There is a remarkable moment in Andrew Ferguson’s Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course on Getting His Kid into College, which just came out this week. (The New York Times has an excerpt from the book here). Ferguson and his son are in the middle of the application process, both of them dismayed and discomfited by the whole system.
They make a trip up to Cambridge for college night at Harvard, even though his son declares, “I’m not going to Harvard.” (It’s ambiguous as to whether he doesn’t want to go there or doesn’t believe Harvard would ever be interested in him.) They enter the admissions office and join a standing-room-only crowd of parents eager to hear from the deciders. First, a video is shown announcing, “A mosaic of faces all call Harvard home.” Young faces identify their home towns: “from Addis Ababa to Omaha,” Ferguson notes, “Baghdad to Boise, Manhattan to Moosepie, Montana.” The point: Harvard students are just “ordinary folk.”
Tommy Lee Jones appears (roommate at Harvard: Al Gore), encouraging everyone to apply. A nameless youth brushes his teach and the narrator says, “When FDR went to Harvard, he used the same sink. Whose sink will you use?”
More lively entertainment follows, mariachi singers, hip-hop artists, filmmakers, Yo-Yo Ma. “Next,” Ferguson continues, “the ’son oflobsterman,’ a horny-handed child of toil appeared. ‘He didn’t think he’d be accepted,’ Jones said. ‘But he applied anyway. A simple but wise, life-changing decision.’ No more funky fishnets for him.”
The video ends and an admissions dean enters the room with two young people in tow. The young ones say that Harvard courses are “amazing” and assures the audience that “you’re not required to take any particular course.”
Then the parents start asking questions. They may have enjoyed the populist message of the video and the presenters, but they raise strict technical questions about double-majors, student clubs, the size of premed classes, AP credit, and early decision. Ferguson notes that the dean grows impatient with their inquisitiveness. She assures them that “we’re not driven by numbers or statistics or scores.” Also, although Harvard cares about “intellectual distinction,” it admits “people with weak math, weak writing scores all the time. I’d never count myself out just because of low scores. And if you don’t apply you’ll never know.”
Perhaps the dean intends the apply-apply message as encouragement and openness, but the audience doesn’t seem interested. People want information.
One man opens another topic and Ferguson records the exchange precisely.
“What about legacies?”
“What do you mean?”
“How many of class are legacies?” he said. “Their parents went to Harvard.”
“Oh, I don’t have that information,” she said. “I’m not sure we even keep that information.”
Just a guess, then, the man persisted.
“I wouldn’t want to guess.”
“So you have no way of knowing?” he asked, with exaggerated incredulity. “The numbers don’t exist?” His wife, short and stocky, stood next to him, staring at the dean. Their son bowed his head and closed his eyes.
“Legacy is just one of many factors that Harvard considers,” the dean said. “I like to say, ‘legacy can help the wounded, but it can’t raise the dead!” She laughed uncomfortably but the father and mother still stared.
“Answer the question,” another father called out.
“Maybe I can get that information for you afterward,” she said, twisting one hand with the other. She moved one foot backward.
“Come on,” said another parent, with just a hint of insurrection.
She was quiet a moment before surrendering. “If I had to say,” she said, “thirty, maybe thirty-five percent.”
There was a shock before the murmuring began. The number was hard to square with the egalitarianism of the video we’d just seen. The number suggested the traditional Ivy League primogeniture.
You can find many more exposures of the system in the book's 226 pages.