Competing for Class in Colleges' Constructed Communities

Monday, April 1, 2013 (All day)

I just returned from taking my 17-year-old son on an eastern seaboard college tour. The trip was informative in ways different than I expected. The first time looking at schools, with my older son five years ago, he and I both were agog at the possibilities as together we pressed our noses against some of higher education’s most elite windows. This time, after shelling out four years of astronomical tuition to one of those institutions, I had perhaps a bit more sanguine view.

Having weathered from a relatively stable perch the go-go days of housing market peaks and valleys, I’m reminded, in the seller’s market scramble for college admission, of high-end housing developments at the peak of the residential mortgage boom. The student admissions office at many of the colleges had the feel of an elegant model home, often with a fireplace ablaze just like you’d want in your ideal living room. Enthusiastic previous buyers – always current students – guided our sales tour emphasizing the features and amenities (food, always the food!) included in the tuition, room and board purchase price. The prospective applicants – kids and their “banker” parents – all exhibited their best behavior. Eager to look acceptable, they ask few, if any, of the perhaps unseemly questions, such as the one about the tempo of campus party life, but for different reasons, of course.

Behind all the tour hoopla, I knew there awaited a whole crew of steely-eyed, seasoned "credit checkers” and “resume vetters,”readying themselves for an application onslaught. Admissions officers are the real power in the college business. I suspect they care less who toured their development and heard the sales pitch. That's just the mass marketing part of the transaction. Rather, they labor to protect the college’s community standards and academic prestige, along with its U.S. News and World Report exclusivity ranking. They want to know which applicants will keep up the institutional reputation and not default on the mortgage contracts. They also assure that a certain subset of applicants receive “rent” discounts so the neighborhood keeps its progressive luster by passing diversity muster.

I was struck by so much careful attention to the presentation of what amounts to very tightly constructed communities. Nothing wrong there. Out of their family homes for the first time, minors need a degree of responsible supervision and a certain amount of thought given to the transitional environment through which they pass to adulthood.

High school grades, SAT scores, extra-curricular activities and character seem the obvious currency you’d expect to determine admission. Still, a market flooded with willing, enthusiastic buyers keen to own one of these “homes” opening up for sale in the fall can introduce stressful dynamics into the college entrance equation. I could see clearly how pedigree, legacy, good fortune and connections give rise to an "entitlement effect" in some people, and how the lack of them act as entry barriers to others. At one point I experienced a flush of privileged shame expecting that my older son’s admission five years ago to one of these elite colleges should automatically qualify his brother for the same ticket to an equally nice college home.

In us humans – rich, poor and in between – the yearning runs deep to win a step up for our progeny, to move from the tenement to the townhouse. Age-old competition for dominance in our Darwinian niches holds us hostage, yet surrounds us with a curious kind of insulation as well, the social class that shows all over us but about which we rarely speak. It’s a nasty and brutish haul from junior year’s onset until that senior spring when letters announcing either downright denial or offering up deeds to the great American educational estate get opened and read -- with rage, resignation or relief.


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