Jacques Steinberg Visits the Backdrop of ‘The Gatekeepers’ 10 Years On

On Tuesday night, Jacques Steinberg spoke to a sweltering Memorial Chapel. He is the author of The Gatekeepers, a bestselling nonfiction account of the college admissions process that used Wesleyan as its backdrop, but the subject of the evening revolved around a more urgent issue in higher education than just the insane selectivity of the best schools — that of college affordability. Steinberg had recently left his post at The Choice, the New York Times education blog that he pioneered, to work at a New York-based nonprofit called Say Yes to Education that helps disadvantaged high school students get into college, pay for it, and graduate.

Many of the problems he described, he felt, were too urgent to simply stand by and observe as a journalist. With budget cuts, many college counselors’ caseloads in public schools have ballooned to over 500 students. The student loan/debt cycle is a familiar anxiety to many students here, as well as recent graduates, and he described how some graduates in debt don’t pay off their loans until their children are almost ready to go to college.

He reminded Wesleyan students of how fortunate they were, in spite of the controversy over need-aware admissions. Wesleyan remains one of the few institutions in the country that can meet students’ full demonstrated financial need. The question of the value of higher education, he said, is relatively new and wasn’t really circulating at the time that he wrote The Gatekeepers, but now it will likely become a key policy question in the next few years. He said it will probably become important to ask about vocational and differently-paced tiers of higher education without seeming racist or insulting.

He was concerned by the rise of “fast applications,” in which schools will send partially filled-out applications to highly qualified students in an attempt to lure applicants of a higher caliber. The technique, he said, was in fact lifted from political campaigns on both side of the aisle, and he said there was definitely a certain value in putting work into a college application. In response to one student’s questioning of the notion that “for qualified students, the chance of getting in hasn’t changed much from a while ago,” he was more approving of the Common Application, which has indeed inflated application numbers, he said, but not without merit. It has instead, in his opinion, brought the ability to apply for college to a wider range of students.

Steinberg was also, like many education reporters today, critical of the reliance on tests to place students and create accountability. He cited the case of a large class of elementary school students who were sent to summer school in error because their tests were scored improperly.

In addition, he spent some time talking about the process of writing The Gatekeepers, noting that Wesleyan was very “bold” to allow a reporter into the catacombs of its admissions office. His decision to work with Ralph Figueroa (who has since returned to his New Mexican roots and now works as a college counselor at Albuquerque Academy) as a “narrative device” was driven by some surprisingly prosaic factors. Steinberg happens to be very allergic to dogs and cats, and with the typical journalistic practice of interviewing subjects in their homes, Figueroa’s petless home was his only option.

“Figueroa turns out to have his own unbelievable story about affirmative action -– his own mother was a pioneering college counselor for Mexican-American students. What an incredible story I touched upon, only because he didn’t have a dog! But he has a dog now,” he said, to widespread chuckles. Jordan Goldman ’04, whom Steinberg found very compelling because he “had his heart broken” multiple times in the admissions process, was the only student in the book who both was admitted to Wesleyan and finished. He will be familiar to some as the founder of Unigo, and he and other successful alums met recently with some Wesleyan seniors in New York who were interested in jobs in tech and journalism, thus bringing a human touch to another very selective process that we, as seniors, are gearing up to face.

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