In today's Pope Center piece, Notre Dame philosophy professor James Sterba gives his counter-arguments to the case I made against enshrining "socio-economic diversity" as another goal for elite colleges to attain through admissions preferences. We both participated in a forum back in September at Pomona College where that was the topic. I presented my case against that in a piece we published in October. Professor Sterba responds and I respond to him. I remain convinced that "affirmative action" -- whether to achieve "better racial balance" or to get more students from poorer families into top schools, has minimal and mostly imaginary benefits that come at substantial cost.
The day simply has to be coming when the issue of race in college admissions or faculty hiring generates no new litigation "diversity" policies, because everyone is finally one the same page: we all agree that this is what the law says, and this is what we'll do in shaping our institutional policies. It hasn't come yet.
In this week's Pope Center Clarion Call, I review Robert Sternberg's recent book College Admissions for the 21st Century. Sternberg's contention is that colleges can admit a better student body -- more students with leadership potential, creativity, and wisdom -- if they would plumb students for their hidden talents. I doubt that it's really possible to engage in anything more than guesswork in that regard from reading essays by college applicants. Even if it's possible to accurately identify those with stellar hidden talents, all that accomplishes is a slight redistribution of where kids go to college. It's not worth the considerable cost. Sternberg argues that revising college admissions as he suggests will help bring about greater "equity" and "social justice" in the world. Color me skeptical about that, too.
Medical school admissions people apparently think that medical training has been going too much toward students with demonstrated aptitude in science and the nation would be better served if more medical students were chosen on other grounds, including geography. In today's Pope Center piece, Duke Cheston, a recent UNC graduate who majored in biology, writes about the shifting emphasis in med school admissions.
Princeton's Russ Nieli has an illuminating essay on Minding the Campus entitled "How Diversity Punishes Asians, Poor Whites and Lots of Others." It absolutely knocks the stuffing out of the contention we hear so often from college administrators that their reason for using certain preferences is that a more "diverse" student body will enhance learning and break down stereotypes. If they actually wanted to do that, they would look for students who really do bring different beliefs and perspectives and would drop the bias Nieli shows against students from military families, those who have been active in groups like 4H, and so on. They aren't looking for Justice Powell's phantom "educational benefits of diversity" but are merely looking to fill quotas. Nieli advocates that elite colleges get over their diversity mania and follow what he calls the Cal Tech model: focus on enrolling students who are the most academically talented and the most eager to learn.
In this week's Pope Center Clarion Call, Roger Clegg addresses the question of discrimination against Asian students. Of course, selective colleges don't say, "We're against those geeky, overly studious Asian kids. Let 'em go somewhere else!" Rather, they just don't want to have "too many" of them, so as to have enough room for all the "under-represented" groups, whose students are presumed to add so much interest to the student body. The result is the same, though: some students are rejected on account of their ancestry.
That question seems to be on the minds of many higher education watchers these days, and there's an interesting round-table discussion of it over at today's Chronicle of Higher Education. Ashley Thorne also took the measure of it last week when she cited a slew of articles whose authors think too many current college students don't belong there. That's undoubtedly true, but why is it true? From where I'm looking in, not only should many students not matriculate in colleges, they should never have been given their high school dilplomas either. Unfortunately, self-esteem based pedagogy, legions of special education support staff, litigation-minded parents and the presence of a community college in the vicinity, with its open admissions policies, all load the odds heavily in favor of turning out lots of dismally unprepared students. As the numbers of such students increase and the colleges they attend view them as customers to be kept satisfied, the pressure to dilute educational standards continues to work its way upward. As a result, we have one huge mess, from K-12 through the entire collegiate experience. How about this: instead of asking who should attend college, why not consider what educators at that level should demand of all students, irrespective of any other considerations?
This seems to be a week for uncovering students who have gotten into college under false pretenses of one kind or another. I'm referring specifically to two instances, one at Harvard, and the other at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. The Harvard student is an allegedly consummate con artist, while the Georgia case involves an illegal immigrant. Dishonesty in both cases, but it's fascinating to compare the institutional responses and the ensuing online reader reaction as well. Have a look, and then see what you think.
I was recently asked to respond to that question for The Chronicle Review, prompted by a recent study finding that many college students who drop out say that the reason they did so was too much pressure to work to earn money. Roger Clegg and I were the Grinches in the piece. There was a tight word limit on comments and there are some points I think worth adding. First, how do we really know why a student drops out? It is easy and I would think tempting for a student who just couldn't or wouldn't handle the academic work to save face by stating that financial pressure was the reason for leaving school. Second, instituting class-based affirmative action wouldn't do anything for poor people (or more accurately, poor people who have children who can get into college) as a group. The tendency of leftists to look at the world in terms of groups (and also to judge policies by their intentions) gets in the way of understanding the true impact of affirmative action. Suppose that all the selective schools decided that they wanted a quota of, say, 10 percent SES (socio-economic status) admits. That would be a small percentage of the total number of students from lower income households who go to college, and those given this preference would undoubtedly be the best of those students -- kids who probably could handle the workload at the non-selective colleges where they'd otherwise enroll. At the same time as a few students are admitted on SES grounds, equal numbers of non-poor students will have to enroll at a less selective institution. Going to a more selective school might be of a slight benefit to those few who are chosen to fill SES quotas (or it might actually prove harmful on "mismatch" and cost grounds), but it doesn't make the mass of poorer people one bit better off.
The NAS has long and wisely opposed the use of racial, ethnic, or other criteria unrelated to merit in (among other aspects of campus life) student recruitment and admissions. Those who support this view will find troubling the following requirement embedded in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's 1,990-page health-care bill, which as I write she is trying to bring to a vote, and which fomer Lt. Governor of New York Betsy McCaughey, writing in The Wall Street Journal, has unearthed:
Secs. 2521 and 2533 (pp. 1379 and 1437) establishes racial and ethnic preferences in awarding grants for training nurses and creating secondary-school health science programs. For example, grants for nursing schools should "give preference to programs that provide for improving the diversity of new nurse graduates to reflect changes in the demographics of the patient population." And secondary-school grants should go to schools "graduating students from disadvantaged backgrounds including racial and ethnic minorities."
The academic community en masse should, but of course won't, reject such heavy-handed and unfair federal manipulation of student admissions in the name of diversity. This bill - among its other ill effects - will only add to division and lowered academic standards throughout our educational institutions.
Today's Inside Higher Ed has a piece on a new book lauding "affirmative action" (that is to say, selective racial preferences). My good friend Roger Clegg of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a strong opponent of preferences posted a comment and all hell has since broken loose. My thoughts: I haven't yet read the new book, but what I wish the people who keep demanding racial preferences at elite schools would explain is what is so darned important about going to one of those "elite" schools. The courses aren't taught any better just because the faculty is loaded with "academic stars." If anything, it goes the other way. Students at schools where the professors actually handle most of the teaching are likely to get more out of a course than at schools where the profs are mainly preoccupied with their publications. I don't think the mania for admissions preferences is really about the students. Rather, it's about the academic administrators. It makes them feel good about themselves to believe that their little social engineering efforts matter a lot. When mean people like Roger Clegg say that they should drop racial preferences, that's like telling them to stop playing make believe and grow up.
In the twentieth century, psychologists who studied human resource management realized that employment tests were the best way to select job applicants. Tests need to be verified or "validated," though. Much of the personnel psychology literature is devoted to the study of whether one test or another is valid for various purposes. One finding is that IQ tests work. They explain a fourth of the variance in job performance. Despite the efficacy of employment testing it seems likely that the chief method of allocating human resources in the United States is the college or university attended. Graduates of prestigious institutions obtain jobs in high-end Wall Street, advertising and consulting firms. Other college graduates get good jobs in corporations and government. Non-graduates often do not. Baccalaureate institution attended is accepted by all as a human resource allocation method. But it lacks validation. Having recently been exposed to medieval history I learned a concept prevalent in the medieval world that seems to explain the fixation on college rankings--"the great chain of being". In medieval times, it was believed that the social hierarchy reflected the celestial hierarchy. The king was like God, the nobles like angels, etc. The interest in ranking colleges and universities and using them to allocate human resources is atavistic. The twentieth century rejected the nineteenth century's individualism in favor of medieval institutions. The idea that higher education is first and foremost a liberal and learning experience seems to have been sacrificed in the interest of the great chain of being.