“In contemporary America, college may be for all, but the preferred institutions are only for a few,” writes Mitchell Stevens in his new book, Creating a Class: College Admissions and the Education of Elites (Harvard University Press, Sept. 2007). Stevens, an associate professor of sociology and education at New York University, spent 18 months observing the inner-workings of the admissions office of an elite, highly-selective East Coast liberal arts college. The story he uncovers as he watches the creation of a freshman class is that of wealthy families and the elaborate-and costly-organizational machinery they have developed to pass their privilege on to their children.
Social reproduction occurs in many areas of our lives, but formal schooling plays an exceedingly large role in it. Formal schooling influences where people live and how they raise their children; it influences how they spend their money and go into debt; it gives people directions about how to plot their futures; it tells people what achievements their society most values; it helps people figure out who they are in relation to others. It even influences when and with whom they fall in love.
Stevens explains how elite colleges and universities have assumed the central role in the production of the nation’s privileged classes. He discovers why admissions offices must bring each class in “on budget,” burnish the statistics so crucial to institutional prestige, and take care of their colleagues in the athletic department and the development office. Stevens shows that the job cannot be done without a system of preferences. Kids have an edge if their parents can pay full tuition, if they attend high schools with exotic zip codes, if they are athletes, and even if they are popular.
In the competitive parenting Olympics, the goal is really to raise kids with the attributes most coveted by elite colleges: measurable academic and extracurricular accomplishment and athletic prowess. Good looks, an athletic body, and an outgoing personality don’t hurt either. “Getting in” has become the test of whether you’re a great kid — and a good parent.
Stevens is an associate professor of education and sociology at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. He is the author of Kingdom of Children: Culture and Controversy in the Homeschooling Movement.
To speak with Professor Stevens, please contact Tim Farrell in the Office of Public Affairs by phone at 212.998.6797 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reporters interested in obtaining a review copy of Creating a Class are advised to contact Jennifer Redding at Harvard University Press at 617.495.1284 or via email at Jennifer_Redding@harvard.edu.