I heard a good interview with a father who paid $12,000 for a college admissions counseling service after his daughter was waitlisted (in October [!] of her senior year) at the University of Chicago. The father claimed that his daughter had grades that ranked her second in her high school class, combined with excellent SAT scores (which he didn’t reveal in the interview). His investment paid off — his daughter got into 7 of 8 schools she applied to, and is now attending the University of Pennsylvania.
The question at hand was this: if college admissions have come down to this — a rigged process where the rich pay for consulting services to get their kids into elite universities — then has the purpose of higher education been corrupted?
The second half of the interview was with Lloyd Thacker, the founder of the Education Conservancy, an organization that seems to have been formed with the important goals of
promoting Thacker’s book and consulting service removing the corrupting influence of corporate greed from education and restoring its original, pure motives.
Thacker was remarkably vague about how these goals would be achieved, or even why the admissions process has anything to do with education. I can think of some reasons, such as the idea that we don’t want our institutions of higher education to merely become a way to ensure that the rich continue to become richer, but I don’t want to put words in Thacker’s mouth.
Now I want to bring in another, seemingly unrelated thread to this discussion. Kevin Drum points us to an article in the L.A. Times lamenting the fact that kids these days don’t want to be troubled to read those archaic, obtuse relics of a bygone era known as books. Why bother, they say, when we can find convenient summaries of almost everything important online (or, failing that, in Spark Notes)?
So college kids these days are lazy slobs, and school kids these days are busting their butts for twelve years, then spending tens of thousands of dollars just to improve their chances of spending $100,000-plus on a college education. Both of these seemingly contradictory trends apparently signal the demise of American higher education, or at the very least a rewarding book deal for authors looking to cash in on the latest trend.
Let’s assume both of these trends are true. That begs the question: if kids are so motivated to get into the most challenging schools in America, why aren’t kids motivated to actually meet the curricular requirements of those schools? Is it that today’s professors are just living in the past, thinking the stuff they had to learn 20 or 30 years ago is relevant to today’s students? Or is it that the college admissions process has failed to identify the students who can actually succeed in college, instead simply finding those who can game the admissions process?
I suspect it’s a little bit of both, and a little bit of neither. To game the admissions process, you need to be able to score well on a standardized test, amass an impressive array of extracurriculars, snow your high school teachers into giving you good grades, and write a snappy short essay. Now, a real genius who has the patience to slog through War and Peace might be able to do all of that, but it’s just as likely that an ambitious parent can coach his or her slightly-above-average kid to imitate the real thing even better. So does this mean the admissions process is all wrong?
In some ways, probably yes. Maybe it’d be better if there was some kind of admissions boot camp — perhaps in the high school junior summer — where real profs could put promising students through their paces and see who has the Right Stuff for college. But even assuming professors would be willing to do this (they wouldn’t), wouldn’t the competition just move back another couple of years, with wealthy parents enrolling their kids in expensive pre-boot camps so they can learn to impress the profs?
One thing Thacker did point out in his interview is that the admissions industry is fed by the press, with its infinite supply of college rankings, its emphasis on the horse race between the elite institutions. But surely no one’s career prospects are ruined simply by getting into #27 instead of #1. Surely everyone’s time would be better spent on simply acquiring an education and letting the chips fall where they may instead of devoting so much time and resources to getting in to college. Why can’t the media just leave well enough alone?
Well, why can’t parents? Aren’t they the ones pressuring (and paying for) their kids to get into the top institutions? Don’t they realize that the education junior will get at Harvard isn’t appreciably better (and is possibly worse) than a second- or third-tier liberal arts college?
And aren’t colleges gaming the admissions process as well? They know that perceived “selectivity” and the percentage of accepted students who enroll affect the rankings, so they then do things like reject more-qualified students who are unlikely to attend their school. Thacker even suggests that some colleges suss out over-coached applications that seem “too polished” and put them on the bottom of the stack.
Perhaps the biggest injustice the admissions process does isn’t so much to “education” or “students,” but, most ironically of all, to corporate hiring departments. If corporations buy into the notion that the current media darling university is “number one” because of a list published in a magazine (and clearly manipulated by both parents and schools), then aren’t they missing out on qualified job applicants from “lesser” schools?
Meanwhile, the students that really do have the patience and perseverence to plow through a difficult text and appreciate its importance get lost in the shuffle. What does this mean for education? I don’t know now, but I bet there’s a book deal in there somewhere.