Survivor: The College Version

THE GATEKEEPERS: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College, by Jacques Steinberg. Viking, 292 pp., $25.95.

Newsday, September 1, 2002

Reality television puts ordinary people in contests of survival, popularity and sex appeal. We like to fantasize about making the band or the cover of Entertainment Weekly, but a college degree can be a more realistic path to the American dream. So it’s only a matter of time before network executives devote a half-hour to a competition for quality higher education.

Such a program – let’s call it “The Fat Envelope” – would have all the elements of success: ambitious young contestants ready to jump through any hoop and, between tests, confess their heightened emotions; structured and often contentious deliberations about whom to eliminate; host institutions seeking to highlight their brand name in the national market; and a core audience that would reliably tune in to glean hints about how to proceed when it comes time for them, or their children, to apply to college. Moreover, the applicant pool would be broad enough to generate footage of both taut abdominal muscles and unconventional grilled meats.

For the time being, potential viewers might enjoy “The Gatekeepers,” Jacques Steinberg’s brisk and revealing account of how Wesleyan University, a prestigious private liberal-arts institution in Middletown, Conn., assembled its Class of 2004. Steinberg, a national education correspondent for The New York Times, spent eight months following Wesleyan admissions officer Ralph Figueroa and his overworked colleagues as they cast their nets widely for prospective students and then whittled down 7,000 hopefuls to a class of 715. Later, Steinberg circled back to talk to a half-dozen Wesleyan applicants and discuss the college choices they made and the ones that were made for them. “The Gatekeepers,” which for better or worse reads like an extended newspaper feature, offers ammunition to all sides of debates over merit and diversity.

Like the cast of MTV’s “The Real World,” the students Steinberg chose to follow are a mixed group of enterprising youths with intriguing back stories. They include a Jewish boy from Staten Island whose early attempts at creative writing caught the eye of novelist Richard Price; a Dominican-American girl from Washington Heights elected president at the all-girls academy she attends on scholarship; a film buff from Bemidji, Minn., whose grades rebounded when he enrolled in an innovative boarding school for American Indians; and a Chinese-American from Palo Alto, Calif., with a death-row pen pal. There are also two girls from a leading Los Angeles private school: an academic standout and gifted performer whose multiracial family struggles to pay her tuition, and a more affluent Jewish class president whose credibility on campus derives, among other things, from being the only student to come clean about sampling a pot brownie. (Missing from the lineup is a representative of the Protestant establishment that, two generations ago, flowed smoothly from prep schools to elite universities and, though their presence is no longer dominant, remains a constant at places like Wesleyan.)

There’s plenty of potential for drama here, even if the six seniors compete only indirectly. Unlike public universities where computers apply strict formulas to evaluate applications, Wesleyan relies on rough guidelines and judgment calls. The school assigns two officers to evaluate each student’s portfolio, taking into account everything from the rigor of their high school coursework to whether their parents attended college; race, gender, geography and previous ties to Wesleyan are also considered in unspecified amounts. (As with an old family recipe, the proportions are generally known but never articulated, and vary depending on who’s at the stove.) If the two evaluators’ assessments differ, then the entire committee debates the case and the majority rules.

“The Gatekeepers” re-creates some of these committee meetings, but admissions work is largely solitary, so much of the action transpires inside the head of Ralph Figueroa. Steinberg sounds a bit overheated when he writes that “Given what is at stake, or at least perceived to be so, the job of an admissions officer at an elite private college has become one of the most powerful, stressful and least understood occupations in the nation,” but Figueroa approaches his work with a sense of social mission and institutional responsibility. An earnest Mexican-American with a law-school degree, Figueroa knows that, for some applicants, a Wesleyan education can transform their lives, which is why he takes a long detour to recruit at the Native American Preparatory School. He’s also more sympathetic to Aggie, the Latina from Washington Heights – her drive and charisma mitigate her middling grades and test scores – than to the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, whose academic record is stronger than Aggie’s but

nevertheless strikes Figueroa as an underachiever. It’s not just that Wesleyan has more Asian-Americans than Latinos applying, Steinberg says; Figueroa responds more to applications in which he can find some human detail he identifies with, whether it’s ethnicity or a personality trait or playing the handbells in church. “In gazing into the admissions pool, and being excited to see a familiar reflection staring back, Ralph was hardly alone,” he writes. “In the end, the diversity of interests and backgrounds of the committee members helped ensure the diversity of the incoming class.”

Thanks to sharp, smooth and detail-rich writing, Steinberg manages to build considerable tension, even when Figueroa is poring over file folders, while exposing much of this secretive process. Perhaps even more illuminating than how colleges pick students is his portrait of how Wesleyan relentlessly vies with other colleges for applicants. Like traveling salesmen, Figueroa and his colleagues spend a couple of months a year on the road trying to plant the seed in the heads of high school students that Wesleyan could be the place for them. And, at least in Steinberg’s telling, they are always attuned to how every decision affects their U.S. News & World Report ranking, and want higher average SAT scores, greater minority enrollment and more applicants every year. Then, after all the admissions officers’ careful if subjective deliberations, an adolescent’s decision on where to enroll can turn on how the cafeteria French fries tasted or how their on-campus student host brought them to a meeting where women learned how to use sex toys.

Even if Steinberg misses an opportunity to weigh in on the larger social questions raised by Wesleyan policy, “The Gatekeepers” will probably find its place alongside “The Fiske Guide to Colleges” and Princeton Review workbooks on the shelves of anxious teens and their parents. But the best lesson for those worried about college may be in Steinberg’s own unscientific selection process. He says he ended up writing about Wesleyan because it was within a two-hour drive of New York and agreed to grant him the access he wanted; the allergy-prone reporter picked Figueroa because he was the only experienced admissions officer there who didn’t have a pet at home. Other paths might have also seemed promising, but once the reporter settled in, he found vibrant characters, emblematic situations and everything else a reporter needs. And, in the end, it all worked out fine.

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