New Part Three - October 16:
James Fallows
Jacques Steinberg

Part Two - October 4:
James Fallows
Jacques Steinberg

Part One - September 25:
James Fallows
Jacques Steinberg

Jacques Steinberg has been a staff reporter for The New York Times for more than ten years and is currently a national education correspondent. In 1998, he was awarded the grand prize of the Education Writers Association for his nine-part series on a third-grade classroom on Manhattan's Upper West Side. He lives in New York with his wife and two children.

James Fallows is The Atlantic's national correspondent and the author of Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy (1996) and of Free Flight: From Airline Hell to a New Age of Travel. To learn about his new book and look through an archive of his recent articles, visit

Previously in Fallows@large:

The Price of Wealth (July 3, 2002)
A dialogue between James Fallows and Kevin Phillips, the author of Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich.

Signals of Saturation (April 3, 2002)
James Fallows exchanges e-mail with Todd Gitlin, the author of Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives.

Policies of Power (December 6, 2001)
James Fallows exchanges e-mail with Walter Russell Mead, the author of Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World.

More by James Fallows

More on books

More on politics and society

Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

Atlantic Unbound | October 4, 2002
fallows@large | Dialogues with James Fallows
From: James Fallows
To: Jacques Steinberg
Subject: Is it all a numbers' game? - Part Two

Dear Jacques:

Thanks for your answers. This time I'd like to ask your opinion on three big policy questions. You don't address any of them directly in your book, but they are important background factors for the decisions and dramas you describe. As you answer them, I'd like to invite you to step out of the omniscient narrator role you play in the book, and also away from the classic reportorial function you normally fulfill at The Times. You've spent several years learning and thinking about the process of college admissions, and you have standing to tell us your conclusions and recommendations on these questions.

First: the mania for elite college admission in itself. Through most of the book, you simply assume the existence of this drive as a fact of nature, as a romance novelist can assume the existence of young men's drive toward young women. For the purposes of the book, that's a reasonable working assumption. Everyone knows that ambitious students want to get into colleges like Wesleyan; you're giving us an inside view of that process.

Still, when you view the process from even the slightest distance, it is quite a strange specimen of collective self-delusion. More precisely, it is an example of a collective decision to assign certain goods a much higher value than they're demonstrably worth. In Japan, parents pray that their children will get into the University of Tokyo—and well they should. Certain positions in society simply are reserved for "Todai" graduates. The same is true, with varying degrees of intensity, in many other advanced societies. A degree from one of the grandes écoles is a significant career advantage in France; Seoul National University really matters in Korea; and so on.

Americans think our system of elite colleges is similar, but it's not. The exception proving the rule is the service academies: if you are hoping for a military career, going to Annapolis or West Point is much more important than any college is for civilian life. Obviously it sounds better if you can tell someone you went to a selective college, and the studies I'm aware of suggest that in the search for a first job, the selectivity (and therefore prestige) of your college makes a difference. But in the long run, there's little correlation between the lists of people who are rich, influential, creative, or celebrated in America and the list of colleges that are hardest to get into.

The way you address this issue in your book actually underscores the oddity of today's American obsession. You quote a passage from Nick Lemann's book about the SAT, The Big Test—and since that book started as an Atlantic Monthly project, there's a sense of completeness in quoting it here. Nick wrote:
Here is what American society looks like today. A thick line runs through the country, with people who have been to college on one side of it and people who haven't on the other. This line gets brighter all the time. Whether a person is on one side of the line or the other is now more indicative of income, of attitudes, and of political behavior than any other line one might draw: region, race, age, religion, sex, class.
From the archives:

"The Structure of Success" (August 1995)
In America perhaps only race is a more sensitive subject than the way we sort ourselves out in the struggle for success. At the center of that struggle are higher education and ETS, the Educational Testing Service. Herewith an inside look at the history and workings of one of the most familiar yet least public of American institutions. By Nicholas Lemann

"The Great Sorting" (September 1995)
The first mass administrations of a scholastic-aptitude test led with surprising speed to the idea that the nation's leaders would be the people who did well on tests. By Nicholas Lemann

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "The Myth of Meritocracy" (October 6, 1999)
In his new book, The Big Test, Nicholas Lemann argues that the structure of educational opportunity in America is inherently flawed—and must be rebuilt.
All the evidence I'm aware of supports what Nick says here. A degree from a college is the passport to economic and social advancement in America. But which college the degree comes from makes much less measurable difference. The whole process you describe in your book turns on the idea that getting into Wesleyan—versus more-selective Yale on the one hand, or less-selective U Conn on the other, just to use examples all in the same state—is a very consequential event. And, yes, when it comes to the teachers you have and the friends you meet and the traits that necessarily make each school unique, the decision does matter. But not in any measurable way that would explain why elite colleges have become such powerful "aspirational goods."

You've been immersed in this part of society, so you can tell us: Why, in the deepest sense, has college admission become the terrain on which educated Americans choose to run their status competition? In this market-minded society, everything usually ends up being exposed to a bottom-line economic test. Bubbles are deflated, but the elite-college bubble continues to inflate. (To be clear, it's not the cost of actually going to the colleges that's out of line. All private colleges cost more or less the same. It's the focus on getting into Yale, versus Wesleyan, versus U Conn—and then putting one of those stupid decals on the car.) Can you help us out here?

Second question: Whither early decision? This is a pet peeve of mine, but it's also interesting to me because I think we can actually see the glaciers moving. Sooner or later, it seems to me, colleges are going to be shamed out of offering so many places through binding early-decision programs, because colleges simply have no answer to the argument that the system is grossly unfair. As you point out, the system is good for those who can take advantage of it. The same can be said of any tax loophole, or the purchased draft-deferments in the Civil War. As a system, this one is bad, because the boost it obviously gives to richer whiter students from the big cities and private schools, to the detriment of everyone else, is at odds with what colleges say they're aiming for.

Your book makes clear how early-decision programs help the colleges themselves. (In brief: since students who apply in these binding programs agree to enroll if admitted, the college has a lot less wasted admissions work to do. Also, it looks much better on the statistical charts. Wesleyan, as you point out, nabs only one out of four students it admits in the non-binding cycle. But because it has locked in several hundred students in the binding early system, its overall "yield" of admitted students looks much better.) Early decision is also a help for several of the students you mention—though being turned down in the early round is a serious blow to several of the others.

Several colleges have indicated that they're rethinking the early process. I wonder: What do you think is going to occur? Can they find an answer to the systematic-unfairness argument? (Saying that it's good for the people it's good for isn't an answer.) Will someone lead a charge? Will it muddle along in its current situation? What's next, in your view?

Finally: the U.S. News rankings. Ah, a delicate point for me. I spent two years as editor of U.S. News—and spent what felt like twenty years listening to complaints about the rankings. Some of these were fatuous: one student indignantly told me that he'd enrolled in a college because it was the highest-ranked of those that accepted him. He learned only after arrival that it didn't offer the program he wanted to major in. (I didn't tell him what was actually going through my mind, namely: How did a person who thinks this way get into any college?) University presidents made "principled" objections to the ranking system, which tended to become more intense when their own schools moved down in the ranking list and less intense when they rose.

Still, there are some obvious problems with these rankings. The schools are so different in their history, nature, and purpose that it's preposterous to say, as the rankings do, that one is 83 percent as good as another. Is the University of Chicago "better" than Cal Tech? Is an orange "better" than a peach? Even the ideal ranking system would have limits, and the actual rankings produced by real, overworked journalists have egregious shortcomings.

If the rankings had never been invented, higher education would be the better for it. But they're here, and they're not going away, and the most to hope for from U.S. News is that it will continue the process of improving them. The most important step in that direction may simply be making the rankings more diverse—different charts for private and public schools, for schools with different strengths and specialties, and so on. But the more this happens, the less the rankings have their stark, Miss America-like value of saying that name-brand schools stand in a certain order.

Time and again you show us students and admissions officers thinking about college rankings, mainly those from U.S. News. The colleges are worried about how their stats will place them on the charts; the students notice whether their target schools are going up or down.

What's the way out of this situation? How distorting are the effects of the rankings, especially U.S. News's? Will more ranking systems emerge, therefore diluting the distorting power of any one list? What would you do about ranking pressure if you were an admissions officer? What would you do about the ranking system if you were the editor of U.S. News?

Back to you,

Jim Fallows

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