Phi Beta Cons

“College Admissions as Conspiracy Theory”

That’s the title of a review/essay (subscriber site) in The Chronicle Review. The author, Gary Lavergne (Admissions Director at the University of Texas) takes a look at four recent books on college admissions. While I think he is too complimentary of the books (including Peter Schmidt’s Color and Money, which I have reviewed negatively here) he does raise some good points. I’ll mention two.
First, he says “We must move away from the debate about ‘who gets in’ to one about how to provide elite quality to many more.” What, precisely, is this “elite quality” idea? The notion that a student gets a much better education at Harvard, than at your typical college or university seems to animate the fierce battles over “affirmative action,” but is it true? Are the courses taught a lot better at elite schools than middling ones? I see no reason to think so. In fact, I have heard from students at one prestigious university who say that some of their courses are very poorly taught.
In some areas, the level of instruction at elite schools is outstanding and very rigorous, but you can also find some of that at other institutions. More importantly, though, most young Americans are not ready for or desirous of such high-intensity courses. Top quality no more suits everyone in education than it does in, say, golf.
Second, Lavergne takes a much overdue swipe at the widespread notion that most students at top schools are there due to “privilege.” That term is invariably used with a sneer, but Lavergne says we ought to drop it: “The parents considered ‘privileged’ in these books aren’t spending their time forming alliances to oppress others.” Agreed, emphatically.
We don’t live in an aristocracy where the status of your parents determines how well you’ll live. Some people who graduate from a non-prestigious college do spectacularly well in life and some who graduate from a prestige college flounder. Just because dad has millions and can get his intellectually mediocre kids into top colleges doesn’t ensure them anything but a fancy piece of paper to hang on the wall. The characteristic that students who are admitted on merit to the elite schools have in common is that they are exceptionally bright and hard-working. The sneering adjective “privileged” is entirely out of place.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.


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