STANFORD University's faculty members may have convinced themselves that they struck a blow for egalitarianism when they voted for a policy meant to de-emphasise wealth in admitting undergraduates. But those professors should hold off on breaking out the champagne.
At a school like Stanford, wealth is not an explicit admissions criterion - imagine the outcry if it was - but the wealth of an applicant's family makes a world of difference.
This is not news. A 2017 study showed that at 38 colleges, including five in the Ivy League, more students come from the top one per cent of the income scale than from the bottom 60 per cent. These hyper-rich youths are a jaw-dropping 77 times as likely to attend an Ivy League college as those whose parents' income is in the bottom 20 per cent.
Stanford's faculty proposes to rebalance this equation by requiring applicants to detail the help they receive in crafting their applications. Yet being able to pay for expert counselling is the least of the advantages that well-heeled students enjoy.
From the moment they enter exclusive preschools, which cost upwards of US$30,000 annually, through their cosseted years at Saint Grottlesex prep schools or top-ranked high schools, wealthy students are being groomed for elite universities. While coaching is part of this package, it is the proverbial icing on the cake.
"We'd like to diversify, but we can't find enough qualified applicants," top-ranked universities lament. But that shopworn excuse has been demolished by the recently published results of a programme that enrolled more than 300 juniors and seniors from high-poverty high schools in credit-bearing college courses.
Eighty-nine per cent of students who completed the course passed a Harvard class that is identical - same paper assignments, same final exam - to the Harvard Yard version. Nearly two-thirds received an A or B. Although the students who earned those As and Bs would probably flourish at an Ivy League school, few of them will get the chance.
Last year, Stanford admitted 5 per cent of its applicants, which makes it one of the most selective universities in the nation. Even applicants with near-perfect SAT scores have only a 7 per cent shot at being admitted. College Simply, an organisation that combs admissions standards nationwide, estimates that applicants with SATs of 1370 - that is in the 94th percentile - could make the grade there.
But unless they are among the privileged - athletes in patrician sports like fencing, for instance, or the offspring of alumni - their chances of being accepted there, or at similarly selective schools like MIT and Harvard, rival the odds of finding a four-leaf clover.
And being rejected can have long-term consequences, since a liberal arts degree is a ticket to the good life, with hefty salaries and a movers-and-shakers network.
Most enterprises where demand far outstrips supply would seize the opportunity to expand.
A handful of public universities like Arizona State (ASU) have done precisely that. Last autumn, ASU enrolled more than 128,000 undergraduate and graduate students at campuses across the state and online. Even as ASU has become bigger and more egalitarian - the number of undergraduates from low-income families has increased nearly 300 per cent since 2002 - it has also gotten better. The percentage of students who earn a bachelor's degree has climbed to 69 per cent, well above the national average.
Here is a revolutionary idea: a top private university like Princeton or Yale (or perhaps a renowned college like Amherst or Swarthmore) should open a new campus.
The institution would not have to lower its standards, because the best and brightest would queue for admission. Professors with glittering résumés would jump at the opportunity to teach there - indeed, for the adventurous Yale-calibre academic, the opportunity to be present at the creation could be a powerful draw. Cities would perform handstands to land such a school.
Harvard-San Diego, Yale-Houston - this idea is not simply off the table in academe. It is not even within the realm of these universities' imagination. But why should it boggle the mind? If Yale can open a campus in Singapore, why can't it start one in Houston?
Institutions like these, which guard their reputation with mother-bear fierceness, predictably fear that if they took such a bold step, their coin-of-the-realm prestige would suffer and that their US News & World Report ranking would slip a notch or two.
Yet if Harvard-San Diego were truly a clone of the mother ship, as it could well be, it is hard to see how the university would be worse off. On the contrary - because it would acquire what economists call first-mover advantage, it would be lionised. It is not hard to contemplate a Bill Gates or Laurene Powell Jobs writing an eight-figure cheque to help underwrite the venture.
Companies like Tiffany, which traffic in luxury items, are reluctant to expand, and De Beers limits the number of diamonds on the market. Exclusivity is an essential part of what they are selling, and if they get bigger, they risk diluting their brand.
Unlike Tiffany or De Beers, top-ranked universities do not promote themselves as avatars of exclusivity. If you take them at their word, their calling is to educate the best and the brightest - to promote what Stanford University's mission statement calls "the public welfare". Educating more students who would benefit from that opportunity, not tinkering with the behaviour of the admissions office, is one way to realise that mission. NYTIMES
- The writer is a professor of the graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author, most recently, of The College Dropout Scandal.