A professor friend’s Facebook post:
A game: name a worse investment than spending $6.5M to get your kid into college.
“College Admissions Scandal: Actresses, Business Leaders and Other Wealthy Parents Charged” (nytimes) has all of my academic friends excited.
(One interesting aspect is that the people involved are charged with “racketeering,” a crime that was defined to apply to mobsters. Presumably these folks are guilty of something, but it doesn’t seem like a Godfather-style situation. We will find out that the people are facing potentially epic-length prison sentences?)
The American undergraduate education system is already mostly a fraud, in the sense that families pay a lot, but students may not learn anything (see my review of Academically Adrift, in which Collegiate Learning Assessment scores, before and after attending college, are discussed; see also Higher Education?).
[Why a “fraud”? If Honda sold cars at $30,000 and half did not function for transportation people would say “Honda is a fraud.” But a liberal arts college may charge $300,000 for four years of tuition and produce quite a few graduates whose thinking and writing abilities are no better than they were when those folks entered as freshmen. So why not hold the college to the same standard that we would hold Honda?]
Could we use this as an opportunity to motivate folks to fix a fundamentally broken system?
Currently, since there is no agreed-upon measure of achievement in college, graduating with a label from a prestige university is critical. Nobody seems to care that, with the exception of a school such as Caltech, it is almost impossible not to graduate once admitted.
The result is huge pressure on the admissions process. When U.S. population was under 100 million, almost anyone with money could go to an Ivy League college. In my youth, when U.S. population was just over 200 million and international students were rare, any American who was reasonably intelligent and worked hard in high school could attend a top school. Now that we’re heading toward 400 million (Atlantic), parents will be ever more tempted to take extreme measures to assure their children’s futures.
Complicating matters is that virtuous Americans agree that the system actually should be rigged. See “Turns Out There’s a Proper Way to Buy Your Kid a College Slot,” from the righteous editorial board of the NY Times:
And colleges have a legitimate interest in emphasizing various forms of diversity. But it seems safe to stipulate that being born to wealthy parents is not by itself meritorious.
In other words, it is legitimate to base admission on criteria other than academic achievement (“various forms of diversity”). But then the authors say that it is illegitimate to favor children from wealthy families. Every reasonable person can agree that the scales should be tilted and, even better, every reasonable person will recognize a set of universal moral principles that can guide the tilting.
Could we take some of the pressure off young Americans who will be entering a crowded-like-Asia adult world? Why not a set of national examinations that people can take in various areas to demonstrate accomplishment? Then the Harvard graduate who can’t do anything won’t be ranked by employers above the Holy Cross (Worcester, MA) graduate who is able to demonstrate achievement. We would truly have multiple paths to success and we would have a meritocratic system in which anyone who works hard can succeed.
One could argue that we already have some of this in place. There is the Graduate Record Exam that some graduate schools use for admissions. It is SAT-like, though, and doesn’t seem to measure real-world capability (it is more of a test of IQ (correlation 0.7-0.85) plus studying for the test). There are some “major field tests,” e.g., in Physics. But these suffer from some of the same issues as other standardized multiple-choice tests.
What about investing in a week-long supervised test in which students have to solve problems, do research, write up results, etc.? It would be a little challenging to accomplish given that you’d have to figure out a way to deny test-takers the use of 10 Ph.D. helpers connected via smartphone.
Since the government runs a substantial portion of the economy, perhaps people could be motivated to take this test by using it as a factor in government hiring, e.g., for schoolteachers (maybe we can catch up to Finland if we start hiring academically strong teachers the way that they do!) or Federal workers.
Readers: What do you think? If there were a recognized test of achievement and capability for 22-year-olds, would that take some of the pressure off?