The College Admissions Mess

The four unspoken rules:

Bottom line: our admissions process is badly flawed. I blame it partly on the decline in the predominance in academic values coinciding with the bureaucratization of the university. Administrators are crowding out faculty not only numerically but in terms of power. I blame it partly on our academic obsession with evaluating people on the basis of group characteristics, not individual merit. What would Alexis de Tocqueville say visiting 21st century America, learning that students bribe their way into a ticket for economic success by lying about their ability to hit tennis balls? Is that the new American exceptionalism?


[Update a few minutes later]

Yes. The college-admissions scandal should make everyone furious.

Academia has been infuriating me for years. It’s a generational disaster, not just for the kids, but the Republic itself.

2 thoughts on “The College Admissions Mess”

  1. So if you’re deemed to have a “learning disability” you can be granted extra time to take the SAT, or even take it from a private location with a private “proctor” on hand. And this information is not provided to the schools.

    Good f’ing lord.

    Related. Cornell, Harvard Drop GRE for English Ph.D.

    “Requiring the exam narrows our applicant pool at precisely the moment we should be creating bigger pipelines into higher education. We need the strength of a diverse community in order to pursue the English department’s larger mission: to direct the force of language toward large and small acts of learning, alliance, imagination and justice.”

    Wonder what their smaller mission is.

  2. Trying to stop the cheating won’t fix the problem, which was baked in when parental/donor pressures led to grade inflation. Using brutal attrition and grading on the curve was a way to continually deselect students. There was no point in a parent tying to cheat a kid into Harvard if the kid would almost immediately flunk out.

    That harsh grading system’s drawback was that it produced drop-outs, and that was a an inefficient way to get all of the bright kids the maximally beneficial education. And it still had the corruption problem because some rich or powerful kids simply weren’t going to be flunked out, even if it took hand-holding by the administration. And once it became obvious that rich kids weren’t really going to flunk out, the public realized that the Ivy league had become social clubs.

    That seemed unfair, so SAT’s. But those are harsh, and Jews did too well, so they added essays. But essays are hard, too, and Jews and Asians are great writers, so they emphasized BS high-school extra-curricular activities and offered a back door for ping-pong. Academics, educators, and administrators will no doubt make careers out of debating the merits of various fixes, and the wheels of the bus go round and round.

    So let’s look outside the box at other American educational institutions that are perhaps doing a better job of maximizing the educational attainment of a fix pool of students. Yes, the schools we run to teach students how to kill people and blow stuff up. Our military has run those forever, and they apparently work pretty well. Not only that, parents aren’t spending $400,000 to bribe marksmanship instructors, and kids aren’t turning their whole life into a lie so they can get into BUDS to become a SEAL – because the program is brutal an they’d ring the bell by day three. Importantly, when one fails a special ops school they don’t get kicked out of the military, as would happen in basic training and as our universities would do, they get returned to where they’d been, and can get subsequently routed to other specialties. Failing out of Yale should land a student a slot at another school.

    Tellingly, that’s quite different from college. Each service branch runs a wide range of schools, but each school is a part of a unified military service. In each service, there is a pool of recruits who first go through basic. If they aren’t weeded out there, then they’re in the military until the military decides they’re no longer needed or fit. Then the military shuffles those recruits through postings, slots, and schools. The military doesn’t run the schools to make money, or because drill sergeants want jobs and respect, but because the military wants what comes out of the other end of the pipeline, highly trained and specialized war fighters in the right numbers needed to meet the military’s mission. If a SEAL wants to study hot bi-chicks, he’ll have to hang out in a bar and watch like everyone else because unlike Brown or Yale, the Navy will never offer lesbian dance studies.

    But the contrast with our military goes a bit deeper. Our universities were not set up as a system, they were set up as independent private colleges that compete with other independent private colleges. Public ones came later, but they followed the established stand-alone model. Each college is its own world. It provides food and housing, and its graduating seniors generally started as its freshmen. Transferring to another college was inconvenient, and often made difficult because the new university got to make students jump through hoops and they wouldn’t allow many credits to transfer. The less credit a college gives to coursework from other colleges, the better its own programs must be!

    The stand-alone model is somewhat like a militia from the medieval period. Different warlords had different armies, and you picked one and joined up. The unit might be brutally tough and disciplined, or it might be a gaggle of incompetent boobs. Soldiers weren’t shuffled between different militias to fill slots as needed because those other militias were at best competitors, and at worst mortal enemies.

    Our universities are somewhat like those private militias, competitors who operate independently. They’re producing similar products (graduates, and in the same range of majors as competing schools), trying to sell to the same market of parents. The price they can charge is based on the social value of their particular diplomas (their brand). Virtually guaranteed graduation means the value of the acceptance letter is the same as the value of the diploma. However much you want to point to academic this or educational that, the product and the marketplace is what it is.

    It’s not like the military’s model of running a pipeline designed to maximize the utility of the output, tailored to the needed slots in the field, from the fixed number of recruits or draftees put into the pipeline. It’s not like the military’s model of starting everyone off with the same basic training, then figuring out what they’re suited to do once they’re in the system, and then shuffling them up or down based on how they do. Harvard apparently believes every word a narcissistic, spoiled, self-important social climber says, especially if someone waves money around, whereas a drill sergeant knows the snots are coddled brats and sniveling worms who don’t deserve to be in his beloved Corps.

    Maybe our university system should be a bit more like that, with hardly any selectivity at the freshman level and very nimble at shifting students between schools, slots,and programs, and shifting them both up and down in difficulty without any demerits attached to downgrades. Not everyone can make it through BUDS, Ranger School, or Harvard Law, and there shouldn’t be any demerit in dropping back in difficulty. If not hacking it at Harvard loses sting, then the students and parents wouldn’t have to pressure the school into handing out all A’s and not failing anybody out. Then acceptance wouldn’t mean graduation, and the degree could go back to indicating merit instead of class.

    The other fix is pushed by Nolan Bushnell of Atari, who says lets just do most of college via the Internet, perhaps even making it more like certifications per course work. But if we did that, I wouldn’t have so much fun suggesting changes where I get to call Harvard students sniveling worms.

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