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Its high school graduation season. Most graduates are heading off to employment, community colleges, or open-admissions colleges, but a few hundred thousand are about to enroll in selective colleges. These students are excited, their families are proud, and taxpayers are about to help them foot the bill.
The assumption is that its healthy to have these prestigious colleges hand-pick the students that theyll allow to enroll in the fall. But what if its not? What if its a bad thing for students and the nation alike? As the Supreme Court contemplates whether to ban race-based admissions preferences, it may be time to do the same with selective college admissions, precisely because selective admissions are less and less about merit. Indeed, colleges are rapidly abandoning any and all objective measures of merit, with more than 80 percent of four-year colleges now requiring neither the ACT nor the SAT for admission.
Its time for the nations brand-name colleges to demonstrate that theyre good at educating and not
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just at vacuuming up high-achievers, parking them in TA-led sections, and then passing them on to consulting firms and graduate schools.
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Perhaps its time to tell colleges that accept public dollars or federal student loans (more than 99 percent of the nations colleges), that they will no longer be eligible for these funds if they cherry-pick their undergraduate students. Its time for the nations brand-name colleges to demonstrate that theyre good at educating and not just at vacuuming up high-achievers, parking them in TA-led sections, and then passing them on to consulting firms and graduate schools.
In response to this admittedly controversial suggestion, four claims commonly get made. None is especially persuasive.
Some suggest that good teaching is a scarce commodity, and the best college teachers should work with the students who will benefit most. Even if this is true (the arguments are very different in K-12), theres no evidence that selective institutions employ the best teachers or care about teaching. Indeed, an analysis by scholars at Columbia University and Yeshiva University compared teaching at elite institutions and less selective colleges and found no evidence that teaching was better at the former. Indeed, teaching at selective colleges is famously mediocre, given that faculty are hired and celebrated for their research acumen, grants, and start powernot their teaching prowess.
Others argue that selective colleges identify the students mostly likely to benefit from their offerings. But theres cause to doubt whether admissions staff are able to make such judgments fairly or responsibly. Indeed, recent affirmative-action litigation has shone a bright light on pathologies long known to insiders, including the preferences enjoyed by connected applicants, the reductionist racial caricatures that dot admissions files, and the gross bias against Asian-American applicants.
than their predecessors. At selective institutions, its fair to say that faculty today are encouraged to focus more on providing comfort and support than on demanding rigor.
Lastly, theres thought to be great value in assembling a curated population of meritorious and diverse students. In practice, though, these student bodies are neither meritorious nor diverse. Indeed, most Ivy League schools admit more students from the top 1 percent of the income scale than from the entire bottom 60 percent. At Harvard, nearly half of students are there due to some preference, such as being a legacy or the kid of a wealthy donor. Meanwhile, Ivy League student bodies are 68 percent Democrat and just 12 percent Republican. There may be more societal benefit in having high-achievers interact with a broad mix of peers than in their clustering in groupthink bubbles.
Then there are the obvious costs of selectivity:
It makes a business out of access to selective schools. The simple act of being selected (whether or not it has anything to do with merit) provides privileged access to networks and employment. Loosening the link between ones college and these things seems rather healthy.
It imagines that these colleges have some special acumen for cultivating broad-minded citizens. Thats hard to square with what we see playing out on elite campuses today.
It rewards students who can afford admissions coaches and have parents or coaches who carefully edit their admissions essay.
Meanwhile, the admissions process itself is rife with fraud. More than 60 percent of college students acknowledge including false information on their applications, with 39 percent saying they misrepresented their race or ethnicity, 30 percent admitting that they faked their letters of recommendation, and a third conceding that their personal essays were untrue.
Given all this, its time for the leaders of selective colleges to heed their own lectures about democratizing opportunity and adopt lottery admissions.
For those who fear that this means admitting blatantly unqualified students, theres a straightforward remedy. In Grutter v. Bollinger, Justice Scalia suggested that schools establish specific qualifications and admit randomly from those who cleared that bar. If campuses want to require diplomas, minimum ACT/SAT scores, or high-school course-taking requirements, fair enough.
Will prestigious schools be able to serve all the deserving applicants? If not, theres a practical remedy: They can expand.
Look, the acid test of a teacher is not their ability to select excellent charges but to help ones charges excel. Selective colleges have upended that principle. Its time to set things right.
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