Book Reviews

Book by John Aubrey Douglass
Review by Julie H. Murphy
Academic Adviser, Pre-College Programs
University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

Who gets in, who decides, and who pays?  These are the central questions that John Aubrey Douglass addresses in The Conditions for Admission: Access, Equity, and the Social Contract of Public Universities.  The title is perhaps a misnomer; a more accurate title might be The Conditions for Admission in the University of California System, since the book is a case study of the UC system.  Douglass falls short of engaging the reader regarding access, equity, and decision-making power.  His case study format leaves the reader wondering how these issues manifest themselves outside the UC system.  However, Douglass does offer an insightful and novel discussion of the movement toward privatization of public institutions, and the resulting abatement of the social contract.  Douglass’s analysis of the future of public education (part four) is a worthwhile read for anyone with a stake in public education.

Part four, “Whither the Social Contract? The Postmodern World and the Primacy of Higher Education”, is a thought-provoking analysis of the future of U.S. public education.  Douglass examines the movement of privatization that threatens the future of the social contract, a trend he suggests calls into question the very purpose of public education in the United States.  He presents evidence that the demand for higher education is reaching a plateau in the United States, especially among young people. Douglass demonstrates why this may or may not be a cause for concern.  He successfully argues that the American educational advantage is waning, especially when compared to emerging models of higher education in the European Union and other developing nations.  In the section “A Culture of Aspiration”, he argues that American culture fuels the demand for education, and eventually leads to over-qualification of individuals.  

In addition to the analysis found in part four, the first three fourths of the book include a few illuminating points. Douglass adequately explains how standardized tests poorly predict student success in college and why institutions nevertheless continue to use them to make admission decisions (p. 214).  He analyzes the use of racial quotas, “percentage programs”, and current models of K-12 outreach efforts as methods for increasing racial diversity (p. 120).  Student affairs professionals with the challenging task of increasing diversity and improving retention of underrepresented students will find these discussions useful.

Still, there are three notable weaknesses of this book.  First, the use of case study format does little to help Douglass’s claim that his book is “the first comprehensive examination of admission policies and practices at public institutions” (back cover).  Douglass could have reached a wider audience by researching how access, equity, and power are manifested beyond California’s borders.  Second, Douglass’s arguments in parts one through three are largely disorganized and unnecessarily detailed.  The book would have been more useful had he condensed the history of admission policies into an introduction, and expanded his discussion on the future of public education.  Finally, it is clear that Douglass is an adamant supporter of affirmative action; his coverage of the anti-affirmative action side of the debate was incomplete at best.

Readers should skim the first three parts of the book; they simply provide the context for part four.  Part four, on the other hand, should be read carefully, as it provides a timely warning regarding the future of public institutions and how student populations will change as the social contract is redefined.  It is part four that is timely and worthwhile for public school administrators nationwide and anyone wishing to engage in the debate regarding the future of public education in the United States.

The Conditions for Admission: Access, equity, and the social contract of public universities. (2007). Book by John Aubrey Douglass. Review by Julie H. Murphy. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 352 pp., $24.95, (paperback), ISBN # 0804755590
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