GROTON, Mass. -- Of the 79 members of the class of 1998 at the Groton School, 34 were admitted to Ivy League universities.
Not Henry Park. He was ranked 14th in his class at Groton, one of the nation's premier boarding schools, and scored a stellar 1560 out of 1600 on his SAT college-admission test. But he was spurned by four Ivies -- Harvard, Yale, Brown and Columbia universities -- as well as Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Most of the students in Mr. Park's class who were accepted by those universities had less impressive academic credentials than his. What they had instead were certain characteristics such as money, connections, or minority status that helped them vault over him to the universities of their choice.
"I was naive," says Mr. Park's mother, Suki Park. "I thought college admissions had something to do with academics." She and her husband, middle-class Korean immigrants from New Jersey, scrimped to send their son to Groton because of its notable college-placement record.
In the coming months, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on a landmark challenge to affirmative action by white applicants who had been rejected from the University of Michigan. The decision will likely have sweeping ramifications for the role of race in admissions to public and private schools. But a look at the fate of Groton's class of '98 shows that minority status is just one of several factors that can trump academic merit in college admissions. Indeed, students who are white and privileged regularly benefit from affirmative action of another kind.
Some of Mr. Park's lower-performing classmates who were picked by top universities were minorities. But several were affluent white children of alumni, known as "legacy" students. The parents of others were either current or prospective financial donors or celebrities. A few were strong rowers, a sport offered predominantly at uppercrust schools and elite colleges.
Unlike these students, Mr. Park couldn't rely on any "hook," as college admissions officers call the criteria for preferential treatment. He did not qualify for affirmative action, which colleges generally limit to underrepresented minorities such as blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans. His parents, who attended college in Korea, say they couldn't afford to donate to a university. Without a hook, applicants to elite universities must, at a minimum, have exemplary scores and grades. These universities also take into account more subjective factors, such as artistic talent and leadership ability. Every year, they reject many valedictorians and students with perfect SAT scores.
"When the decisions came out, and all these other people started getting in, I was a little upset," Mr. Park says. "I feel I have to hold myself to a higher standard."
Lakia Washington, an African-American who grew up in the Bronx and attended Groton on a scholarship, was admitted to Columbia despite ranking 60th in her class and scoring only 1110 on the SAT. She says affirmative action gave her "a great opportunity." But, she says, preferential treatment for children of alumni and donors "amounts to exactly the same thing. That's what upsets me the most about criticism of affirmative action."
Groton doesn't reveal class rankings, even to students. But a document from Groton's college-counseling department that was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal provides details of class ranks (for sophomore year through the first semester of senior year), test scores and college-application results for all of the school's 1998 graduates.
William M. Polk, Groton's headmaster, says the document, titled "Groton School Class of 1998: College Acceptances/Rejections/Wait-Listings by Class Rank," is not an "official school record." But 20 Groton graduates whose names appeared on the list said their test scores and college-admission outcomes listed on the document were accurate.
One striking anomaly: Of nine Groton students listed as applicants to Stanford that year, Margaret Bass was the only one admitted. Ms. Bass's grades placed her 40th in her Groton class, according to the Groton document. She had an SAT score of 1220, lower than those of seven of the eight other Stanford applicants. By contrast, almost 90% of Stanford freshmen rank in the top 10% of their high school class, while 75% have SAT scores of 1360 or better.
But Ms. Bass had an edge: Her father, Texas tycoon Robert Bass, was chairman of Stanford's board and had given $25 million to the university in 1992. Mr. Bass has a degree from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He and his wife, Anne, are both Groton trustees.
Stanford officials and Martin London, a lawyer for the Bass family, said Ms. Bass's record on the Groton document was inaccurate, but declined to be specific. Another person familiar with Ms. Bass's record at Groton said her data, as listed on the document, were correct. Mr. London added that Ms. Bass compiled a "stellar record" at Stanford and graduated with honors last year. Ms. Bass didn't respond to several requests for comment. Her roommate at Groton, Claire Abernathy, said Ms. Bass is "a great writer," and "I'm sure her admissions essay was fantastic."
Selective universities justify favoring children of alumni and prospective donors on the grounds that tuition doesn't cover the entire cost of education. These schools say private gifts subsidize scholarships, faculty salaries and other needs. Children of celebrities, they add, enhance an institution's visibility. "I will certainly factor in a history of very significant giving to Stanford," said Robin Mamlet, admissions dean. She added that the university's development office each year provides her with names of applicants whose parents have been major donors.
Ms. Bass was far from the only child of prominent parents in the Groton class of '98. It included children of diplomats, international lawyers and famous writers, as well as other wealthy businesspeople. Harvard admitted a dozen members of the class -- more than any other Ivy League university. At least five of those accepted by Harvard were alumni children, including Matthew Burr. His father, Boston venture capitalist Craig L. Burr, gave his alma mater between $1 million and $5 million in the mid-1990s, according to Harvard records.
Matthew Burr ranked fourth in his Groton class but had an SAT score of 1240. Three-fourths of Harvard students have SAT scores of 1380 or higher. Mr. Burr applied to one other college, Williams, which rejected him. Now a Harvard senior, Matthew Burr says he took the SAT four times. "I just don't test well," he says. He acknowledges his father's Harvard ties aided his admission chances. "I don't think legacy is a fair criterion for people to get into college," he adds. "But for me, that was the way it was."
Craig Burr says his donation to Harvard had "absolutely nothing to do" with his son's acceptance. "Matthew did not need any help because he had phenomenal grades," he says. Harvard declines to comment on individual applicants.
Bastion of Elite
Founded in 1884, Groton has long been regarded as a bastion of the elite. Its alumni include Franklin D. Roosevelt, former New York governor W. Averell Harriman, and more recently, actor Sam Waterston. On its graceful campus 40 miles northwest of Boston, brick buildings and a Gothic revival chapel encircle a grassy common. Virtually all the students are boarders, except for a smattering of day students.
Groton borrows heavily from the English "public school" model and vocabulary: Grade years are known as "forms," student leaders are called "prefects," and students attend chapel each morning. Its motto: "To Serve Is To Reign." The school charges $33,000 a year in tuition, room and board. Its students have a median SAT score of 1360, 340 points above the national average. In the class of '98, at least 60 of the 79 graduates were white.
Forbes Reynolds McPherson, a member of the Groton class of '98, traces his lineage all the way back to Increase Mather, a 17th-century Harvard president. Mr. McPherson, known as "Renny," is also the son and grandson of Harvard graduates. He had a solid 1480 SAT score, but ranked 45th in his Groton class. He was initially wait-listed at Harvard; the other top-tier universities to which he applied rejected him.
After his grades improved in his final semester at Groton, Harvard admitted Mr. McPherson on condition that he delay enrolling for a year -- a compromise Harvard often extends to alumni children with borderline qualifications. Harvard admissions dean William Fitzsimmons says the university offered deferred admission to 48 applicants in 1998. Of those, 17 students, or 35%, were children of alumni. Mr. Fitzsimmons says many students can benefit from a year off, and requiring them to defer tests their seriousness about going to Harvard.
"I didn't have the best grades, but I knew I could handle the work at Harvard," says Mr. McPherson, who is now a Harvard senior. He says his college grades are better than his grades at Groton. He's also been editor-in-chief of a campus poetry review, and a staffer on the Harvard Crimson newspaper. He plans to join the U.S. Marines as a lieutenant after graduation.
One Groton student had a record strikingly similar to Henry Park's, but he fared much better in the college-admissions process. John Roberts was 10th in his class -- four spots ahead of Mr. Park -- but had a slightly lower SAT score, 1530. Messrs. Roberts and Park were two of three Groton seniors enrolled in the school's most advanced math course. Their research for an article titled "Mapping the Hypercube" was subsequently published in a math journal for high-school teachers and students. In addition, both students were on the Groton cross-country team.
But Mr. Roberts, unlike Mr. Park, had a significant Harvard hook. His grandfather and uncle, both alumni, gave Harvard an indoor track and tennis center and a professorship, among other donations. Mr. Roberts says that when he was applying to Harvard, his family arranged for him to meet with Mr. Fitzsimmons, the admissions dean, and Jeremy Knowles, then dean of arts and sciences. Mr. Roberts's relatives also linked him up with Harvard's track coach and team members in the hope that he would be given preferential treatment as an athletic recruit. Harvard accepted him.
Mr. Fitzsimmons, Harvard's admissions dean, says he chats briefly with at least 100 applicants a year of all backgrounds. These interviews are not "official," he says, although he notes them in the file. Prof. Knowles says he occasionally saw alumni or friends "with their offspring in tow" but never contacted the admissions office afterward.
Mr. Roberts says his Groton classmate Mr. Park was a "tremendous" math student. "If Henry had some kind of legacy connection, that would have helped him" get into Harvard, he adds. "In my case, I had the scores. The family connection took out the added doubt." He majored in psychology at Harvard and now writes fiction.
Several Groton students had reservations about benefiting from family wealth or prominence. Julia Halberstam's heart was set on attending Brown University, but she pleaded in her application essay to be judged on her own merits and not considered as the daughter of David Halberstam, best-selling writer of "The Best and the Brightest" and the baseball book, "Summer of '49."
But when she and her father visited the campus, Brown admissions dean Michael Goldberger met with them and spent most of the time talking baseball with Mr. Halberstam, according to Julia Halberstam. And, despite Ms. Halberstam's misgivings about benefiting from influence, she says that former Brown President Vartan Gregorian, a family friend, wrote a letter on her behalf.
Mr. Goldberger says he meets with 100 applicants and their parents a year, strictly as a courtesy. He says 10 to 15 of those are celebrities, donors or alumni. No records are kept of the conversations, he says, and they have no effect on the admissions decision.
Ms. Halberstam ranked 41st in the Groton class of '98 and had a 1340 SAT score, about 50 points below Brown's average. She says she "really excelled" in English and history in high school, but had C's in subjects that didn't interest her. Brown admitted her. She graduated last year and now teaches kindergarten in the "Teach for America" program at a school in Greenville, Miss. "I don't know if I got into Brown because of my father's celebrity -- I'll never know," she says. "I was very aware of it and uncomfortable with it."
Another student acted on similar qualms, and may have suffered for them. Caroline Braga decided -- against her mother's urging -- not to tell Brown that one of her ancestors, William F. Sayles, endowed Sayles Hall on campus in 1881. Despite a better academic record than Ms. Halberstam's, she was rejected. She attended Georgetown University and plans to go to graduate school in landscape architecture at the University of Virginia. "I was a little bit naive," she says. "In an ideal world, I wouldn't include preferences. In the real world, you use whatever tools you have to get where you want to go." Mr. Goldberger, Brown's admissions dean, acknowledges that "having a building named after your family on our campus would be a plus factor."
Brown also rejected Christina Maloney, who had an SAT score of 1330 and ranked 46th in the Groton class, according to the Groton document. So did Dartmouth College. Bates and Davidson colleges wait-listed her. But she got into Princeton University, where three fourths of students have SAT scores of 1380 or above.
Her father and grandfather attended Princeton. Ms. Maloney also was a skilled rower at Groton, and rowed for Princeton as a freshman. (Bates and Davidson did not have women's intercollegiate crew teams at the time.)
Ms. Maloney is now a policy analyst for the New York City Council; she didn't return phone calls. Her mother, Carolyn Maloney, a Democratic member of Congress from New York City, declines comment on her daughter's admission, but says Christina graduated from Princeton with high honors. "Every child at Groton could do the work at any college in America" because the school is so rigorous, Rep. Maloney adds.
Another Groton student, Danielle Nunez, had the option of seeking preferential treatment as a minority. Ms. Nunez, who is half Peruvian and half Scandinavian, says she asked her father whether to identify herself as Hispanic on her Princeton application. With a 1510 SAT score, a rank of 26th in her class, and the honor of being picked by Groton classmates as Prize Day speaker, she figured she was likely to be accepted anyway.
Taking No Chances
Her father, a salesman, told her that, while affirmative action was not originally designed for students like her, she shouldn't take chances with her future. Ms. Nunez, who grew up in East Windsor, N.J., and attended Groton on a partial scholarship, marked herself as Hispanic.
Ms. Nunez graduated from Princeton last year and is a paralegal in the Manhattan district attorney's office. She says she favors giving preferential treatment to children of alumni and donors. "In a generation, legacies may be more diverse," she said. "I take huge pride that if I have a daughter, she might be listing me as an alumna on her Groton and Princeton applications."
Henry Park says he made few close friends among Groton faculty or students. Despite his prowess in math -- he received the maximum score of 800 on both the math SAT and SAT II achievement test -- and in languages, he says he felt isolated as one of only two male Asian students in his class. Few classmates, he says, shared his interests in martial arts and Korean music.
Nor did he share the affluence that characterized many of his classmates. His father used to own a string of small clothing stores in the New York area, but several failed in the mid-1990s, prompting Mrs. Park to find work teaching Korean. To pay Henry's Groton tuition, she sold her only investment property, an apartment building in Hoboken, N.J.
Henry and his mother say Groton guidance counselors discouraged him from setting his sights on top colleges. Mrs. Park says a counselor told her that her son was a long shot at Harvard because he didn't stand out from the crowd. "I have thought many, many times why Henry failed," Mrs. Park says. "It was just devastating."
Mr. Polk, the Groton headmaster, declines to discuss individual students. In a written statement, he said: "It is always disappointing when a student doesn't get into her/his college of choice, but we understand that a student's academic record is only one of many different factors that colleges consider."
Two leading universities did accept Mr. Park: Carnegie Mellon and Johns Hopkins. He attended Carnegie Mellon for a year before transferring to Johns Hopkins, where he is a senior majoring in neuroscience. He cooks three days a week at a campus restaurant on a work-study job, and is on the dean's list with a grade-point average above 3.5. He plans to go to medical school.