Many of us Wesleyan students try to bury our memories of the college admissions process deep in our subconscious, dreading the day when our future children have to jump through the same hoops. Some of us, however, are willing to relive these traumas for whatever reason—maybe because of a passion for education, or maybe because we’re just masochistic. On Tuesday, April 9, a small but enthusiastic crowd of these intrepid souls gathered in the Memorial Chapel to hear Jacques Steinberg, writer and college admissions expert, give a talk titled “Beyond the Gatekeepers: The State of College Access and Affordability in America.”
Steinberg left the New York Times earlier this year after almost 25 years of reporting, much of which focused on America’s education system. He is especially well known on the Wesleyan campus for his 2002 book “The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College,” a profile of Wesleyan admissions officer Ralph Figueroa and a selection of applicants. The Wesleyan Office of Admission entrusted Steinberg, then a National Education Correspondent for the Times, with full access to the behind-the-scenes workings of the admissions process. His resulting publication did not disappoint.
Conceived of as a piece of substantial long-form journalism rather than just another guide to attending the college of your dreams, “The Gatekeepers” brought Steinberg into close contact with the agonizing process of whittling away applicants based not only on their resumés, but also on their character. Given his personal relationship with the University, his return to campus was a much-hyped event.
After an introduction by Wesleyan Student Assembly President Zachary Malter ’13 that referred to him as “the god of college admissions,” Steinberg took the stage excitedly, clearly happy to be back.
“I love being on this campus,” he said. “I was so fortunate to have spent much of the 1999-2000 academic year embedded as an observer in the Wesleyan admission’s office. Knowing what you know about Wesleyan, it probably does not surprise you that Wesleyan was one of the few institutions that would agree to this kind of crazy idea. It certainly changed my life and the course of my professional work as a result.”
Charting Steinberg’s professional development, it’s easy to see how much the experience of writing “The Gatekeepers” affected him. After releasing the book and a follow-up blog series, Steinberg launched the New York Times’ online blog “The Choice,” which also covers topics of college admissions and aid. In a refreshing contrast to nervous overreactions on sites such as College Confidential, “The Choice” offers expert advice on applying to and selecting a college, along with contributions from students embarking on the admissions process themselves.
Steinberg introduced his talk with some sobering statistics about college access and affordability in America. He explained that these were part of his rationale for leaving the Times in January to join Say Yes To Education, a nonprofit foundation based in Syracuse and Buffalo that financially supports inner-city families who are sending their children to college.
“You should know that half of the students in this country who graduate from high school and start at four-year colleges and universities don’t graduate from most institutions in six years, let alone four,” Steinberg said. “Among students with Pell grants, that batting average is even lower, well below 50 percent.”
Steinberg cited a similarly disturbing statistic about the ratios of high school students to guidance counselors: at American public high schools, he said, the average case load of guidance counselors is upward of 400 students, closer to 900 in California.
“I would argue that this nation faces a crisis in the areas of college access and affordability, a crisis that, in many respects, is not necessarily visible to you on the Wesleyan University campus,” Steinberg said.
He went on to discuss how the state of higher education has changed since the publication of “The Gatekeepers,” noting rising tuition costs across the board and the increasing difficulty of supporting students with financial aid. Remarking on Wesleyan’s recent shift to a need-aware policy, Steinberg contextualized the change within the policies of other institutions and maintained that Wesleyan’s commitment to meeting the full financial needs of its students is still relatively rare within today’s landscape.
Steinberg went on to catch the audience up with several of the main characters of “The Gatekeepers.” Migizi Pensoneau, a Native-American recruit who ended up flunking out during his first year at Wesleyan, went on to study film and television and eventually become a writer for “Alias.” Jordan Goldman ’04 went to Oxford after attending Wesleyan, wrote a series of advice books on college, and founded the successful website Unigo, which offers student reviews of colleges for prospective applicants. Becca Jannol, a waitlisted candidate who wrote her college essay about accepting a pot brownie in her sophomore year, is now a lawyer expecting her first child.
While he caught the room up on the students he had gotten to know so well, it was clearly a pleasure for Steinberg to also catch up with the school that played a large role in his life. In the wake of last semester’s need-blind controversy, Steinberg’s speech was a sobering reminder that while the talk may have died down, college access and affordability are by no means improving.