College Admissions: The Making of Mediocrity


The recent expose’ of pay for play in getting young people into college, is, unfortunately, the tip of the tip of the iceberg of how hopeful applicants actually get assessed by colleges and universities. Higher education is the only business (and have no illusions about it not being a business), I’m aware of, that attaches a negative valence to achievement and normalcy. There has not been, since the 1960’s, an assessment and selection process that even vaguely approximates an objective evaluation of the performance and skills needed to succeed in the college experience. Not only, as we’ve learned lately, does money pave the way to a letter of acceptance; political pressure, personal influence, family history, and athletic prowess all tilt the scales toward acceptance. (It is widely accepted that Division I teams in basketball and football, are nothing less than farm teams for the NBA and NFL. It has always puzzled me, having attended and later taught at Big Ten schools, that it’s taken so long for our society to seriously consider paying these athletes and forever dashing the myth that potentially professional performers are there to get an education.

The quota system reached its zenith with the introduction of affirmative action legislation. This solidified a previously fuzzy method and assigned points to an array of test results, social economic status, ethnicity, geography, race, religion and gender. Many colleges will vigorously deny that they do this, but don’t believe it. It’s too embarrassing and infuriating to defend. Not a week goes by that I don’t hear another admission’s horror story of a perfectly qualified young person turned down for failing to fit into the quota system. A friend’s daughter was recently refused admission, with a stellar academic record, coupled with involvement in a number of extra-curricular activities, because she came from the wrong ethnic group (i.e. Asian), the wrong socio-economic status (i.e. upper middle class), and the wrong family system (i.e. two parents in a long-term marriage). Off the record, of course, the ideal candidate for many colleges, would be a minority woman, abandoned by her family, and living on the streets of a major city.

I was a college teacher at a major university, at the height of the impact of affirmative action. We admitted a number of students with no record of academic achievements and impaired literacy in the English language. In addition, we hired minority faculty who were only slightly more skilled in the basics of the liberal arts. Every student in this cohort, that I taught, flunked out before their sophomore year, and the faculty were ostracized and the object of ridicule. This was a cruel hoax and damaged the self-esteem and confidence of large numbers of minority students. They were used, in a cynical and callous manner, to achieve a political agenda. Not unlike what is currently being done in the name of “social justice.” Right now, many of the top rated colleges in America, have to have remedial English courses for many members of their freshman class.

So, what would happen if colleges actually admitted students who showed a record of academic achievement and performed at an intellectual level that indicated skills required for success. Well, to start with, the entering freshman classes at highly rated universities would be populated up to two-thirds of the class, by middle to upper middle class Asians and Jews; with a smattering of high-performing gentiles. Talk about the feces hitting the fan. Every social warrior would go nuts. What this would force into the public dialogue is a very troubling and painful question, that higher education has, heretofore, been able to avoid – Why do certain groups perpetually fail to compete, academically (and otherwise), and what can be done about it? Accommodation certainly hasn’t worked. All it’s done, in higher education, is to lower standards, create widespread mediocrity, and insult the dignity and integrity of the recipients.

Perhaps there is a better answer. Some courageous African-American teachers and administrators, in Charter and private schools, have had significant results in dramatically improving performance and achievement, by instituting programs with high degrees of structure, high expectations for interpersonal interactions (peer to peer; student to teachers, etc.) and low tolerance (including expulsion) for insubordinate and acting-out behavior. This respect for students and their families has had a high payoff. It is instructive, that the education establishment has gone out of its way to denigrate and undermine these schools. It may be time for the leaders in higher education, to come out of hiding and have the courage to return integrity and self-respect to the academy.

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