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16 January 2006updated 24 Sep 2015 11:31am

An American education

It is "early applications" time for US universities, and families have been on tenterhooks. If you w

By Andrew Stephen

This is the time of the year when millions of Americans come close to a nervous breakdown. Shortly before Christmas, for example, I had a long and festive chat with a neighbour. His 17-year-old son had applied to Princeton and they were awaiting confirmation that he had got in: he had a stellar academic record, both his parents were Princeton graduates and he was a personable young man.

We looked forward to inviting the family over for a congratulatory drink, but the next day there were long faces all round. The boy had been rejected, while a less qualified classmate had been offered a place. For other friends a couple of blocks away the experience was the reverse: they were not confident their daughter would be offered a place at Cornell, but she went online at exactly 5pm one day shortly before Christmas – that’s how kids and parents learn of their academic fate these days – and found she had been accepted. Eureka!

It all used to be so simple and – from what I hear – still is in Britain, at least relatively so. But getting into colleges and universities in America is now the rat race to end all rat races, certainly among the middle classes. The latest racket is “early admissions”, which started in 1999 and make the system even more nerve-racking: high-school kids can put all their eggs in one basket by applying to one (but only one) college by 1 November. They hear whether they have been successful in the days before Christmas but are then contractually bound to accept if offered a place.

Those who succeed have the luxury of spending the rest of their final school year relaxed and tension-free about their immediate future. For the rest, however, the nightmares begin, and they have to start bombarding colleges with new applications that often have to be in by 1 January. Most require an essay on a subject that varies from college to college, so they have to spend Christmas furiously writing. They finally – usually – hear whether they have been accepted or rejected in April or May. Fifty-three per cent of US colleges say that early applications have been at their highest ever in the 2005-2006 academic year.

It has taken me years of living here to realise just how class- ridden America actually can be, and nothing exemplifies this more than the college frenzy. It is now worse than ever, too; the more complicated the process becomes, the more important it is to play the system. Which means that, for all the moves by colleges towards economic and racial diversification, the middle classes and the wealthy still win out. Financial aid for poorer students is continually increasing, but that has not been enough to halt the trend.

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Private tutoring for the SAT, the standardised test that is one of the most critical factors in admissions, has become a business worth half a billion dollars a year. Two other statistics complete the story of the class divisions: a high-school student has a one-in-two chance of obtaining a bachelor’s degree by the age of 24 if his or her annual family income is more than $90,000, but those chances sink to one in 17 if the income is below $35,000.

Michael Young famously pointed out in The Rise of the Meritocracy the danger that privilege based on merit can become hereditary, and that is exactly what is happening in the US. I have never cared where people went to university – or if they did at all – but Americans who went to the Ivy Leagues (Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton and Yale) are desperate that you should know it, and will devote much of their adult life to seeing that their children follow in their footsteps. A common way of playing the system is to make regular contributions to the colleges, something I know the parents of the Cornell-bound girl did with strategic precision.

The circle of wealth and privilege thus perpetuates itself: all these colleges have endowments of more than a billion dollars, and Harvard’s alone is $25.9bn (worldwide, that is second only to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in charitable wealth). I recently visited Duke University in North Carolina and was staggered by the sheer volume of money sloshing around: an undergraduate place at Duke costs $44,000 a year and last year all incoming students were given free iPods by some wealthy benefactor, doubtless looking out for his descendants’ future. (Duke, incidentally, must be the only university in the world where there is a statue of its founder holding a cigar: it was funded by tobacco money.) Cornell, to take another example, is about to embark on a $177m programme just to improve its student accommodation.

Getting into the Ivy Leagues, or other prestigious places such as Stanford and Duke, nevertheless requires an alchemical mix that is always shifting and changing, meaning that the clued-in usually manage to stay a step ahead, rather like epidemiologists basing their preparations for this year’s flu vaccine on anticipating how last year’s flu virus will mutate. America is teeming with loathsome children who have perfect SAT scores, nothing but A-pluses in their GPA (grade point average) from school, excellent recommendations, and lists of “extra-curriculars” that beggar belief: they are virtuoso violinists, spend all their spare time working in Mother Teresa’s slums, have won eight Grand Slams, and so on.

The result of all this is that, particularly at Ivy League colleges, much comes down to intangible factors such as “character” when decisions on admissions are made – again, invariably, benefiting the privileged. It certainly helps, to a ridiculous extent, if applicants are good at sport; high-school athletes are 30 per cent more likely to be admitted than their more nerdish peers. But if a kid has what is called a “legacy” – meaning that one or both parents went to the college or university to which he or she is applying – it can be a priceless advantage, even though the alchemy mysteriously went wrong for my Princeton neighbours. Between 1985 and 1992, for example, Harvard admitted sons and daughters of graduates at twice the rate of those who were not athletes or did not have legacies.

Have I made my case? Those who still doubt that American education is class-ridden should read Jerome Karabel’s The Chosen, which catalogues the lengths to which the Ivy Leagues went during the 20th century to perpetuate their class elitism and, in particular, to exclude Jews. Both leading candidates in the 2004 presidential election in the world’s most self-congratulatory meritocracy, after all, went to private school and Yale; the recently appointed chief justice went to private school and Harvard.

I gather that, as Britain hurtles relentlessly towards becoming a US protectorate, it is increasingly trendy for young Brits to apply to American colleges. Britain was the only country last year from which applications actually increased; those from Germany and France fell by 6 and 5.6 per cent, respectively. I would urge caution. A place at Harvard, certainly at graduate level, is worth more than one at Oxford or Cambridge. But there is a British truism that the first of the four years of a typical American undergraduate course is akin to an A-level year, and it is largely justified.

Besides, academic standards are often dire. A recent study by the National Centre for Education Statistics found that the reading skills of US college graduates have declined in the past decade, with only 31 per cent able to read and understand a complex book. American students, deprived of the gap-year tradition and herded into “dorms” where their meals are provided and they are forbidden to drink until they turn 21, often have to postpone their growing-up until they enter the outside world. And the process of applying for university in Britain doesn’t involve mass nervous breakdowns over Christmas, either.

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