Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

Nowhere does privilege thrive so well in the 'classless' US than in the classroom

A shadow of unease is already falling over the Cornwell family. My son has just started his junior year at high school ("junior", in American parlance, meaning his final year bar one). And the dread question arises: where will he go to university - or rather college, as they say here?

This year, thanks to demographic bulges and supposedly tougher entrance standards, the scramble is more frantic than ever. But there is another factor to consider as well. Is the game rigged in advance?

College is where life begins to get serious here. While high school is still a pretty sheltered existence, the famous competitiveness of American system kicks in once you reach the next stage. As often as not, a student is moving away from home for the first time. He or she must fend for himself or herself. Your college, and what (as well as how) you do there, is often crucial in getting that first job.

Thus the playing field ought to be level - above all in the US, where merit is supposed to be all and snobby British concepts like class, "the establishment" and the old-boy network have no place. Alas, they do - as a devastating new book has revealed. Price of Admission by Daniel Golden of The Wall Street Journal reveals how America's top colleges decide which applicants to let in.

These esteemed places of learning naturally advertise the number of children they admit from less privileged backgrounds and the financial aid that is available (and not just to paupers, given that a year's tuition, board and lodging at a leading college often exceeds $40,000 or £21,000). In reality, you have a better chance of admission if you are a "legacy" applicant - in other words, if your father or mother went there - and an even better chance still if the parent is wealthy. If there's one thing a US college likes boosting more than its academic ranking, it's the size of its endowment fund. Nor does being a talented athlete or the offspring of a celebrity hurt either. Even the most august colleges are as dazzled as the rest of us by showbiz and sports stars.

Golden's conclusion is stunning. He estimates that if "legacy" preference and other built-in biases that favour the white and affluent were ended, a quarter of undergraduate places at America's elite colleges would be opened up. Many of the new entrants would be white, affluent but unconnected, but minorities and the poor would also benefit substantially. Now, the present distortion would not be so important if the US truly were what it proclaims itself to be: an unrivalled land of opportunity, where the son of a Buick assembly-line worker has the same shot as the Wasp-iest blue blood. But contrary to myth, today's America is a land of steadily ossifying inequality.

Recent studies suggest that social mobility in the US is less, not more, than in many other advanced countries. If you're poor, you tend to stay poor, and if you're born into money, you'll die in money - and they're even trying to abolish estate taxes (death duties to you and me). The gap between the haves and the have-nots is growing wider and so is the gap between the extremely rich and everyone else.

Forbes magazine's latest survey of the 400 richest Americans found they were all billionaires, while a recent international "inequality" index put America at 40, compared with 31 for Britain, 27 for France, and 22 for super-egalitarian Denmark. Another gap that widens inexorably is the one between the future earning power of a college graduate and someone who goes to work straight after high school.

Yes, as everyone knows, Bill Gates has become the richest man in the world despite dropping out of college. But he came from a very wealthy family and was an exceptionally bright student (and the college in question was Harvard). Or take Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google fame. Both were children of university professors - not exactly underprivileged.

No one does class like Britain, we are always told, and Americans like to think they are immune from the problem. In reality the US has its own class system and its own self-perpetuating establishment - founded on money, obviously, but also on education. If you doubt this theory, think Kennedy, or Gore (former vice-president Al, that is, son of a senator himself, whose own son got into Harvard despite a mediocre academic record), or George W Bush, admitted to Yale mainly because daddy George HW Bush was a Yalie.

Some things are changing. A few weeks ago, Harvard scrapped the practice of early admissions, designed to take some stress out of the college entrance ordeal, but which in fact was another mechanism favouring the well-off and well-connected. Other colleges, including Princeton, followed suit. But "legacy" admissions remain - and in class-bound America are likely to do so for a while yet.