What’s Really Wrong with Our Flawed System of Elite College Admissions

It’s no secret: Our system of elite college admissions is deeply flawed. It’s exploited by the affluent and well-connected. It’s utterly opaque, arbitrary, and unpredictable. And worst of all, it damages and distorts applicants’ lives and mental health aspirations.

For an example, read a recent article the Wall Street Journal that describes a Texas high school senior with an impressive record of accomplishments who was rejected from virtually every top college she applied to.

Her pile of rejections letters came from Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Brown, Cornell, University of Pennsylvania, University of Southern California, University of California, Berkeley, and Northwestern, among others. She was even rejected by her home state’s flagship college of business.

Her likely destination? Arizona State.

Responses to the article have taken a variety of forms, including some comments with more than a whiff of schadenfreude and others highly politicized and still others containing the taint of racism.

Some comments offered consolation, observing: “Setbacks and rejections are part of life” and “an 18 year old should not think that not getting in to the school of their choice means they will not have a prosperous, fulfilling life,” Read one typical comment: “The Ivy League is not remotely the only path to success.”

Still other readers were pragmatic, observing that the student wanted to major in business, a field that the most selective schools do not offer as an undergraduate concentration. In one writer’s words: “Simply stated: no top ranked liberal arts university, particularly an Ivy, wants a first year student to declare as an accounting major.” That same commentator noted that the student’s “second mistake was honesty. Honesty about her depression,” which presented a red flag to admissions officers.

Other comments were strategic, and thought the student should have considered an alternative route to her goals, by focusing on programs where women are underrepresented, such as math, computer science, or engineering.

Here are some more colorful (or despicable) comments:

  • “This is foolishness. Her parents didn’t go to these “elite” schools and they have apparently done OK, so why is there such a fixation on this?”
  • “There’s a price to be paid for university admission policies that promote diversity, equity and inclusion at the expense of fairness and equality for all. It’s Ms. Younger misfortune to be among those who are forced to pay the price.”
  • “She should consider herself lucky that she was rejected. Her mind will not be polluted by the ivy League schools which have all become cesspools of wokeness.”
  • “So dumb. Did you notice she was #23 IN HER school?”

One tweet, reposted by the conservative columnist Ross Douthat, takes a particularly hard political line: “Elite college admissions is becoming a mirror of Dem coalitional politics: protected status for elite whites who know how to game the system, affirmative action for non-Asian minorities, brutal meritocracic competition for regular white people and Asians.”

Another tweet links college admissions to young people’s mental health issues: “They will be suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for the rest of their lives because it is the first time in their young lives that they have been rejected and heard the word “no.” Setbacks and rejections are part of life. However, those lessons are not being taught these days.”

What should we take away from this student’s experience?

1. “’Extraordinary’ isn’t always enough these days.”
The 20 most selective institutions only have about 30,000 admission slots, so even if you are a student at the bottom end of the top 1 percent of applicants, there are 35,000 students ahead of you.

2. The desire to attend the most elite institutions is astounding – and inexcusable.
Whether the motivation to such elite colleges and universities attend from parents or is self-imposed, it certainly warps many young people’s aspirations and their lives. It contributes to extremely high levels stress, anxiety, and depression, and when these students’ hopes are dashed, certainly inflicts a heavy blow upon their self-image.

It’s noteworthy that the article cites a private college counselor who charges an astonishing $1,200 an hour. I guess I went into the wrong field if I wanted to make serious money.

3. For a small but significant share of young people, where they are accepted to college is central to their identity and defines who they are as a person.
The message sent by media and popular culture – that the path to career and personal fulfillment lies through these super-selective institutions – has very destructive effects. Shouldn’t we want the young to recognize that their future success doesn’t hinge on the university they attend? That life involves more than where you go to college? Shouldn’t we want them to pursue a path that aligns with their strengths irrespective of their college destination?

The desire, the craving, to be among society’s elite, has, it seems, never been more widespread. It isn’t confined to the upper middle class; it’s much more pervasive.

So what should we as a society do?

Here’s my answer: We need to resist the mentality that treats higher education as a zero-sum competition and take steps to expand opportunity.

1. Expand pre-college opportunities.
Early college and advanced placement programs are great, but not enough. Follow the example of the Teagle Foundation and increase the number of pre-college programs that expose diverse, highly talented and driven high school students to college faculty, college-level work, and the chance to work on meaningful projects whether in laboratories or archives.

2. Redirect resources across institutions.
The California master plan for higher education had its good side – a goal of expanded access to post-secondary education – but also a more problematic side – clearly defined tiers. Even in California, the UC tier hasn’t expanded commensurate with the growth of the state’s population, and many other states, including my own, haven’t done nearly enough to equalize resources across its research universities.

3. Enhance research and mentoring opportunities for our most determined undergraduates.
When I was an undergraduate, my alma mater funded the research on my senior thesis, allowing me to spend weeks in the archives of Fisk University, and giving me the chance to interview such figures as Georgia O’Keeffe, Arna Bontemps, and Aaron Douglas . I can say without hesitation that those opportunities transformed my life.

Whichever institution undergraduates attend, we need to do much more to give them similar life-changing, life-enhancing opportunities: to undertake mentored research, study abroad, supervised internships, and field- and community-based projects.

4. Open the gates of our most elite institutions to many more undergraduates and graduate students.
It would be great if these institutions admitted more students, but I’m not holding my breath. By limiting the number of years that their students live in campus housing, and by substantially increasing the size of study abroad programs, elite institutions could easily find space for more students. But there are other ways to serve more students:

  • Significantly expand summer programs like the Mellon-funded Leadership Alliance/Summer Research Early Identification Program that brings highly diverse undergraduates to campus to participate in graduate-level seminars, work in labs and archives, and undertake research projects under a faculty member’s direction.
  • Partner with nearby graduate programs to encourage interaction among the graduate students and permit co-enrollment in graduate seminars.
  • Host workshops where advanced graduate students and newly minted Ph.Ds from a wide range of institutions would have opportunities to present their work and receive feedback from senior scholars in their field.

We all know the cliché: That where you start doesn’t determine where you land. We also know that this isn’t true. We have a highly stratified higher education system that does privilege those students who attend the most selective and wealthiest institutions.

But one consequence of the awful academic job market is that extraordinarily talented faculty are everywhere. At the same time, the digitization of library and archival resources means that it’s now possible, in ways that weren’t true when I was an undergraduate, to conduct serious research at virtually every institution. Then, too, the most prestigious undergraduate fellowships and scholarships are, in increasing numbers, awarded to students from a much wider range of institutions.

We’ve taken baby steps toward equalizing opportunities. Much more work lies ahead. Let’s dedicate ourselves to that mission and treat higher education much more as an integrated system rather than as a series of discrete institutions, each on its own tub.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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