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.
Today, Jacques Steinberg returns to campus. We’re looking back at his classic book.
The man, the myth, the legend—Jacques Steinberg.
Jacques Steinberg’s The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College is pretty much indisputably the most illuminating and insightful book written in the past few decades about elite college admissions, which Steinberg terms a series of decisions made “behind a cordon of security befitting the selection of a pope.” Conveniently, it also happens to focus on Wes. Steinberg, a journalist and education expert, tracks a diverse group of high school seniors and a then-Wesleyan admissions officer (Ralph Figueroa, currently Director of College Guidance at Albuquerque Academy) as they navigate the 1999–2000 admissions cycle.
Along with a handful of other Wesleying staffers, I read the book in high school, around the time I decided to apply to Wesleyan, and realized what I had already suspected: college admissions is about as complex, random, and ultimately meaningless as—well, the selection of a pope. It also makes for more thrilling drama than any reality show on TV. Before the rise of CollegeConfidential, The Gatekeepers was the most intimate glimpse at the people on both sides of the admissions process that existed. In fairness, it still is, because CollegeConfidential is a hellish underworld.
Mr. Steinberg, who also founded the New York Times’ “The Choice” blog, where he recently announced his departure from the newspaper after 25 years, is on his way to Middletown yet again. This time, he’s not writing a book about us (we think). He’s coming to lead a talk and Q&A in the Chapel, which is being hosted by the WSA. In honor of this glorious occasion, here’s a round-up of six things we learned about Wesleyan from The Gatekeepers—before even setting foot on campus.