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Recent Works

"Stop Dumping on Student Loans"

Why conservatives should stop listening to anti-government critics on higher education.

American Meritocracy, Version 2.0?

Peter Sacks in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the latest affirmative action case before the Supreme Court

Why College Still Matters

A growing chorus of critics says a college education is finished as the ticket to economic success and a middle-class life.

Our Colleges and Their Many Critics by Peter Sacks

College bashing is very much in vogue. A batch of new and recent books portray the campus culture in dark tones: College is an expensive fraud, pandering to its entitled student customers with soft courses and inflated grades; college is for dummies, it's bad for your brain, and it's even worse for your pocketbook, your children's, and the financial well- being of generations to come.

Rethinking the Rules of the Higher Education Game

The familiar conversation about access to higher education is limited to what college costs and whether colleges are giving us our money’s worth. While important, that conversation may be constricting our ability to understand what is really limiting the promise of higher education in America.

"Is Academic Freedom in Trouble?"

From Minding the Campus

How Colleges Perpetuate Inequality

Colleges, once seen as beacons of egalitarian hope, are becoming bastions of wealth and privilege that perpetuate inequality. The chance of a low-income child obtaining a bachelor's degree has not budged in three decades: Just 6 percent of students from the lowest-income families earned a bachelor's degree by age 24 in 1970, and in 2002 still only 6 percent did. Lower still is that child's chance of attending one of America's top universities.

But while the growing class divide may be among the most compelling higher-education stories, political and educational leaders have been slow to respond. The rich and powerful of both the left and the right seem to have convinced them that confronting that divide comes at their peril. Members of America's ruling class have too much at stake, including family legacies, for their children not to follow in their footsteps to Harvard, Yale, or Michigan.

Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education from the University of California Press)

Tearing Down the Gates is about injustice. Author Peter Sacks tells the stories of several young people born into different sides of America’s growing class divide. While we often hear about the growing economic divide between the rich and the poor in America, this book locates the fountainhead of these growing economic disparities in one of our most cherished democratic institutions: our education system. Peter Sacks shows how the actions of schools, colleges and universities, and even government agencies, exacerbate the widening opportunity gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged young people. Educational opportunity is the key to a middle-class life in the United States, yet the widening class divide results in an untold loss of human talent. Over time, this emerging crisis will derail the American Dream -- not just for some, but for us all.

"The Geography of Privilege"

In this piece, Peter Sacks responds to the published criticisms by the Chairman of the University of California Board of Regents (John Moores) that students with SAT I scores below 1000 had no business going to Berkeley because they were not only "marginally academically qualified" and because they took the places of students with SATs above 1500.

Sacks sees Moores's comments as an attack on the UC admissions policy that evaluates a full range of factors in admissions decisions, not just test scores and grades. He points out that the low scoring students were largely minorities and that their admission to UC amounts to a challenge to " virtual admissions entitlement" for upper-middle class students. In his analysis Sacks describes the social background of standardized testing and suggests that the tests became educational gatekeepers precisely because students from affluent and highly educated families tended to do well on them. And indeed, as long as test scores alone determined admission to UC, minorities and the less affluent had a difficult time being accepted.

But Sacks goes further and points out that research indicates that standardized tests simply do not predict later academic achievement very well. Indeed, an internal UC report showed that "the predictive power of high school grades actually improved after family income and education were factored in, while the predictive power of SAT I scores declined sharply when socio-economic factors were considered."

Sacks concludes with a discussion of the benefits of a more inclusive admissions process for the residents of the state, to say nothing of the potential legal difficulties that would be encountered if comprehensive review were abandoned.

"As most progressive policymakers in public higher education are beginning to understand, the alternative to comprehensive review, or something akin to it, is to permit high-speed computers to do the work of admissions professionals. It's a neat and tidy world in which young people are easily categorized and sorted by a numerical index of their SAT scores and GPAs."

Class Rules: the Fiction of Egalitarian Higher Education

The U.S. Supreme Court's momentous rulings affirming the constitutionality of affirmative action in college admissions promise to institutionalize, well into the foreseeable future, the role of race in creating an equitable society. For various reasons, not the least of which is the uniquely American notion that we are an utterly mobile nation of individuals, unfettered by the strictures that have plagued other societies, "class" has become something of a dirty word in most recent discussions about equal opportunity in admissions. Bright-eyed American optimism of recent decades has played down the harsh realities of our nation's class division in higher education and society at large. Our schools, colleges, and universities, Americans fondly believe, are the great equalizers of social and economic inequality, not institutions that reflect and legitimize inequalities.

Standardized Minds: The High Price of America's Testing Culture and What We Can Do to Change it (Perseus Publishing)

Standardized Testing: It's an innocuous sounding term, isn't it? Straighforward, inexpensive, tidy, fair. Americans have grown so accustomed to filling in the "bubbles" on standardized tests that people often don't bother to question the tests' legitimacy.

But these seemingly innocuous rights of passage are neither straightforward, tidy, nor fair.

STANDARDIZED MINDS explores the nation's unhealthy and enduring obsession with standardized testing in schools, colleges and workplaces and how this tool of the so-called meritocracy affects us all, from the day we enter kindergarten to when we might apply for a new job or seek a new profession.

But while providing a vigorous critique of America's testing culture, STANDARDIZED MINDS also explores proven alternatives too such testing and ways to make the American meritocracy more accurate and fair to all people.

Generation X Goes to College: An Eye-Opening Account of Teaching in Postmodern America (Open Court).

The society of "spectacle" that characterizes postmodern America has nurtured new generations of college students, teaching them to approach higher education with a consumerist mindset. Part memoir, part analysis and de-construction of contemporary American culture, GENERATION X GOES TO COLLEGE makes for an amusing and disturbing read.

"Class Struggle"

Review essay in The Nation of "The Gatekeepers," by Jacques Steinberg and "The Early Admissions Game," by Christopher Avery and co-authors.

"The GRE and Me: Prestige Versus Quality in American Higher Education"

Is the American “testing culture” about maintaining academic standards or something else? In this essay, I suggest there may be more to the story, namely colleges’ and universities’ pursuit of prestige and reputation in the age of US News and World Report, which rates colleges and universities on factors that may have little to do with actual academic quality.

Despite the highly questionable utility of standardized tests to predict academic success, the unmitigated pursuit of prestige and reputation continue to prop up the use of deeply flawed standardized tests in higher education.

The piece includes a narrative section describing my own recent experience with the Graduate Record Exam, and the personal and ethical choices I'm confronted with.

"Turning Schools into Profit Centers"

Watch out when the business community starts calling the shots on school reform. Before you can say “hold schools accountable,” they’re yakking about how the dowdy world of education ought to be handed over to the slick MBA’s and run like a corporation, allowing self-interested individuals and unfettered competition to transform the neighborhood school into a pseudo-profit center.

Now comes the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the giant supermarket chain, which says it will hand out “cash awards” to schools in Idaho based on standardized test results.

In this essay in Education Week, I pick apart the folly of these schemes that, in essence, bribe schools for better test scores. What are the educational consequences of such tactics? Who wins and who loses?

"A Nation at Risk"

In postmillennium America, the very idea of teaching as a human-centered, humanistic endeavor is being expunged from out collective lexicon." -- from Peter Sacks's review essay, "A Nation at Risk."

"On Changing the SAT: A Contrarian's View of Our 'Culture of Standardized Testing.'

An Education Week essay commenting on the widely discussed proposed revisions to the venerable SAT college admissions exam. Peter Sacks argues that the changes are a marketing tactic by the College Board to appease what's perhaps its biggest customer, the University of California, which has threatened to drop the SAT. Sacks contends that the changes to the SAT won't improve what is a fundamentally flawed enterprise.

"Testing Times in Higher Ed"

In this 3,500-word review essay in The Nation, June 24, 2002, Peter Sacks reviews Fair Game?, a new book about standardized testing in higher education, by Rebecca Zwick, a professor of education at the University of California at Santa Barbara. "Far from reflecting the balanced approach the author claims, the book is thinly disguised advocacy for the status quo and defense of the hegemony of gatekeeping exams for college and university admissions," Sacks writes.


A persuasive circumstantial case can be made that affirmative action is a useful tool of American elites, which enables them to preserve a social definition of merit that primarily serves their own economic interests. (This article was part of a special report in The Boston Review, "Rethinking Affirmative Action," contributors including Lani Guinier, Susan Sturm, Howard Gardner, and other writers.

"How Admissions Tests Hinder Access to Graduate and Professional Schools."

For all the innovation in Universty of California President Richard C. Atkinson's proposal to drop the SAT for freshmen admissions, why stop there? Why not also challenge the entrenched status of admissions tests that serve as gatekeepers to graduate and professional education? (From the Chronicle Review essay.)

"Predictable Losers in Testing Schemes"

For nearly two decades policymakers have been engaged in a massive and unprecedented social experiment on our schoolchildren, one with enormous costs and unproven benefits. This experiment has been launched on a dubious proposition--that largely bureaucratic solutions, consisting of state-imposed standards, more standardized testing and harsher sanctions attached to test results, will fundamentally raise the academic achievement of all schoolchildren and lead to a more prosperous and productive citizenry. (From the School Administrator, Dec. 2000.)