being biased.

Perhaps, says Soares, “Yale’s silence on the new SAT has something to do with the old SAT’s value in capturing 60 percent of its families at the top of the income scale.” Seventy-nine percent of Yale students come from the wealthiest 25 percent of American families (at Oxford, in presumably class-bound Britain, 79 percent of its students come from families in the top 40 percent of yearly income).

Yale does boast about its “needs blind” admissions policy. But about 60 percent of Yale families pay the full freight for their offspring, a percentage that has not changed substantially since Yale went “needs blind” in 1963. “Needs blind,” says Soares, “was a brilliant policy that promised something for every social class. It held out a hope of upward mobility for the bottom, a means to stay in the game for the middle, and confirmation of individual merit for the top.”

Finally, by bringing French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s theories about “cultural capital” to bear on the subject, Soares provides an explanation of how all this can happen, who benefits, and who doesn’t. In this regard, he helps make the conversation about college admission part of the larger discussion about equality of opportunity and condition in contemporary America. “Bourdieu would see a harmony between the market needs of elite colleges and the class interests of their clientele,” Soares says, adding—significantly--that the most selective private colleges and universities depend upon their elite clientele far more than their elite clientele depends upon them. The road to personal success does not—yet—run exclusively through New Haven, Cambridge, and the like, but New Haven and Cambridge benefit from (and often encourage) the increasingly common perception that it does.

Between them, Soares and Karabel put to rest what Soares terms the “optimistic” thesis about meritocracy (represented most visibly by Nicholas Lemann’s 1999 book, “The Big Test”) and present serious challenges to more “cautious” viewpoints. If you have already read what Soares describes as Karabel’s “masterpiece,” then Soares’s book will broaden your scope. If you haven’t, then Soares, in a mere 200 pages of text, provides a powerful introduction to the topic--and to the ongoing argument about the links between power, privilege, and education in America.

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