It’s no secret: our elite college admissions system is deeply flawed. It is rich and well absorbed by the connected. It is absolutely opaque, arbitrary and unpredictable. And worst of all, it causes increasing damage and distorts applicants’ lives, aspirations and mental health.
For example, read a recent article The Wall Street Journal Which describes a Texas high school senior with an impressive record of accomplishments whom he applied to be rejected from virtually every top college.
Letters of rejection have come from Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Brown, Cornell, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Southern California, the University of California, Berkeley, and Northwestern. He was even rejected by the flagship college of business in his home state.
His potential destination? Arizona State.
The responses to the article have taken a variety of forms, some with more comments than Shadenfreud and others with highly politicized and stigmatized racism.
Some comments provide comfort, observing: “Disasters and rejections are part of life” and “an 18-year-old should not think that not going to the school of his choice does not mean he will have a prosperous, fulfilling life,” a general read comment: ” The Ivy League is not the only way to succeed in the long run. “
Even then other readers were realistic, observing that the student wanted to be the head of the business, a field that most selected schools do not offer as a graduate concentration. In the words of one author: “Simply put: no top liberal art university, especially an Ivy, wants to announce a first-year student as an accounting major.” The same commentator noted that the student’s “second mistake was honesty. Honesty about his frustration, ”which presented a red flag to admissions officials.
Other comments were strategic, and thought the student should look at an alternative path to his or her goals, focusing on programs where women are under-represented, such as math, computer science, or engineering.
Here are some more colorful (or disgusting) comments:
- “It simply came to our notice then. Her parents didn’t go to this “elite” school and they apparently did, so why make such a decision? “
- “The university must pay a price for admissions policy that promotes diversity, equality and inclusion at the cost of fairness and equality for all. It is less unfortunate for Miss Saheb to be among those who are being forced to pay the price. ”
- “He should consider himself lucky that he was rejected. His mind will not be tainted by the schools of the Ivy League that have become all awakening.”
- “So dumb. Did you notice that he was number 23 in his school?”
A tweet, reposted by conservative columnist Ross Douthat, took a particularly tough political line: “Admission to elite colleges is becoming a mirror of coalition politics: a status reserved for elite whites who know how to play the system, a positive step for non-Asians, a minority.” Regular intellectual competition for white people and Asians. “
Another tweet linked college admissions to young people’s mental health problems: “They will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for the rest of their lives because for the first time in their youth they have been rejected and heard the word. “No.” Adversity and rejection are part of life. But nowadays those lessons are not being taught. ”
Should we take away from this student’s experience?
1. “‘Extraordinary’ is not always enough nowadays.”
The 20 most selected institutions have only 30,000 admissions slots, so if you’re a student at the bottom of the top 1 percent of applicants, you still have 35,000 students ahead of you.
2. The desire to join the most elite organization is wonderful – and unforgivable.
Whether the inspiration for such elite colleges and universities comes from parents or self-imposed, it certainly distorts the aspirations and lives of many young people. It contributes to extremely high levels of stress, anxiety and depression and when these students’ hopes are dashed, it certainly hits a heavy blow on their self-image.
It is noteworthy that the article quotes a private college counselor who charges an astonishing 1,200 per hour. I think I went into the wrong case if I wanted to make serious money.
3. For the younger but significant part, where they are accepted in college is the focal point of their identity and defines who they are as a person.
The message conveyed by the media and popular culture – the path to career and personal fulfillment that lies through these super-selective institutions – has a devastating effect. Don’t we want young people to acknowledge that their future success does not depend on the university they attend? Where do you go to college that is more involved with life? Don’t we want to follow a path aligned with their strengths regardless of their college destination?
The aspiration, the aspiration, to be among the aristocracy of the society, it seems, was not more extensive than this. It is not limited to the upper middle class; It is much more comprehensive.
So what should we do as a society?
My answer here: We need to resist the mentality that views higher education as a zero-sum competition and take steps to expand opportunities.
1. Expand pre-college opportunities.
Early college and advanced placement programs are great, but not enough. Follow the Teagle Foundation’s example and increase the number of pre-college programs that open up opportunities for diverse, highly talented and driven high school students to work on meaningful projects in college faculty, college-level work, and laboratories or archives.
2. Redirect assets across the organization.
The California Master Plan for Higher Education had good aspects – a goal – extended access to post-secondary education – but more problematic aspects – clearly defined levels. Even in California, the UC level has not been consistent with the state’s population growth, and other states, including my own, have not done nearly enough to equalize resources at its research universities.
3. Increase research and mentoring opportunities for our most dedicated graduates.
When I was a graduate, my alma mater funded my senior thesis research, allowed me to spend weeks at the Fisk University archives, and gave me the opportunity to interview people like Georgia O’Keefe, Arna Bontemps, and Aaron Douglas. . I can say without hesitation that those opportunities changed my life.
We need to do more to provide the same kind of life-changing, life-enhancing opportunities for undergraduates at whatever institution they attend: consulting research, study abroad, supervised internships, and field- and community-based projects.
4. Open the door to our most elite institution for many more undergraduate and graduate students.
It would be nice if these institutions admitted more students, but I am not holding my breath. By limiting the number of students living on campus housing, and significantly increasing the size of study abroad, elite institutions can easily find places for more students. But there are other ways to serve more students:
- Significantly expand summer programs, such as the Mellon-Funded Leadership Alliance / Summer Research Early Identification Program, to come to campus to attend undergraduate seminars, work in labs and archives, and accept research projects under the direction of a faculty member.
- Partners with nearby undergraduate programs to encourage interaction between undergraduate students and to allow co-enrollment in undergraduate seminars.
- Host workshops where advanced graduate students and new PhD holders from a wide range of institutions will have the opportunity to present their work and get feedback from senior scholars in their field.
We all know the clich:: where you start doesn’t determine where you land. We also know that this is not true. We have a high-level higher education system that privileges students who join the most selective and affluent institutions.
But one result of the formidable academic job market is that extraordinarily talented faculty are everywhere. At the same time, the digitization of libraries and archival resources means that it is now possible, in a way that was not true when I was a graduate, to conduct serious research in virtually every institution. Even then, the most prestigious undergraduate fellowships and scholarships, in increasing numbers, are awarded to students from a wide range of institutions.
We have taken steps towards equalizing opportunities. There is much more work ahead. Let us dedicate ourselves to that mission and consider higher education not so much as an integrated system but as a series of isolated institutions, each in its own tub.
Steven Mintz is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.