Admissions Madness: Are We Committed to Educating Everyone?

November 5, 2010

I have been absent from this blog for a few weeks:  weeks full of a Board of Trustees meeting, Homecoming, and then a great deal of follow-up work from the Board meeting.  Of course each meeting of the Board involves a great deal of preparation, and then a great deal of subsequent work: the three Board meetings (October, February, June) set a strong base rhythm in my worklife, one that works complexly against the more syncopated academic year rhythm of two semesters and a summer.

Today’s New York Times has an opinion piece by Eric Hoover (a senior writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education) entitled “College Applications: When Is Enough Enough?”  It chronicles and thoughtfully comments on the dramatic rise of applications to colleges and universities in recent years.  It highlights the marketing practices of the institutions to keep driving the number of applications higher and higher — and therefore to keep driving lower and lower the percentage of applicants accepted.

I suppose it’s worth reading, but I also want to offer reasons for averting your gaze.  It’s all true, but you know what?  This phenomenon embraces just a few dozen of the 1400+ colleges and universities in the United States.  It has nothing (or very little) to do with most institutions of higher education.  It would be very wrong (this is one reason to avert your gaze) to think this is somehow representative of or revealing of what’s happening in higher education.

Take Earlham: we’re a successful, reasonably well-known, effective, distinctive institution of higher education; but we admit about 70% of the students who apply to us, and about 30% of the students we admit accept our offer of admission.  We’d like to have more applicants because it would allow us to better shape and balance our entering class, and thus our educational community.  Thus, we engage in marketing, but our reality is light years away from what Hoover is describing.

But wait you might (and should) be thinking.  The students Hoover is discussing are “the best and the brightest,” the ones with the highest SAT scores, high school grades, and youthful accomplishments.  Shouldn’t we especially pay attention to what is happening to them?  Yes, and no.

The more we pay attention to the mad, over-the-top marketing and admissions selectivity of the few dozen most prestigious institutions of higher education, the more we further feed and fuel this frenzy.  I’m troubled that Hoover doesn’t even make a mention aside that he is talking about something that happens at only the most prestigious places.  He does note that this hyper-selectivity creates anxiety among the high school students (“the best and the brightest”) who apply to these few dozen colleges.  But we’d help unwind this frenzy by NOT talking about it.  Thaty’s another reason to avert our gaze.

Critical point:  there is no evidence, zero, zip, zilch, that these few dozen highly prestigious (highly desired) institutions provide a better environment for learning than several hundred other colleges and universities.  There is no reason, none, to think that prestigious means “better” in any meaningful sense of the word.  If we really care about education, we’ll keep our focus on those institutions (all of them) that can demonstrate excellence as environments for learning, and not over-focus on a few dozen that have achieved special, undeserved cachet.  (Did I say achieved?  I don’t really mean that.)

So here is my final reason for urging that you avert your gaze:  if we care about education, we care about providing a quality education for everyone, not just for the best and the brightest.  The more we wind up the frenzy around admission to the few prestigious institutions, the more we take our focus away from helping every young man and woman find a college or university that will provide an effective setting for his or her learning.

Let’s focus on that.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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