Too Many Talented Students?

When I came out of high school in 1977, I had a GPA of 3.1, a straight B average. My SAT scores were 710 Math and 590 Verbal, pretty good but not stellar. My entire college application process took a half hour. I sauntered into the counselor’s office at Torrey Pines High School north of San Diego.
“I need to apply to college,” I mumbled.
“Okay,” she said, pulling out a form. “Where do you want to go?”
“Well, I guess a UC school.” We didn’t have money for a private school, and the UC tuition back then was around $500 a year.
“Uh huh,” she replied. “Well, you have to rank three of them.”
I didn’t even know all of them by name, but I’d watched UCLA basketball and my father went to Berkeley for a few years when I was an infant.
“Let’s put UCLA first,” I said, “and Berkeley second, and any other one of them third.”
She did, then asked for my SAT scores, and that was it. I received a letter of admission to UCLA a few months later.
Today, if I applied to UCLA with those grades and scores, the counselor would laugh me out of the room. Admissions requirements have shot upward, students now padding resumes not only with 4.0 grades and 700+ scores on each part of the test, but also a passel of AP courses, summer internships, and troubling life experiences recounted in poignant detail on the personal statement in the application.

It’s a mad competition, we hear every admissions season, a fretful scramble for shrinking spaces. As a New York Times piece on Alexandra Robbins’ book The Overachievers put it, “this is a terrible time to be applying to college. With too many talented students vying for too few spots at a handful of top schools, we shouldn’t be surprised that many are buckling under the pressure to be perfect.”
How many schools, though, are we talking about? According to this report from the National Bureau of Economic Research, entitlted “The Changing Selectivity of American Colleges,” only a small percentage of colleges in the United States fit the pattern. “Only the top ten percent of colleges are substantially more selective now than they were in 1962,” it says. “Moreover, at least 50 percent of colleges are substantially less selective now than they were in 1962.”
And as for there being “too many talented students,” the report notes that “the number of places has grown at approximately the same rate as (just slightly faster than, in fact) the number of highly qualified students.” In other words, while we have more talented and hard-working students, we have ample capacity to handle them.
So why, then, has competition for the top ten percent increased? The explanation comes from a factor rarely addressed in discussions of college access and admissions. What has happened is that students applying to college have lowered their desire to stay close to home when they go to college. Instead of caring about nearby location, they care about “a college with respect to its recourses and peers.” Because the costs of visiting distant colleges has dropped, they feel more free to move away. Because the Web has allowed them to find out more about distant colleges (virtual tours, online borchures, etc.), they can take the information more to heart when making a choice.
According to the report, the willingness to attend schools far from home produced a “resorting” effect. High-aptitude students increasingly have clustered at the top schools. Decades ago, they were sprinkled more throughout the second-tier schools, but the increasing desire for Harvard-Yale-Princeton-etc. has driven them up the university ladder, resulting precisely in the lower selectivity of the remaining 90 percent.
The report doesn’t pursue the implications of this stratification, but it does note that because of the application patterns of high-aptitude students, low-aptitude students increasingly encounter low-aptitude students in their classes. In other words, the resulting student bodies reinforce the division of selective from non-selective institutions. Low-performing students sit in class with other low-performers. They don’t have the superior student who didn’t want to travel far from home sitting next to them in English 101, raising the quality of class discussion and pushing expectations higher. We sometimes forget that much of the intellectual level of the campus depends not on the faculty but upon the undergraduates. Students often take their cue not from the syllabi but from their roommates.
This puts top institutions in a tricky situation. To improve themselves, they search for the best students. In doing so, though, they pull the best students away from second- and third-tier campuses. They boost their own standing, but they fail their oft-announced mission of “social justice” and equality.
Perhaps we need every top university to institute an exchange program. What about something like this: every student at H-Y-P-etc. has to spend one semester at University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, Cal State–Los Angeles, Hostos Community College, etc. And a student at those latter schools get a semester at H-Y-P-etc. It would be a learning experiment for the students and healthy exposure for the professors. What illuminations might occur if a Princeton English professor spent a few sessions going over a rough draft word for word with a 60th-percentile SAT verbal scorer?


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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One thought on “Too Many Talented Students?”

  1. Excellent article.
    I agree that, in particular, college students have responded to the reduction in travel-home costs that came after airline deregulation and the reduction of communications-with-home costs that came with phone deregulation — both of which occurred in the late-1970s — by being more willing to go far away for college.
    I further agree with the article’s suggestion that colleges should have “exchange” programs where students from substantially different educational cultures should spend one semester at each other’s college.

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