Tag Archives: Ivy League

WHY ELITE STUDENTS GET ELITE JOBS

The conventional meritocratic recipe for success is simple enough: study hard in school, get good grades, be involved in one’s community, find an appropriate college, apply for jobs in your field of study, and everything else falls in place. But that’s not how it really works says Lauren A. Rivera, author of Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs.

The path to success she sees is this:  Be born to upper-middle-class or wealthy parents. Know what academic tracks to be on by the end of middle school — knowledge that one acquires from well-educated parents and school counselors with low caseloads. Get involved early in the competitive sports favored by elites, such as lacrosse, tennis, sailing, skiing, golf, cycling, climbing, soccer, and running. Test well enough to get into an elite university.

Apply for a first job in an Elite Professional Services Firm (EPS), the “finishing school” for American elites. They include Wall Street, top management consulting, and exclusive law firms. After you’ve demonstrated that you’re “one of us” in the interview get on the EPS launching pad, which eventually leads to a high-status career in corporate America, politics, or the nonprofit world. Eventually, have children with a spouse of a similar class background, raise them in fine neighborhoods with top schools, sent them to elite universities, and the “virtuous” cycle of elite reproduction continues.

The book offers a rare glimpse into the hiring practices of EPS firms and how they differ from “the dominant theory of hiring” in the United States. The dominant model holds that employers hiring decisions are based largely on “estimates of human capital, social capital, gender and race. But that model is inadequate, she argues, because it fails to account for the increasingly powerful role that one’s class background plays in the recruiting and hiring practices firms that prepare one for leadership roles in society.

Rivera, a management professor at Northwestern University, acknowledges these trends with alarm. Her book goes further than most in that she looks beyond elite college admissions to how elite students find high-status jobs. As a direct observer and participant in the hiring process at an unnamed EPS firm, Rivera shows that elite education is a virtual prerequisite for entry into high-status jobs — jobs that according to the commonly viewed ideal of meritocracy should be available to any competitor on the basis of ability and experience. She demonstrates, convincingly, that’s not the case.

Raised working class in Los Angeles by an immigrant single mom while her father was in prison, Rivera says she was able to penetrate this rarified atmosphere due to her own experiences attending elite prep schools, colleges and graduate school.  She describes being “checked out” by the insiders of the firm in which she carried out her case study, who determined that she was “one of us,” before agreeing to be interviewed for her study.

The author says she did not set out to prove any particular theory, but allowed the data to drive her interpretations.  She concludes that the hiring practices of certain employers — ones that are pivotal in shaping the nation’s future leaders — are driven by considerations of class status. Class, she argues — and the social capital associated with class, is more important than virtually any other factor in whether certain high-statues employers will even consider an applicant for a job.

The key word is pedigree: the array of background traits, including the cultural, social, and educational capital passed from one generation to the next, which EPS candidates bring to the competition for elite jobs. But it’s a closed competition.  One must get through the gates first.  A candidate’s pedigree determines whether his or her application to an EPS firm is legitimately considered in the competition, or tossed in a slush pile of candidates who have no realistic chance to even compete for such jobs.

Of course, pedigree has always been influential in hiring decisions for first jobs at elite professional service firms.  While Rivera acknowledges this, she contends that the rules surrounding pedigree have changed over the generations.  Although elite employers have always hired on the basis of pedigree, the mechanism is now far more indirect. Finding young talent to fill society’s most important and highly paid jobs once was based on descent, the handing over of familial economic power from one generation to the next.

Today, elites have modernized the rules of entry. Rather than explicit bloodlines being the determining factor, the outcome biased toward elites is interpreted as just the rational outcome of the “meritocracy” at work.  Now, just as elite colleges contend that they admit students on the basis of cognitive talent, elite employers claim their highly competitive hiring practices lead to finding the best and brightest young employees.

But the way elites choose talent is hardly an open competition, Rivera argues. Rather, EPS hiring is a “sponsored contest.” While any college graduate is free to apply for a position, only those who are pre-qualified are actually permitted to compete.  The most important pre-qualification is earning a degree from one of two types of schools.  Generally, EPS firms maintain two lists of colleges from which they draw the applicant pool.  First is small list of so-called “core” schools that have fed firms’ talent requirements for decades.  The relationships are historic, steadfast, and habitual. Think Ivy League, especially colleges that are within a few hours drive from power centers of finance, banking and law.

Next is a list of “target” schools that firms have relied on for talent, but to a far lesser extent than core schools.  The pivotal difference between a sponsored and an open competition is the behavior of gatekeepers in seeking talent.  EPS firms go to great efforts to seek out the kinds of college graduates that fit the firm’s culture.  The firms go to the students, spending valuable time and money traveling to the listed campuses and recruiting for their applicant pool.

There is one noteworthy exception, Rivera says.  If a highly regarded EPS firm happens to occupy a booth at a “diversity” job fair, that’s likely no more than a show and tell, serving the firms’ needs to convey itself as an equal opportunity employer, which enables them to compete for federal contracts.  An open competition for jobs is far different: in almost no instance does a gatekeeper for an open contest seek out applicants. In this sense, then, a competition for jobs at the post office is far more competitive than hiring the chosen candidates for any EPS firm.

Then comes the sorting of resumes and the interview process.  At these stages, evaluators at EPS firms, often busy staffers and analysts who work with high workloads, are pretty much left to their own preferences without any firm guidelines from lowly valued human resource departments.  A typical evaluator will spend no more than 60 seconds per resume. In that brief moment, the evaluator scans resumes for positive signals of fit with the firm or red flags that suggest a bad fit.  These decisions are often based on personal biases, reflecting the evaluators’ own background.  Rivera calls this “looking glass” merit: evaluators choose candidates like themselves, with similar family backgrounds and cultural habits, down to the sorts of recreational activities and sports they might share in common.

For example, in the off-chance that a candidate at this stage had graduated with high honors at, say, the University of North Carolina, that would be considered a red flag.  “State schools,” as public universities are called in this competition, would be considered a sign of “intellectual failure.”   Candidates who’ve graduated form a core school are presumed to have the cognitive ability to do the job — although no actual evidence of this presumption exists, Rivera says.

One example stands out.  Rivera interviewed a hiring consultant named Natalie, who examined an application from Sarah, a graduate of New York University’s Stern School of Business.  Natalie noted that Stern was a top ten business school, but not a top three school. “She’s there either because her husband is in New York or she applied to business schools and she didn’t get into Harvard or Stanford.”  For Natalie, Sarah’s graduating from NYU’s Stern School of Business was a red flag, indicating some kind of intellectual failure.

Another red flag is whether the candidate happened to participate in the wrong types of sports in school. Evaluators often looked for similarities in recreational activities as a signal for shared interests and comfort level. One evaluator told Rivera he always asked a job candidate what he or she did for “fun.” The answer wasn’t acceptable if the activity were not something that was fun to him.  One candidate told the evaluator that he liked reading the Wall Street Journal for fun. An EPS evaluator told Rivera, “Nobody reads the Wall Street Journal for fun. And if they are unable to come up with something they do for fun, they are done.”

The classed-based hiring practices of EPS firms might not be so unsettling if such firms had not achieved the level of status, economic power, and influence that they currently enjoy in American life, Rivera contends.  Owing to the high pay and high status that EPS firms use to tantalize graduates, significant numbers of elite college graduates have turned to EPS firms for their first jobs out of college, ignoring opportunities at other types of employers such as manufacturing and educational institutions.  At Harvard alone, more than 70 percent “of each senior class typically applies to investment banks or consulting firms,” Rivera says.  In addition to the highly skewed demand for EPS jobs, this “holy trinity,” has become a well-traveled springboard to leadership positions in all aspects the United States.

Rivera cites research that America is unique among other advanced nations in the extent that people care about the reputation and prestige of one’s alma mater. In few other countries has one’s potential for leadership been so closely tied to where one attended college. As Rivera demonstrates, that has become a self-fulfilling prophesy of the new meritocracy. Exceedingly influential firms have uniquely positioned themselves as “finishing schools” for America’s elites, and yet there is virtually no evidence to suggest whether the system selects for the best, or simply the more well-positioned and well-polished.

For the most part, Rivera’s analysis is believable and compelling. We’ve always known such discrimination along class lines exists at elite professional firms, but she may be the first to inspect the detailed mechanisms that perpetuate the practice.  She fails, however, to address other types of superficially open, but actually closed competitions in which insiders are known to have unfair access to certain jobs in the United States.  The practice is not uncommon. These jobs would include children of police officers, firefighters, union tradesman and similar careers.  Remember?  “It’s who you know, not what you know.”

What’s more, one could argue that EPS firms are selecting candidates most equipped — intellectually, socially and behaviorally — to succeed in jobs that require an unusual ability to communicate and be comfortable with high-status clients in the corporate world.  Evaluators would naturally doubt, for example, whether a first generation college or professional school graduate attending a modestly selective university would have the polish to succeed.

Still, the classed-based hiring practices of EPS firms is unsettling, compared to the semi-open competitions for, say, police or union jobs.  EPS firms are unique in that they occupy far greater status, economic power, and influence than many careers. Owing to the high pay and high status that EPS firms use to tantalize graduates, significant numbers of elite college graduates have turned to EPS firms for their first jobs out of college, ignoring opportunities at other types of employers such as manufacturing and educational institutions.  At Harvard alone, more than 70 percent of each senior class typically applies to investment banks or consulting firms, says Rivera, quoting Nicholas Lemann in the New Yorker.

In addition Americans love a competition that’s open to all comers, like the “Open Championship” in Great Britain and the U.S. Open here. The purpose of these tournaments is to identify the best golfer on the planet during a week’s competition, based strictly on performance.   The opportunity is open to any golfer, not just to those from private country clubs. Indeed, a competition rigged to pick the privileged few is abhorrent to our collective sensibilities. Exclusion based on the conceit that graduates of certain American colleges and universities are intellectually deficient is reminiscent of the days when the U.S. Army rated recruits on the basis of IQ tests.  Those tests purportedly demonstrated the intellectual superiority of immigrants from Arian nations over cognitively deficient immigrants like Jews and Italians.

“Because of the way they hire,” Rivera writes, “these employers end up systematically excluding smart, driven, and socially skilled students from less privileged socioeconomic backgrounds from the highest-paying entry-level jobs in the United States, positions that serve as gateways to the country’s economic elite.”

NOT IN AN ELITE COLLEGE? NO WORRIES!

Frank Bruni is a New York Times columnist who has figured out something important – many Americans are completely caught up in the Frank Brunicostly, pointless, and often damaging obsession with getting their children into our supposedly elite colleges and universities.  His new book, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, is his effort at talking sense into parents and students about this.

Bruni’s subtitle tells us that he means to give us an “antidote to the college admissions mania,” and I think the book succeeds quite well at that. In sum, he argues that students can get a very good education at a non-prestigious college or university and also that getting into one of our insanely sought-after elite schools is no guarantee of getting a good education. He writes, “The nature of a student’s college experience – the work that he or she puts into it, the skills he or she picks up, the self-examination undertaken, the resourcefulness honed – matters more than the name on the institution attended.”

That’s right, but a great many Americans put themselves through years of terrible angst over the presumed need to get into a prestige college. That has become a big part of our individual “brands.” Because the number of places in those schools is small, however, lots of students end up devastated when they don’t get in and have to “settle” for a backup school. Bruni quotes one young woman who said, “I felt so worthless” after being rejected by all of her top choices.

Doing Well at Denver

To show that the college “brand” obsession is a mistake, Bruni recounts quite a few interesting cases where individuals have done extremely well in life even though they attended non-prestige schools. One of those stories is that of Dick Parsons, Chief Executive Officer of Time Warner and Citigroup. Where’d he go to school? Harvard? Princeton?

No – University of Hawaii. Parsons told Bruni that he “can’t remember a single thing he learned in college,” except that he could handle the world far from home.

Condoleezza Rice is another fabulous success story, of course, but she didn’t enroll in an elite university. In fact, she didn’t play the game of hunting for colleges at all. She went to the University of Denver because her father had taken a position there. Moreover, she took some time in discovering her real interest. At first, she was a music major, but soon realized that, good as her piano talents were, she wasn’t going to have a career as a virtuoso.

After meandering along for a while at Denver, she happened to take a course entitled, “Introduction to International Politics” taught by Czech refugee Josef Korbel. She was fascinated with the subject and immersed herself in it, taking full advantage of the opportunity to learn from a great scholar. Later, Rice would take her Ph.D. under Korbel, go on to become provost at Stanford, and eventually Secretary of State.

Furthermore, Bruni shows, the prestige schools that so many students sweat blood trying to get into don’t have a lock on awards such as MacArthur Foundation “genius grants” and Fulbright scholarships. Many of those recipients graduated from obscure colleges. That fact underscores his point that college education is what the student makes of it. Students who are eager to learn can almost always find one or more faculty members who’ll be delighted to have such a student to mentor—but it might be easier to make that connection at a small school than a big, famous one.

His College? Nobody Asked

Bruni also acknowledges that having gone to college, prestigious or otherwise, might have very little to do with an individual’s later success. His own story is enlightening in that regard. He could have gone to an Ivy, but instead chose the University of North Carolina (and now regrets that he devoted so much of his time there to fun rather than taking better advantage of the learning opportunities available). Did his UNC degree or his subsequent degree at Columbia have anything to do with his journalism career?

Not much. He writes of his first full-time position with the New York Post, “the Post hired me only after, and because of, a four-week tryout, the success of which had less to do with the classes I’d taken at Columbia than the writing I’d done at the UNC newspaper and on the side. And none of the people who hired me for subsequent jobs ever asked about or mentioned Columbia – or, for that matter, Chapel Hill.”

That is a point critics of the entire degree mania have been making for many years – college credentials often have little to do with the student’s life after graduation. Sadly, even though those credentials frequently do little to enhance the individual’s knowledge and skill, they have become generally regarded as essential for a host of jobs that are mostly learned by doing.

Without meaning to, Bruni doesn’t merely indict the elite college admissions, mania; he also indicts the entire “got to go to college” mania.

The book’s case that going to an elite college is not essential for success is solid; unfortunately, Bruni doesn’t examine the related question, whether going to an elite college could actually be a big mistake. That’s important because liberals insist on racial preferences to get “minority” students into those schools. Supposedly, going to a prestige college is a great benefit, so when the likes of Harvard and Berkeley bend their admission standards to enroll those students, they’re not only “improving diversity,” but also advancing social justice.

What about ‘Diversity’?

As many researchers have observed, however, using preferences puts weaker students in academic settings where they do poorly. They might have done fairly well at a school with lower standards; attending a prestige institution sets them up for failure, or at least sliding into one of the soft majors with lousy career prospects. In other words, they’ve been mismatched. Unfortunately, Bruni never mentions the work of Richard Sander or other affirmative action critics. That would mean challenging one of the great shibboleths of leftist policy. He doesn’t go there.

Not only does Bruni fail to consider the harm done by mismatching students into prestige colleges, he also tries to shore up the progressive crusade for “diversity.” Although most of his book sensibly argues that college education depends on what the individual student makes of it, he tries to pitch the notion that “diverse” schools are necessarily better. “College needs to be an expansive adventure, propelling students toward unplanned territory and untested identities rather than indulging and flattering who they are,” he writes.

That sounds delightful to liberal social engineers who think that they’re able to make education better by mixing in just the ideal proportions of students who “represent” various racial and socio-economic groups. But it’s not true. Most of the book shows that it’s not true. Condi Rice did not get a superb education at Denver because the campus was or wasn’t “diverse.” She got that education because she came across a professor who got her deeply interested in his subject.

Or consider another college that Bruni praises, St. John’s with its two campuses where students immerse themselves in great books with dedicated professors. The wonderful education those students get has nothing at all to do with the blend of races in the classes.

Nevertheless, the book conveys a useful message — stop worrying and wasting money trying to get into elite colleges when many others will do just as well or perhaps far better.


 

Harvard’s Cheating Scandal

Yesterday Harvard
University announced its investigation of about 125 undergraduates who are
believed to have improperly collaborated on a take-home final examination last
spring. It is tempting to use this case to generalize about an Ivy League sense
of entitlement, declining student morals in general, or perhaps the failure of
Harvard and other universities to teach character and a sense of honor to its
students along with their academic subjects. For now, though, we should focus on
the specifics of this cheating incident, or at least what we know of them,
since many of the precise details of the scandal have yet to emerge:

1. The class in question,
“Introduction to Congress,” enrolled more than 250 students. If
Harvard’s suspicions are correct, this means that half the class thought they
could get away with violating a specific instruction in the exam itself:
“[S]tudents may not discuss the exam with others–this includes resident
tutors, writing centers, etc.” Most college cheating rings are relatively
small groups of trusted friends. Not this one.

2. The cheating appeared
to be careless and blatant. A graduate-student teaching fellow grading the
exams uncovered the alleged collaboration on noticing that several of them
contained the exact same words or strings of ideas in answering some of the
exam questions. The students allegedly involved didn’t bother to disguise what
they were doing very artfully (surprising for clever Harvardians)–because they
thought they could get away with it.

3. Many students didn’t
like the class very much. According to Harvard Crimson reporter Rebecca D.
Robbins
, Harvard’s “Q Guide” of student course evaluations gave “Introduction
to Congress” a score of 2.54 out of a possible 5. Robbins noted that the
average score for social-science courses at Harvard was 3.91. Some of the
student evaluators took the course to task for lack of organization and
difficult exam questions. One student wrote that she and about 15 other
students, most of whom had stayed up all night working on the exam, gathered at
a teaching fellow’s office for clarifications a few hours before the deadline because
they didn’t understand one question worth 20 percent of the grade. “On top
of this, one of the questions asked us about a term that had never been defined
in any of our readings and had not been properly defined in class, so the TF
had to give us a definition to use for the question,” the student wrote.

None of this excuses in
the slightest what went on last spring. Students found to have collaborated on
that exam deserve not just to be suspended for a year–which is apparently
Harvard’s maximum punishment. However, there’s a lot here we just don’t know.

Star Chamber Hearings at Brown, Yale, and Cornell

brown students.jpgThe ugly episode at Brown–a botched hearing of an alleged rape case– is part of a disturbing pattern of how sexual assault procedures are handled at Ivy League schools. Typically, the schools impose a gross form of injustice, permanently damaging the reputation of the accused male, then congratulate themselves for acting so fairly and appropriately.

According to the definitive 3,279-word account published by the Brown Spectator, Richard Dresdale, a wealthy donor to Brown and father of the accusing student, Marcella Dresdale, secretly met with a key witness in the case, and agreed to help promote that witness’s career. Then the witness, student counselor Shane Reil, made a damning statement against the accused student, William McCormick. In a criminal case, this would obviously be witness tampering, and it looks like that here as well, but a Brown administrator said there was no violation of university procedures in the secret meeting and what appeared to be a bribe to a witness.

Continue reading Star Chamber Hearings at Brown, Yale, and Cornell

The Politics of Campus Hazing

SAE house.jpgThe war on fraternities is one of the longest-running conflicts on campus, and the most active front in that war is the current media campaign against hazing, triggered by the lurid charges of former Dartmouth student Andrew Lohse. In an op-ed in his college newspaper, The Dartmouth, and later in a long Rolling Stone article, “Confessions of an Ivy League Frat Boy,” Lohse described SAE pledges as swimming in a kiddie pool full of fecal matter, vomiting blood after chugging cups of vinegar, and dining on “vomlets” that combined eggs and upchuck–all supposedly part of the SAE hazing ritual.

The Rolling Stone article was a media sensation, but there are
problems with Lohse’s scatological/vomitological catalogue of horrors.
Lack of corroboration, for one. So far, no one else reports seeing the
indignities as he described them. However, 27 SAE members–Lohse
included–were brought up on charges by Dartmouth’s Undergraduate
Judicial Affairs Office.

Continue reading The Politics of Campus Hazing

The Days of Legacy Admissions May Be Numbered

StudentsCampusFall.jpgIn a recent
essay
in Minding the Campus, blogger John S. Rosenberg argued that I was
too tough on legacy preferences and not tough enough on affirmative action in
college admissions.  In my support for
class-based affirmative action, he says, I’m not sufficiently outraged about
racial preferences.  And in arguing that
legacy preferences are illegal not only in public but also in private
universities, he says, I make an “odd” set of arguments that “add up to less
than nothing.”

On the issue of racial preferences, I am, as Rosenberg suggests,
somewhat ambivalent, as are many Americans. 
Polls suggest that Americans want universities that produce our
country’s leadership class to be racially and ethnically diverse yet they don’t
like using race in admissions.  I agree
with both sets of views and one of the reasons I have been attracted to writing
about the issue
over the years is that I see compelling arguments on both
sides.

On the one hand, I am deeply troubled by the casual way in
which many of my fellow liberals embrace the use of race in deciding who gets
ahead in education and employment, ignoring the deep moral problems associated
with judging people by skin color.  On
the other hand, I think it is clear that our nation’s horrendous history of
slavery and Jim Crow segregation has left a legacy that helps explain why
African Americans are today disproportionately poor and less educated – a
situation that demands affirmative steps to counteract.  Ultimately, I back class-based rather than
race-based preferences because I think they can indirectly address our history
without resorting to the disease as cure. 
I also support considering the socioeconomic obstacles overcome as an
element of merit, because today those impediments are seven times as significant
as racial barriers to doing well on the SAT.

Continue reading The Days of Legacy Admissions May Be Numbered

The Rankings Will Always be Gamed

Trying to rank hundreds, if not thousands of colleges is obviously foolish, but this foolishness has consequences beyond supplying iffy advice to clueless shoppers. To the extent that potential enrollees take ratings seriously, institutions may be tempted to game the system and these tricks may well undermine education. To use Malcolm Gladwell’s illustration from Car and Driver, a car manufacturer can probably figure out the little gimmicks that magazine critics over-value and then accommodate these preferences even if they add zero to the car’s value.
Manipulating a rating will not push a third-rank school into the Ivy League, but in the mushy middle a few points can separate, say, 35 from 57. The temptation is to scam the system, regardless of the educational value. And what school can resist a little tinkering to leapfrog over rivals? So, if the rating formula stresses graduation rates, a few obscure bureaucratic adjustments—regular credit for what were once remedial courses, creating easy no-fail majors, allowing “Fs” to be expunged among similar ploys—can work wonders. Reed College refuses to participate in the U.S. News ranking, a wise choice given its low retention rate—hundreds of youngsters enroll in the mistaken belief that Reed is a sex and drug paradise, but most of these would-be hedonists flee almost immediately after encountering a hard-nosed take-no-prisoners freshman curriculum. Yet, this overly-generous admission generosity may benefit some high-potential under-achievers who might eventually flourish in a school of Reed’s intellectual caliber. If ratings were paramount and included retention, however, Reed would just play it safe and slip into staid conventionality.
And if average faculty compensation is the yardstick, any clever administrator can diddle the numbers. Just recruit expensive “star” talent who barely teach while “non-faculty” graduate students handle classroom instruction. Better yet, hire only those whose hefty salaries are paid by outside grants—get all the benefits of high salary compensation without any of the cost. Need more library holdings to impress the raters? No problem—buy cheaper paperbacks instead of expensive scholarly monographs. Need a reputation for “good teaching”? Since some raters use the internet to establish instructional “quality,” keep tough graders away from large required courses and watch ratings soar on ratemyprofessor.com.
My own favorite tactic for juicing “scholarly reputation” (at least in the social sciences) is to hire faculty who specialize in mathematical analysis and its variants like rational choice. These professors are amazingly productive and can quickly build a department’s disciplinary reputation where, as often the case, only publication volume counts. No matter that these professors teach gobbledygook to undergraduates who prefer history-rich accounts of WW II versus, say, a lecture on why country A attacked country B using the Prisoner’s Dilemma format. But don’t even think of hiring more substantively oriented adjuncts to compensate for these content-free courses—having too many part-timers, regardless of their backgrounds, especially if they lack doctorates, typically kills a school’s reputation among raters regardless of how much students learn.
This is a tail-wagging-the-dog problem—journalist outsiders, many of whom barely understand university life, shaping university policy by deciding what is academically important and even then, only using readily available crude information. That so many administrators happily defer to these ill-informed outsiders so as to up their rank a few notches is perhaps the most depressing feature of this foolishness.

Malcolm Gladwell and Those Shaky Rankings

As the author of a college guide that tries to help college-going students identify schools that would be a good “match” for them as individuals, I’ve always had three main gripes with the U.S. News & World Report rankings. First, you can’t quantify the really important factors that go into selecting the right college, such as the quality of student-faculty relations. Second, colleges manipulate the numbers to their own advantage. And finally, the rankings are premised on asking the wrong question. The issue is not what’s the “best” college in the abstract but what’s the best college for you?
At a time when it would seem that every conceivable argument to be made against the U.S. News rankings has been put forward, Malcolm Gladwell has now come along and, in his New Yorker riff on the topic, added some savory spice to the debate. Gladwell makes some conventional arguments. He rightly ridicules the proxies that the magazine uses for academic quality (“Do professors who get paid more money really take their teaching roles more seriously?”), and he joins the familiar chorus of complaints about the use of reputational surveys. College presidents are the last people I would ever consult in order to get a handle on the quality of a competing institution.

Continue reading Malcolm Gladwell and Those Shaky Rankings

Rituals Performed for the Elite

The U.S. News & World Report rankings of America’s “best” colleges and universities amount to nothing more than an annual ritual, a predictable coronation of entrenched wealth and power.
Even more importantly, for aspiring students and parents who hope to transcend their present class status, the yearly “guide” serves as the handmaiden to the elite. U.S. News rankings are like a public relations agency, a public persona standing at gates of admission to our “best” colleges, conveniently reminding aspiring Americans of the well-guarded paths to wealth and power.
Does anyone really believe that the students, parents and counselors at elite, mostly private, high schools pay any serious attention to the U.S. News rankings? Of course not. These schools and these families understand deeply how the system works and, especially, how to make the system work for them. They do not need U.S News to tell them which schools matter, and they follow the rankings with bemused disinterest.
That is not to say that the rankings are unimportant to elites. The annual ritual is a vital source of propaganda disguised by a pseudo-scientific calculation reminding our aspiring classes to “get in line and follow the rule” if they want a lottery chance at passing the gates. While the rankings purport to demonstrate to the public what separates good colleges form ordinary ones, the rankings are also the equivalent of the strict school marm, wagging her proverbial index finger at the strivers, the unwashed students and families who seek admission to the elite.
While the aspiring classes slavishly believe in its informative power, the rankings tell us little besides an institution’s wealth and prestige and position in the higher education hierarchy. According to U.S. News’s world view, a college or university is to be judged, not by what they actually do for students during their years on campus, such as how much chemistry, math, sociology and economics students actually learned while there.
Rather, in this upside-down world, colleges are judged by the “quality” of students they enroll. Quality, in essence, is measured by institutional selectivity – the percent of applicants who are accepted for admission. For the bulk of institutions in this universe, the direct correlate of selectivity is the average SAT score of entering freshman. The direct and powerful correlate of individual SAT scores is the cultural, educational and social capital which students acquire from their families. Families pass this human capital from generation to generation, and the so-called meritocracy is more than happy to oblige these privileges.
And so it goes, like a cascading river of wealth and power that obliterates all other considerations that bear on what higher education should mean in a democratic society. If one appreciates the status of inherited privilege, then let’s congratulate U.S. News on a job well done.

The Attack on Legacies

In every Marx Bros. movie, there occurs a moment when Harpo works himself up to a frenzy, hyperventilating, jumping up and down and crossing his eyes. These interludes never fail to beguile the viewer, even though they have nothing to do with the plot.
I was reminded of these Harpovian shenanigans when I came across Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admission (Richard D. Kahlenberg, Editor, Century Foundation , 304 pps). This a collection of essays expressing outrage at a practice, common to many first-, second- and third-tier colleges. These institutions have for decades (centuries in some cases) allowed underperforming high school students to be admitted to the freshman class because one of their parents was a graduate.
Manifestly this was unfair. Students with higher grades had been turned away because they didn’t have the advantage of a father or mother with an Ivy or Big Ten sheepskin. Yet the institutions of higher learning offered no apology for their autocratic ways; instead they presented a rationale. It was called Follow the Money. A prosperous parent was likely to make a generous donation to the place that allowed Junior to enter the hallowed halls, even though he failed geometry and had English SAT scores that placed him in the bottom third of his class. And since every school is always bemoaning its increasing debt, rising professorial salaries and benefits, and other fiscal responsibilities, what was wrong with welcoming a few “legacies” in order to pad the bottom line?

Continue reading The Attack on Legacies

Not Just Another College Ranking

Forbes has issued its 3rd annual College Rankings, delivering its crown to Williams College. Comparison to the U.S. News and World Report list is inevitable so let’s not delay in getting to it; this result, and most of the top 20 rankings on the Forbes list aren’t that dissimilar from the similar U.S. News list (when accounting for the fact that Forbes elides the distinction between the “liberal arts college” and “university” categories). This is unsurprising; a number of the factors in their ranking formula are not much dissimilar from the US News and World Report list; student debt, loan default rates, four-year degree completion rates, and the like. Any sensible list would feature these factors, and it’s a testament to the objective value of certain colleges that they place highly on multiple lists.

The Forbes list is distinctive, however, for its focus on results; its “ends-oriented” ranking, despite its similarities with U.S. News at the top of the scale, seems worlds different once venturing lower in the listing. On this list Whitman College in Washington and Centre College in Kentucky outrank Dartmouth; Colgate University stands many spots above Brown. It is a different measure with clearly different results.

Forbes‘ initial formula two years ago proved the results-focused ranking simpler said than done; in granting a quarter of its weight respectively to an enrollment adjusted appearance of graduates in “Who’s Who in America” and to aggregated RateMyProfessor rankings, Forbes deserved the numerous accusations of rankings ham-handedness it received. Happily, their worthy goal has acquired a more substantial statistical foundation in this iteration.

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Fixing the Anything-Goes Philosophy at Brown

Brown University is famous for having the loosest graduation requirements in the Ivy League. In fact, there are almost no graduation requirements at all, for although Brown undergrads do have to major in something in order to qualify for a degree, they are free to design their own majors. As for anything else in the way of mandatory courses, forget it. Don’t like math and science? You’ll never be asked to take a single class in either at Brown. Find learning a foreign language too difficult? No worry—you’ll never have to utter a single word en francais or en espanol during your four years on the university’s historic campus in Providence, R.I.. You can even bid au revoir and hasta la vista to freshman English while you’re there, although you do have to demonstrate some level of competence in writing in order to don your cap and gown at the end of it all Grades? You can elect to take all of your courses pass/fail if you like. And if you do choose to have your professor give you a letter grade, the range consists of A, B, and C; F is not an option. Thus, there’s almost no such thing as an introductory survey course designed for non-majors at Brown, whether in biology or history or anthropology or economics. Why should there be? Students at Brown don’t have study anything outside their chosen (and often self-designed) fields.
Even given today’s rampant grade inflation, especially at the Ivies and other elite schools, and today’s lax definition of distribution requirements that allow students to select courses from a smorgasbord of offerings (a little Chinese history here, a little Caribbean poetry there) that usually ensures that they never learn the basics of any academic field outside their major, Brown’s requirement-free curriculum is a standout. If it sounds like something left over from the 1960s, well, it is. In 1969 Brown’s administrators jettisoned the university’s traditional core curriculum, including distribution requirements, survey courses and required sequences that obliged students to learn the basics of an academic field before going on to advanced-level work, in order to focus on an free-form educational philosophy whose goals were variously described as to “put students at the center of their education” and to “teach students how to think rather than just teaching facts.” One of the architects of Brown’s “New Curriculum,” as it is still known almost 40 years later, had been Ira Magaziner, now best remembered as the designer of President Bill Clinton’s failed national health plan but then a student activist and antiwar protest leader at Brown. And so, to this day, while Brown says it encourages its undergraduates to “experience scientific inquiry,” for example, there is no mandate that they actually do so.

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A Real Freshman Reading Assignment

We’ve documented the foolishness of most “Freshmen Reading” assigments in the past. Looking through the dreck, Charlotte Allen discovered a ray of hope in Cornell’s assignment this year of Gary Wills’ Lincoln At Gettysburg.

Now that the assignent is completed, what did Cornell students think? The Cornell Daily Sun reports:

“I thought it was awful and the book was torture,” said one freshman. “The book was like a history textbook and was dry and hard to understand.”

“Everyone realized in 5 pages or 30 that the book is full of shit and we just stopped reading it,” added Edward Kim ’12.

This is what matriculating Ivy League students think of a work by a popular and well-respected historian? If they thought that was boring, what do they possibly think lies ahead of them?
Some responses were more encouraging:

“I especially enjoyed the first part of the book, which gave the background of the Gettsyburg Address,” Christina Conway ’12 told the University. “Garry Wills talks about what the times were like, and how transcendentalism played a part in affecting Lincoln’s way of thinking. There are parts of the Gettsyburg Address that are similar to classical speeches, and the author shows what each part of the speech accomplishes.”

However dim-witted some of the Cornell recruits seem to be, it’s enheartening that one school still sees fit to challenge their students from the start, and that some students welcome this. Bravo Cornell.