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Thoughts On College Fools' Day
April Fools' Day is the traditional deadline for American colleges to mail out to applicants their letters of acceptance (thick) or rejection (thin).
The admissions process has been more frenzied than ever this year. Harvard has rejected an unprecedented 91 percent of its record 23,000 applicants. Remarkably, more than 3,000 Harvard wannabes were ranked first in their high school class. The university probably turned down over half of these valedictorians.
Many other elite colleges also saw new highs in applications received. This is due both to the growing convenience of applying to multiple colleges using the Common Application website, and to the ever-growing national (and even global) competition among students to attend a prestigious American college.
College administrations spend vast amounts of money recruiting top high school students. The administrators know that the surest way to acquire smarter, harder-working alumni, who can afford to donate more money to the old alma mater, is to bring in smarter, harder-working freshmen in the first place.
Doing a better job of recruiting is much more likely to have a sizable payoff than trying to do a better job of, well, educating the kind of students you already get.
Funny thing about America's college admission mania: we all know we may be buying a pig in a poke at vast expense. It's daunting to try to find hard data to distinguish between those colleges that do a good job teaching undergraduates and those that don't. Universities are ranked on the fame of their graduate schools, the success of their football and basketball teams, and, tellingly, the test scores and GPAs that their undergrads earned back in high school—not on how much value they add to their undergrads once they're admitted.
And elite rhetoric about public issues almost never reflects these hard-earned lessons of private life. America's most prestigious colleges scrounge for the best students and our most influential citizens connive to get their children in to schools with the best students. But the notion that America's immigration policy, for instance, should roughly resemble college admissions programs in attempting to exclude the untalented is denounced as pure racism by the very same people who spend hundreds of thousands to send their kids to expensive prep schools and the Ivy League.
Similarly, we are constantly assured by our social betters that "all we have to do" to alleviate the social decay caused by illegal immigration is to "fix the schools." (As if anybody actually knew how to do that with schools overwhelmed by unskilled immigrant students.) But pointing out that the people who tell us this are simultaneously making prodigious efforts to get their own children into schools and colleges reserved for the most skilled is considered in the worst of taste. It's just not done.
One curious aspect of the college craziness: the seeming self-contempt with which white students at many elite colleges derisively refer to the predominantly white makeup of their schools' student bodies.
Take the Princeton Review's Best 361 Colleges guidebook, which summarizes students' opinions of their schools. An undergrad at well known little Colorado College in Colorado Springs, a school that is only two percent black, declares: "The typical Colorado College student is white and from an upper-middle-class home in a metropolitan suburb, but wishes this weren't true …"
It's common for students quoted in Best 361 Colleges to lament the lack of ethnic diversity on their campuses, and to call for their administrations to do more to bring in minorities.
Is this the much discussed (but surprisingly little observed) phenomenon of White Guilt? Or is something else going on?
As we've seen, the college application game is all about status competition. The primary point of getting into Harvard is to prove you could get into Harvard. So, it's implausible that most white students at elite colleges believe that their schools would be improved if their personal spots were given to minorities. I've never heard of a single white student at a prestigious college who has withdrawn to open up a space for a black or Latino.
In his witty book Diversity: The Invention of a Concept, anthropologist Peter Wood points out that college admissions offices slather pictures of minority students in disproportionate numbers all over their recruiting brochures (with the U. of Wisconsin notoriously Photoshopping in a black student's face into an all-white crowd at a football game) for two reasons.
- For minority high school students, "diversity" is a code word in recruiting materials reassuring them that they will enjoy some ethnic homogeneity on campus, that there will be others just like themselves to hang out with.
- For white teens, however, "diversity" promises the prestige of the exotic, an escape from the vast white middle class suburbs where they grew up to a more exciting and elite world.
Flipping through college guidebooks, you notice an odd pattern: colleges with relatively large percentages of black and Hispanic students are found either at the bottom of the barrel (e.g., at Cal State Dominguez Hills, which is 68 percent black or Latino, only 14 percent of students score over 500 on the SAT Verbal test); or at the pinnacle of prestige among famous schools with gigantic endowments.
For instance, you might assume that Stanford (59 percent of whose freshmen score over 700 on the Verbal SAT) would have only modest appeal to African-Americans because it is located in the heart of Silicon Valley, where the local black community is miniscule. Well, don't underestimate what a $12 billion endowment can buy. Stanford typically ranks at the very top of glamour colleges in percent of blacks (10 percent) and Hispanics (11 percent). Princeton, which has a similarly sized endowment, is 9 percent black and 7 percent Hispanic.
In other words, non-Asian minority students (especially blacks) are a status symbol that only the ultra-rich colleges can afford in percentages approaching their share of the population. The merely rich have to scrape by fewer minorities.
Luring the small numbers of blacks and Hispanics who are at least quasi-qualified into applying and enrolling at your elite college is an extremely expensive zero sum game.
Wesleyan U. will fly minority high school seniors for free across the continent to visit its Connecticut campus. And yet, a Wesleyan official admitted:
"Now all of our competitors are aggressively recruiting black students, but the pool hasn't grown. Our peers are picking students right out of our pocket."
Top colleges have no way to expand the number of qualified blacks and Hispanics. So they launch recruiting arms races against each other. The Wesleyan alumni magazine revealed:
"Competition to attract the most qualified African American students, regardless of their origin, is every bit as intense as the effort to recruit top athletes. Data from the College Board shows that 1,877 African American students nationwide scored higher than 1300 out of 1600 on the SAT in 2003. Figures on the percentage of African American students accepted at the nation's 25 highest-ranking liberal arts colleges underscore how eagerly these top students are sought. … Middlebury College leads the pack with a 68 percent acceptance rate of African Americans [versus only 24% for all applicants to Middlebury, the #5 ranked liberal arts college] … In a highly competitive environment, Thornton points out, it is essential that Wesleyan take chances on students whose academic records may fall short, but who show promise in other ways."
That is, they "show promise" of, oh, say, being a minority.
Similarly, as the Los Angeles Times reported in April 2003, Berkeley flies 500 non-Asian minority high school students with lower test scores from Los Angeles to the Bay Area to visit Berkeley. [Berkeley Makes Its Pitch to Top Minority Students, By Carol Pogash, April 20, 2003]
I hadn't realized, though, just what a hamster wheel waste of the California taxpayers' money these programs are until I learned that the main purpose of the Fly to Berkeley program is to keep the kids from enrolling at Berkeley's twin sister public college—UCLA!
Affirmative action in colleges exists less for the benefit of the descendents of slaves than for the self-image of the universities. This is demonstrated by the remarkably high proportion of black students at the richest college of all, Harvard, whose ancestors were never in bondage in America. A June 24, 2004 New York Times story, "Top Colleges Take More Blacks, but Which Ones?" by Sara Rimer and Karen W. Arenson reported:
"While about 8 percent, or about 530, of Harvard's undergraduates were black, Lani Guinier, a Harvard law professor, and Henry Louis Gates Jr., the chairman of Harvard's African and African-American studies department, pointed out that the majority of them—perhaps as many as two-thirds—were West Indian and African immigrants or their children, or to a lesser extent, children of biracial couples. They said that only about a third of the students were from families in which all four grandparents were born in this country, descendants of slaves."
Even more bizarre is the general acquiescence in affirmative action quotas for Hispanics. Overwhelmingly, American Hispanics' ancestors were never in the U.S. to be oppressed. But, for reasons that are inexplicable to me, opponents of affirmative action elect to fight their battles over quotas for African-Americans, rather than attack the indefensible weak spot of the affirmative action regime: preferences for immigrants.
Still—why not? Nothing else about American higher education makes much sense either.