Phi Beta Cons

Elite Admissions

A former professor of mine comments on Harvard’s early admissions decision at TNR’s Open University. To quote the post at length:

More broadly, there is something vaguely comical about Bok’s worry that “the existing process has been shown to advantage those who are already advantaged.” Well, yes. The existing process does that. So, to a very large extent, does the entire institution called Harvard College. In modern societies, elite universities tend to function as mechanisms for reproducing existing social elites, and no matter how much their well-meaning directors try to do to level the playing field, social elites will usually find a way to tip things back in their favor again. If Bok doubts this, which I’m sure he doesn’t, let him try to eliminate admissions preferences for Harvard alumni! The best example of the process at work is higher education in France, where the government imposes a form of admissions to elite institutions which, in theory, is far more meritocratic than the American variety. Nonetheless, the student body remains more socially exclusive than ours. Yet the French case also offers one lesson for us. If social elites are always going to game the system, if the advantaged are always going to have advantages in college admissions, shouldn’t we at least make the admissions process about something useful? In France, high-achieving teenagers do not spend their time rushing from one essay-enhancing activity to another, and, for that matter, they do not waste their time studying for a test as ridiculous as the SAT. They spend their time studying advanced math, foreign languages, history and great literature, because that is what they will be tested on to get into the top institutions. If we moved in this direction, we might not make college admissions any fairer, but at least we would end up with better-educated freshmen.

Fine advice, from a French historian of the best sort, who, writing on the modern academy’s neglect of Napoleon, noted:

Perhaps one can expect little else from a discipline that for many years has preferred the longue durée to the play of events, and large scale impersonal forces to exceptional individuals, and history “from the bottom up” to history from the Napoleonic heights, and “microhistory” to epic narrative, and society and culture to diplomacy and war. Nor can Napoleon be said to have benefited from the profession’s burgeoning interest in gender, race, class, and sexual orientation. He is the ultimate Dead White Rich Straight Male.

Returning from such happy reveries, Bell makes an excellent point. The time and attentions of so many students in the later years of high school are drawn unreasonably into a hellish vortex of admissions preening that has reached absurd lengths. Beyond the past personal pain of the experience, it’s trying enough to slog through the articles on the topic regularly gumming pages of The Atlantic that might otherwise be interesting. The Atlantic does seem to be the favorite magazine of every student applying to selective colleges, because it tends to write about them to no end (and here and here and here; I could go on).
As I looked to The Atlantic website to find one of the myriad articles on that topic, I immediately found, atop their “In the News” bar, a James Fallows pieces in the magazine from 2001 arguing against early admissions!  The Atlantic is given to a bit too much gazing at the nubile applications-ready high school population (at its age?!) but it typically offers sage commentary on applications, particularly in that piece. Hopefully Harvard’s action might prove an initial step to reducing the worthless months and years that students spend in obsessive application-construction, instead of more useful activities.


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