It is not by chance that Dr. Mitchell L. Stevens, the author of Creating a Class: College Admissions and the Education of the Elites (Harvard University Press, 2007), appropriately chooses the word “class” in his book titles. As it appears, this heteronym is a contentious issue upon examination. The issue of class, as defined by recruiting a co-hort of students, and as defined by socioeconomic class, is given particular emphasis in this book. Specifically, Stevens writes about admissions into elite institutions of higher education and examines the history of how privileged institutions became desirable for the elite and how over time previously disenfranchised groups are being admitted in greater numbers than ever before.
Other issues explored include which high schools these colleges recruit from, the vital role athletics play in creating a class, the divisive issue of race in admissions despite understanding the importance of diversity, and finally how a class is yielded. It is through the lens of an elite education that these various issues are explored.
Stevens, a New York University sociology professor, literally immerses himself in his study by spending a year in the admissions office of a private liberal arts college in the Northeast. His role as a researcher was always made clear to all parties he encountered while working at the college. This position proved most beneficial as Stevens was able to play an active role in learning firsthand about the dual meanings of “recruiting a class.” Most of his critical findings came from his inclusion in staff meetings with the director of admissions, as well as in conversations with all admissions staff, student applicants, parents, and high school counselors.
This ethnographic exploration of the admissions process at a highly selective liberal arts college is geared toward the “general reader,” according to Stevens. Missing from this study is national quantitative data from several select private colleges that would have helped to solidify his findings, rather than just provide qualitative findings based on one college. Despite this missing data, Stevens provides critical reflection on the need for diversity in a recruited class, saying that a diverse class contributes many ways to an elite institution, including making it more attractive to others.
This diversity includes students who have especially strong academic ability, students who can afford to pay full tuition, students who have exceptional athletic or artistic ability, international students, and students from underrepresented minority and low-income class groups. An encouraging consideration given in Stevens’ book is that, once admitted into an elite institution of higher education, an African-American student is more likely to persist than if they had attended a public or less selective private institution. Given that graduation from an elite institution provides considerable advantages, it is no surprise then that minority and low-income students want to gain access to these institutions.
Stevens is able to articulate a detailed story about the admissions process at an elite institution. For instance, rank of a high school is very important when looking at a student, but perhaps just as important is the necessity to appease an athletic coach who is adamant about having one of his players admitted into the institution. Stevens is reflective enough to demonstrate the financial considerations that come into play when one looks at the revenue athletics brings into a college. Nonetheless, he also informs the reader how costly football is to a college. For instance, when looking at this college, it appeared that, due to the large size of a football team, approximately 10 percent of all male students admitted needed to be football players in order to field a full team. Furthermore, these football players were retained at lower rates compared to the rest of the population. This becomes costly since many of these players were given some form of financial incentive to attend this college.
Even so, Stevens’ research of the historical significance of football in higher education enables him to “suggest that the game’s historical legacy and its quintessential masculinity are factors in its continued prestige.” It is this prestige and legacy that are attractive to many applicants who wish to be associated with a college with strong athletics.
Ultimately, creating a class is difficult work, and admissions counselors are charged with an arduous task. There are advantages for all to have a more diverse class, but the reality is that not all students can attend select institutions. So that leaves the question: Are public institutions and less selective institutions preparing low-income and minority students to enter the workforce in jobs that will enable them to create financial security for themselves and their children? This is an area that Stevens leaves readers to discover on their own, as it is outside the scope of this book.
Ramona M. Muñoz is a doctoral student in higher education administration at Oklahoma State University.
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