Thursday, October 25, 2007

Gold Star Book Award! Mitchell Stevens, Creating a Class

A month ago, I nominated four of this fall's best academic books for the first eduwonkette "Gold Star Award." All four were a treat - I would honestly recommend reading all of them - but I fell in love with one.

That book was Mitchell Stevens' Creating a Class: College Admissions and the Education of Elites. Whether you are a teacher, a guidance counselor, a parent, a high school student, or a policy wonk, this book will introduce you to the inner workings of an elite liberal arts admissions office. Don't be fooled - this is not your garden variety expose book by a former admissions officer - there are already enough of these that they deserve their own genre.

In this book, Mitchell Stevens does something different - he spends a year and a half inside an admissions office, and shows how the increasingly cutthroat competition for institutional standing affects every aspect of the admissions process. He reveals how the need to increase the school's relative standing collides with ideals of educational opportunity, as officers reject applications because the parents can't pay, take applications because the college wants to "get a thing going" with various private schools, and recruit at more advantaged high schools simply because they have the organizational machinery to meet the needs of admissions officers. There are a lot of parallels to K-12 accountability policies.

Certainly, a lot of these behaviors have been reported elsewhere - but Stevens helps the reader to understand how the structure of the higher education market causes these behaviors, and how this has changed over time. And he never falls into the common journalistic trap of calling these officers rotten apples when they do and say things that raise eyebrows. Instead, he helps the reader understand why she would have done the job exactly the same way.

Higher education is not my area of study, and I think that the frenzy over elite college admissions is overplayed. (See an earlier post about income effects of attending an elite school.) But Stevens makes an important point about the role of elite colleges as an elaborate insurance policy for the wealthy. In an increasingly uncertain world, middle class futures aren't guaranteed for the kids of affluent parents. While a college degree is more necessary than ever, half of the kids who enter college don't finish. And all else equal, kids are much more likely to graduate at elite schools.

Perhaps best of all - and what makes Creating a Class stand apart from your average academic book - it was a pleasure to read and an important contribution. In addition to lending new insights about the structure of opportunity in higher education, Stevens is wickedly witty.

So go pick up Creating a Class, everyone. And kudos to Stevens for turning in this important piece of scholarship.

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