Jian Li was the perfect student. Incredibly, he got a perfect score on his SATs.
He should also be a perfect example of how second-generation immigrants can transform their lives when they work hard in the land of meritocracy and opportunity.
But he doesn't see it that way.
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"I was completely naive," said Li, now age 19.
He applied to Harvard, Princeton, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Stanford, among other places and didn't get into any of those colleges.
Yet, he soon became aware that other high school students with lower SAT scores had sailed past him.
"There are lots of preferences given to academically unqualified individuals." he said. "For example, George Bush. I doubt he had the academic qualifications that would have gotten him into an elite university [Yale], but because of who his father was, he had the advantage over other applicants with better academic records."
A Tricky Process: Children of Prominent Alumni Versus Hardworking Students Versus 'Development Admits'
So why was Li shut out from some of the most prestigious colleges in the country?
For eight years, Keith Brodie was the president of Duke University in North Carolina and ultimately, in charge of admissions.
He still teaches part time, within the university's department of psychiatry. According to Brodie, sifting through applicants is an arduous process.
"You look at the last several years, they've seen over 15,000 applications a year [at Duke]," he said.
"You end up discarding about 5,000 as coming from folk you just wouldn't think could graduate. But that leaves you with 10,000 people, and you end up offering about 3,000, of those 10,000, admission. And so the question is how do you pick those 3,000 from that 10,000? And that's where it gets tricky," he said.
Tricky is one way of describing Duke's admissions, but Brodie also says it involves a carefully defined process. Applications are divided into three basic categories.
There's the ordinary hardworking 18-year-old who hopes that exceptional SAT scores will get them in -- students like Li.
Then there's the legacy applicant, whose parents are prominent alumni. One example would be Al Gore's four children -- all of whom went to Harvard, following in the former vice president's footsteps. Or Senator Majority Leader Bill Frist, whose son, Harrison, followed him to Princeton.
And finally there is the "development admit," a student recommended by the college's financial development office.
Brodie has no bones about explaining what a "development admit" is.
"A 'development admit' would come in perhaps with very low numbers but with high potential for donating money to the university through the family," Brodie said.
Schools as Businesses
Because all of these elite universities are also private businesses, there is a strong push to admit at least some students who will bring additional funds with them in the form of hefty donations.
Duke University's development department has found ever more creative ways of raising capital. Brodie recalls the genius of Joel Fleishman, former Duke vice chancellor.
"He was a consummate artist in basically bringing wealthy applicants to Duke," he said. "He had a Christmas card list that was a mile long. He gave very nice gifts to the families of some of these kids. Many of these families appreciated good wine. And so they would receive fairly expensive bottles of wine from him, and that endeared Duke and Joel to these families."
This way of cultivating development contributions was particularly effective. Author Daniel Golden, who went to Harvard and wrote "The Price of Admission," provided illuminating details with the story of fashion billionaire Ralph Lauren.
According to Golden, Dylan and David Lauren were good students but not outstanding. After the Lauren family reportedly sought consideration as a "development family," he said the Lauren offspring were admitted to Duke and that Fleishman wined and dined the Laurens at Parents' Weekend and other social events.
Golden said the fashion guru eventually pledged a six-figure sum to Duke.
The Power of Influence
According to Brodie, he cut down the number of development admits during his tenure, but it was difficult to stem the tide. He estimates that about 50 percent of Duke's student body is admitted on academic performance alone.
But affluence isn't the only advantage that will help win a place at an elite university.
Influence is also a powerful asset. Author Daniel Golden, who went to Harvard and is the author of "The Price of Admission," details the story of Christopher Ovitz, son of former Hollywood agent and president of Walt Disney, Michael Ovitz.
According to Golden, Christopher Ovitz applied to Brown University, but "was not even in the range of the normal stretch that Brown would make for children of the wealthy and powerful."
But he was granted a place at Brown. Although Christopher Ovitz lasted only a year, according to Golden, Brown has reaped the ongoing rewards from Ovitz and his extensive Hollywood contacts.
"He brought a number of his key clients. A-list people like Martin Scorsese for well-publicized events that gave the campus, you know, a lot of panache," Golden said.
In his book, Golden details strategies utilized by other universities to provide places for the children of privilege.
His analysis asks: Are Ivy League colleges putting places up for sale?
According to Brodie, there's little doubt.
"I believe that is the case that there are few slots in every entering class that are basically for sale," he said.
And as for Li, he was eventually accepted at Yale University, without a donation from his parents or a visit from a celebrity.
He's likely to graduate with honors.