Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The College Admissions Mess

Two circumstances conspire to make this an unusually long essay.  First, it is D-Day, D being the Roman numeral for 500 and this being the five hundredth weekly essay I have published on this site since the appearance of “On Columns, Communists, and Camões” on June 13, 2009.   Even if the chiefly remarkable feature of this performance be its futility, obstinacy, or mere curiosity, racking up a total word count slightly in excess of Gone with the Wind, even if falling slightly short of War and Peace, demands a metaphorical pat on the back.  Of course patting oneself on the back even metaphorically is rather awkward, and could easily lead to a metaphorical dislocated shoulder.

            So I’ve already blown a hundred words on that, and the more important cause of dilation still lies ahead: the “college admissions” scandal that commanded so much news during the last week.  This is, in the first place, a topic of almost universal appeal, and it offered a rarely uncomplicated opportunity to exult in moral superiority and to hate on the filthy rich with impunity.  Furthermore, I know a lot about the topic and have thought about it; so it offers me the personal bonus of imagining that my ideas—some about to be shared with you—are markedly superior to those I have been reading in the press.

The college admissions crisis obviously begins long before college.  Here’s a story from yesterday’s paper.  The keen competition for entrance to the next freshman class in the designated “elite” public high schools in New York City—the Yales and MITs of the system, as it were--yielded a cohort of which only one in ten is black or Hispanic.  Stuyvesant, for example, accepted 897, of whom seven are black.  (A quarter of the more than a million students in the City’s public schools are black).  Admission to the elite schools has long been determined by a single difficult entrance exam, as nearly objective as such things can be, in two subjects: English and math.  The utility of any exam can be questioned, but this one—in addition to being administered with absolute impartiality--is impressively coherent.  English competency is fundamental to the skills of literacy (reading, writing, and effective oral communication); math teaches numeracy and is the gateway skill for the STEM fields.   You thus could say it is a basic test of capacity for high-level work in both the humanities and the sciences.  Appalled, as all of us surely should be, by the reality revealed in the yearly results, Mayor DeBlasio suggests as a remedy chucking the entrance exam in favor of some method more effective in accommodating racial preference. 

I believe the Mayor is a man of good will and sincerely egalitarian instinct; and I presume that it is pure political duress that lies behind his dreadful muddle of means and ends.  The college admissions fraud that has been in the papers is a shameful fiasco, though one made psychologically safe for most of us by the unaffordability of its turpitude.  It is a shock, a disgrace, an embarrassment.  But in terms of actual scandal or crisis it lags far behind the general crisis of American public education.  Our high schools vary enormously in quality, and people know it.  That’s why New York parents will do practically anything to get their kid into Stuyvesant.  Meanwhile throughout the country, but especially in our large cities, schools are failing to prepare young people by the thousands with the skills and discipline to do anything that our economy needs enough to pay for.  Now that is a scandal.  Mr. DeBlasio simply cannot, or dare not, recommend that we chuck out several hundred ineffective school administrators.  And, to be fair, that’s not the root of the problem either.

Equality of opportunity and equality of outcomes (aka “equity”) are quite different things, and “fairness” will not be achieved by fudging the two.
There seems to be an implicit belief in some kind of free-floating inherent “merit,” untouched by social influences, that will manifest itself in the college admissions process.  That is nonsense.   All of us are the sum of our natural capacities and the efforts that we ourselves and others have expended in developing them.

I can tell you how to be a compelling admissions candidate, but you may not want to listen.  Start by being born intelligent, then cultivate your intelligence with wide reading and other demanding intellectual activities.  Live in a household with two loving parents, both of whom are seriously interested in your educational progress and willing to devote serious time to its pursuit.  Develop some wholesome, demanding and absorbing interests—sports, playing the oboe, bird watching, that sort of thing—and pursue them at a high level.  Eat regular family dinners at a set time, and include in your table talk some serious conversation about serious things.  Try to speak Standard English in complete sentences, and do not shy away from words of three syllables.  And, oh yeah, like, use “like” only as a preposition, conjunction, or a transitive verb.

This is not satire.  I am aware of the decline of the American family, but aware also of the dangerous popular fantasy that the public schools can or should replace its unique educational function.  I cannot go along with Bernie Sanders’s barmy idea of “free college for all,” but I am absolutely in favor of a variety of special, remedial, compensatory, and enrichment programs designed to repair some of the damage inflicted on young people by the social pathologies of those who have brought them into the world.  But, please, don’t call the absence of such pathology “unfair”.

This episode of flagrant cheating by wealthy parents suggests that many people have a very curious notion of the actual nature of institutions of higher education, and of the actual process of entry to them.  There is much indignation at the thought that an applicant admitted on the basis of a store-bought SAT score has violated some rigorously enforced protocol that would have otherwise guaranteed the success of an objectively “deserving” candidate.  In fact there are already so many blind guesses, fudges, finagles, and socially engineered adjustments involved as to knock that idea in the head.  The slightest experience in trying to rank-order a list of even ten similar candidates will cure you of spurious confidence in the objectivity of the exercise.  To call the admissions process an inexact science is to do violence both to science and the concept of exactitude.  We can wax indignant about a Yale athletic coach who feloniously got a house in Florida out of the slack in the system, but he did not create the slack.

Much scorn has been cast upon parents who hired SAT-preppers for their kids.  Really?   For what other major life trials do we consider a lack of preparation to be virtuous?  We have managed to create in the college application business an experience that is an ordeal for most applicants and an actual trauma for many of them. That is why there is a burgeoning private industry of educational consultants, advisors, and consultants.  They offer clients strategic advice, sample SAT exams, mock interviews, critiques of personal essays, and psychological hand-holding.   Only some applicants can afford to make use of these services.  Is this unfair, that is to say, an offense against justice?  You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.  Yet people who undertake strenuous training before trying to climb Mount Everest or auditioning for first violin in the symphony orchestra tend to have better outcomes than those who do not.  There is a certain contradiction in the fact that everybody wants to get into an elite school while nobody wants to be elite.

It’s hard to get into Stanford, but so what?  Few people have an accurate idea of either the large number of American colleges nor of their extraordinary variety.  My dramatic education in these matters derives from nearly a decade’s service as a commissioner of the Middle States accrediting body, when I became aware of all of the colleges in several populous states.  Consciously picking a low and conservative number, I will say that there are three hundred terrific colleges in this country, most of them unknown even by name to most high school seniors.  How could anyone shed a tear at failing to gain admission to Duke?

On the one hand you have armies of parents and counselors desperately trying to get their kids into certain schools.  On the other you have each year another group of financially beleaguered institutions desperately trying to recruit enough students to keep in business.  Hampshire College, which early in my career was a trendy, pace-setting, wave-of-the-future kind of place, is in the process of going belly up.  With an endowment of roughly fifty million, Hampshire is not without resources.  But perhaps a private institution that doesn’t have a minimum of, say, a quarter of a million per undergraduate might as well close up shop.

            One emerging attitude that particularly takes me aback is that our private colleges and universities—still the envy of the world—should adopt admissions policies that take no account of their history, customs, or traditions.  But think about this for a second.  What sort of place is Harvard, founded 1636?  Is it a public amenity like any other?  Consider the toilet facilities at Interstate Highway rest stops; consider the Emergency Room at any hospital.  You want and expect such places to exist, and that they be clean, safe, and available indifferently to absolutely anybody needing to use them.  Then there’s the little restaurant where you always celebrate your anniversary.  You have been on friendly terms with the proprietors for years.  Your children and theirs were on the same high school athletic teams.  Consider the parish church, civic club, political party, or do-gooder organization to which, on account of your belief in its ethical mission, you give generously of your money, your time, your leadership talent, possibly as an elected officer, director, or trustee.  These are all public venues.  All colleges in theory share the same mission: the preservation and transmission of knowledge.  But the very essence of a college, as its published propaganda will tell you ad nauseum, is community.  Human community is based in more or less intimate personal relationships, very often extended over considerable periods of time.  In admitting a freshman class, an institution is grossly remiss if it does not give serious thought to the nature of its community.  That is far from “perpetuating the old boys’ club”—one of the more tedious canards I have heard around here for years.  On the whole the Ivy League institutions were remarkably lithe in evolving from small theological seminaries at the nation’s founding to huge charities and engines for the redistribution of their wealth in the form of social capital.  The racialized “affirmative action” of recent decades is but one aspect of the extraordinary role they have played over the generations.  Maintaining some sense of communal continuity over decades of revolutionary change requires a balancing act.  It requires, too, abandoning pseudo-scientific pretensions about a process of admission along with the odd neo-Bolshevik notion that the virtues we believe to be inherent in the education we offer our current students become despicable in our alumni.   So if old Gotrocks Schnakenfuss of the class of ’24 thought so much of his education that he gave you twenty-four million dollars for scholarship grants for penurious undergraduates, that should not be a strike against his accomplished but far from penurious great-granddaughter now a supplicant at your gates.