A review of The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College, by Jacques Steinberg

No sentence better describes The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College, by Jacques Steinberg, than the opening one: "Colleges make their admissions decisions behind a cordon of security befitting the selection of a pope." 

That sentiment reveals all that one needs to know about the admissions process of any public or private institution of higher education in America. It is particularly significant for those who seek to understand the mystery of decision-making by institutions of higher education confronted with a greater demand for access than there is supply of available seats. 

In virtually any activity of American life, particularly where taxpayer funds are involved, the "rules of the game" are publicized and readily understood. The purpose of these rules is to enable those who choose to compete to prepare themselves for the competition based on established criteria. This is often called "transparency" in academia. 

What one comes to understand from The Gatekeepers is that there is nothing transparent about the admissions process of selective academic institutions. For this revelation (or confirmation), we are deeply indebted to Steinberg. 

Over the past decade of my service as a regent of the University of California (UC), I have devoted more attention to the admissions process than to all other issues combined that confront the UC Board of Regents. And, I regret that I must admit to knowing as little in 2003 as I did in 1993 about how admissions decisions are made at UC. 

Thanks to Steinberg, I now have a better understanding of why I have had such difficulty gaining access to the inner workings of the admissions process. If only he had written his book a decade earlier, he could have saved me much time and many sleepless nights. 

Steinberg spent eight months, from the fall of 1999 until the spring of 2000, observing how decisions are made from inside the admissions office of one of the most selective colleges in the country, Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. In particular, The Gatekeepers chronicles the experience of one Wesleyan admissions officer, Ralph Figueroa, and the high school seniors whose cases he and his colleagues considered during that academic year. 

While parents and students almost universally operate on the premise that college admissions should be based on a formulaic calculation of grade point averages and standardized test scores, we learn from The Gatekeepers that the decisions are clearly "intuitive" and "idiosyncratic," or what is commonly called "holistic" in the parlance of admissions officers. 

In explaining the overall admissions process, Steinberg concludes: "The raw materials that fuel such discussions—test scores, race, social class, grades, athletic ability, family connections—are considered far too combustible to be combined in front of the applicants themselves, let alone a wider audience." 

For those who wonder what the admissions process will be like in the aftermath of the June 23, 2003 United States Supreme Court decision involving the University of Michigan, Steinberg gives us an "up close and personal" perspective by taking us inside the admissions office of Wesleyan. "Ralph [Figueroa] learned early on," Steinberg writes

that few of the minority applicants to Occidental [where he was an admissions officer previously], particularly black and Hispanic applicants, had grades and standardized test scores competitive with those of white applicants. But, Ralph was instructed, he needed to examine those records in the context of an applicant's life before deciding whether to accept or reject the candidate. Occidental's philosophy, like that of countless other liberal arts colleges, was that SAT scores aren't as important in the screening of minority applicants, especially those who were the first in their families to apply to college.

While this was a lesson learned by Figueroa during his job at Occidental, it was one which applied equally as much in his tenure at Wesleyan, as Figueroa and his colleagues sought to create a student body that reflected the ethnic and racial composition of the country. To accomplish that objective, the standards to which Asian American and white applicants were held were lowered for black and Hispanic applicants. Evidence of how this double standard plays out in the admissions process can be seen in the cases of Tiffany Wang and Aggie Ramirez, both of whom were in the applicant pool for the Wesleyan Class of 2004. 

Wang, an "Asian American," had a 1470 SAT score and a very substantial record of extracurricular activities. Figueroa concluded, however, that she did not merit a place in the incoming class of Wesleyan because there were undoubtedly "better-qualified Asian American applicants" in the national pool. Thus, he recommended that she be denied admission. 

On the other hand, Aggie Ramirez, a Hispanic student with a 1090 SAT and an impressive extracurricular history, was assigned a "clear priority" admit ranking because of her "desirable ethnic background." As Figueroa saw it, part of his job description was to "be on the alert for qualified Hispanic applicants." By writing "clear priority" on the file of Ramirez, while recommending that Wang be denied, Figueroa was simply "doing his job." 

Those who have been claiming for years that affirmative action is not "preferential treatment," and that race is merely one factor among many in the quest for diversity will find their arguments shattered by the reality of the admissions process revealed at Wesleyan. 

Two additional facts relating to the use of race are underscored in The Gatekeepers: first, students admitted because of race with lower academic accomplishment are, indeed, put at risk of failing when placed in an academic setting that exceeds their level of preparation in relation to that of their competitors; and, second, being denied admission to a university that a student believes he or she has "earned" the right to attend based on hard work can be devastating to the student and his or her family. As Becca Jannol, an applicant for the Class of 2004 commented, "I'm sorry so many kids have to go through this process. It makes you feel really bad about yourself at times." She added that there had to be a better way, although she was hard-pressed to suggest one. 

Those who are following the controversy of the University of California as it implements its system of "Comprehensive Review" would do well to read The Gatekeepers for a better understanding of how significantly lower SAT scores can result in admissions offers for certain students with "desirable ethnic backgrounds," while those with significantly higher SAT scores receive no such offers. With regard to academic performance and racial or ethnic "minorities," The Gatekeepers teaches another valuable lesson, one that should be self-evident but is often ignored in the national pursuit of "diversity": Many black and Hispanic students have very strong academic skills, and need no preference based on their ancestry. An example of this fact is Julianna Bentes, an applicant who, like so many Americans, is able to check not one but several of the dreaded race "boxes" often found on applications. In the case of Bentes, she checked three—Hispanic because her father was Brazilian and white because of her mother. She also considered herself black because her father was a descendant of African slaves. 

Given her stellar academic credentials—a perfect 800 on the SAT verbal exam, 710 on the math, and a score on the PSAT that was matched by only a few hundred out of 2.3 million students who took the exam that year, as well as a very high grade point average in advanced placement courses—Bentes was probably the most sought-after applicant for the Class of 2004 by nearly every selective college in the nation. 

The glaring and often frightening reality of Steinberg's entry into the hazy world of the admissions officer is that one of the most important decisions about an individual's life is often made with the individual not only having no control over the factors that account for the decision, but not even being aware of what can be done to adequately prepare for that moment when their application will be considered. In no other activity of human endeavor is there such a mystery. 

"Although the college admissions process has always been shrouded in secrecy, it was the effort to diversify their campuses in the 1960s and early 1970s that has resulted in the nation's most selective campuses embarking on cross country searches for the most qualified 'underrepresented minorities'—blacks, Hispanic and Native Americans—and later women. This change of attitude from exclusion to 'inclusion,' along with the 1978 Bakke decision handed down by the United States Supreme Court, gave public and private universities the moral and legal authority to discriminate in favor of 'minorities' in the interest of creating 'diversity.'" 

As a result, the admissions process became all the more secretive and complicated. The effect of this process on actual lives is best summarized in The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy by Nicholas Lemann: 

Here is what American society looks like today. A thick line runs through the country, with people who have been to college on one side of it and people who haven't on the other. This line gets brighter all the time. Whether a person is on one side of the line or the other is now more indicative of income, of attitudes, and of political behavior than any other line one might draw: region, race, age, religion, sex, class. As people plan their lives and their children's lives, higher education is the main focus of their aspirations (and the possibility of getting into the elite end of the higher education is the focus of their very dearest aspirations).

Deciding who gets assigned to which side of the line is a handful of individuals who operate in a profession that is described by Steinberg as "one of the most powerful, stressful and least understood occupations in the nation: the job of an admissions officer." 

As Steinberg attests, the admissions process has become big business. In any big business, it should not be surprising that so much effort is expended to scout and recruit top students as one would scout and recruit top athletes. It is this facet of the admissions process, so carefully documented by Steinberg, that will probably come as a surprise to many. And, when any activity becomes big business, cozy relationships are bound to form between the various segments of the marketplace, in this instance between the admissions officers and high school guidance counselors. 

Steinberg documents in elaborate detail how Figueroa and his mentor and friend, Sharon Merrow, collaborate to ensure that students attending the high school at which Sharon is guidance counselor are given special consideration at Wesleyan. We come to understand how pervasive such relationships are and how they are established and nurtured by other admissions officers and counselors at Wesleyan as well as other universities and high schools. Clearly, these cozy relationships are beneficial to the universities as well as the premier high schools, but they create further inequities for those students who happen to attend high schools without counselors who are as well connected as Sharon. 

Finally, Steinberg's journey to the other side of the admissions counter enables the reader to appreciate just how elusive the concept of "merit" can be as Figueroa and his colleagues grapple with different applications. Does the applicant who participates in a wide range of extracurricular activities but who achieves a lower grade point average in the process, demonstrate greater merit than the applicant who concentrates on grades and engages in fewer extracurricular activities toward that end? Is the "obstacle" of coming from a single-parent household of greater significance than being part of a household where English is not the primary language? 

These are questions that the admissions officers—"The Gatekeepers"—are called upon to answer as they seek to choose between thousands of applicants seeking admission to each of the more select universities of our nation. Steinberg deserves praise for putting a spotlight on what is truly a complex and messy business, for which there are no easy answers.