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College Admissions Mania

I had signed myself up to be locked in a small office, appointment after appointment, with hugely powerful parents and their mortified children as I delivered news so grimly received that I began to think of myself less as an administrator than as an oncologist. Along the way they said such crass things, such rude things, such greedy things, and such borderline-racist things that I began to hate them. They, in turn, began to hate me...

If the kid got in, it was because he was a genius; if he didn’t, it was because I screwed up. When a venture capitalist and his ageless wife storm into your boss’s office to get you fired because you failed to get their daughter (conscientious, but no atom splitter) into the prestigious school they wanted, you can really start to question whether it’s worth the 36K...

Worst of all, the helpless kid would be sitting right there, shrinking into the couch cushions as his parents all but said that his entire secondary education had been a giant waste of money. The parents would simmer down a bit, and the four of us would stew in misery.

I will now add as a very truthful disclaimer that the horrible parents constituted at most 25 percent of the total...

When I began the job, the SAT and the ACT offered extended-time testing to students with learning disabilities, provided that they had been diagnosed by a professional. However, an asterisk appeared next to extended-time scores, alerting the college that the student had taken the test without the usual time limit. But during my time at the school, this asterisk was found to violate the Americans With Disabilities Act, and the testing companies dropped it. Suddenly it was possible for everyone with enough money to get a diagnosis that would grant their kid two full days—instead of four hours—to take the SAT, and the colleges would never know. By 2006, according to Slate, “in places like Greenwich, Conn., and certain zip codes of New York City and Los Angeles, the percentage of untimed test-taking is said to be close to 50 percent.” Taking a test under normal time limits in one of these neighborhoods is a sucker’s game—you’ve voluntarily handicapped yourself.*

Legacy admissions have often been called affirmative action for white people, but the rich-kid sports—water polo, tennis, swimming, gymnastics, volleyball, and even (God help us all) sailing and actual polo—are the true affirmative action for the rich. I first became acquainted with this fact when I was preparing for a meeting with the parents of a girl who was a strong but not dazzling student; the list her parents had submitted, however, consisted almost exclusively of Ivy League colleges. I brought her file in to my boss for guidance. She looked it over and then, noticing something in the section on extracurricular activities and tapping it decisively with her pen, said, “Oh, she’ll get in—volleyball.”

Volleyball? Yale was going to let her in—above half a dozen much more academically qualified and many much more interesting kids on my roster—because she played volleyball? ...

Much of the discussion of this scandal has centered on the corruption in the college-admissions process. But think about the kinds of jobs that the indicted parents held. Four of them worked in private equity, a fifth in the field of “investments,” others in real-estate development and the most senior management of huge corporations. Together, they have handled billions of dollars’ worth of assets within heavily regulated fields—yet look how easily and how eagerly they allegedly embrace a crooked scheme, as quoted in the court documents.

[ "They Had It Coming The parents indicted in the college-admissions scandal were responding to a changing America, with rage at being robbed of what they believed was rightfully theirs."], Flanagan (2019).

[ Affidavit in the Singer College Admissions Indictment]

All applicants to Harvard are ranked on a scale of one to six based on their academic qualifications, and athletes who scored a four were accepted at a rate of about 70 percent. Yet the admit rate for nonathletes with the same score was 0.076 percent—nearly 1,000 times lower. Similarly, 83 percent of athletes with a top academic score got an acceptance letter, compared with 16 percent of nonathletes. Legacy admissions policies get a lot of flak for privileging white applicants, but athletes have a much bigger effect on admissions, and make up a much bigger percentage of the class. And it’s not just Harvard—in 2002, James Schulman and former Princeton University President William Bowen looked at 30 selective colleges and found that athletes were given a 48 percent boost in admissions, compared with 25 percent for legacies and 18 percent for racial minorities...

According to the NCAA, at all but 20 colleges, athletics programs lose more money than they make. That raises a baffling question: Why are colleges willing to lower their admissions standards to recruit the best athletes when their expensive sports programs are unlikely to return the investment?

[ "College Sports Are Affirmative Action for Rich White Students Athletes are often held to a lower standard by admissions officers, and in the Ivy League, 65 percent of players are white."] SAAHIL DESAI (2018).

Past Levels of Elite Education

As a fun exercise, read through Wikipedia’s list of multilingual presidents of the United States. We start with entries like this one:

Thomas Jefferson read a number of different languages. In a letter to Philadelphia publisher Joseph Delaplaine on April 12, 1817, Jefferson claimed to read and write six languages: Greek, Latin, French, Italian, Spanish, and English. After his death, a number of other books, dictionaries, and grammar manuals in various languages were found in Jefferson’s library, suggesting that he studied additional languages beyond those he spoke and wrote well. Among these were books in Arabic, Gaelic, and Welsh.

and this one:

John Quincy Adams went to school in both France and the Netherlands, and spoke fluent French and conversational Dutch. Adams strove to improve his abilities in Dutch throughout his life, and at times translated a page of Dutch a day to help improve his mastery of the language. Official documents that he translated were sent to the Secretary of State of the United States, so that Adams’ studies would serve a useful purpose as well. When his father appointed him United States Ambassador to Prussia, Adams dedicated himself to becoming proficient in German in order to give him the tools to strengthen relations between the two countries. He improved his skills by translating articles from German to English, and his studies made his diplomatic efforts more successful. In addition to the two languages he spoke fluently, he also studied Italian, though he admitted to making little progress in it since he had no one with whom to practice speaking and hearing the language. Adams also read Latin very well, translated a page a day of Latin text, and studied classical Greek in his spare time.

eventually proceeding to entries more like this one:

George W. Bush speaks some amount of Spanish, and has delivered speeches in the language. His speeches in Spanish have been imperfect, with English dispersed throughout. Some pundits, like Molly Ivins, have pointedly questioned the extent to which he could speak the language, noting that he kept to similar phrasing in numerous appearances.

and this one:

Barack Obama himself claims to speak no foreign languages. However, according to the President of Indonesia Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, during a telephone conversation Obama was able to deliver a basic four-word question in “fluent Indonesian”, as well as mention the names for a few Indonesian food items. He also knows some Spanish, but admits to only knowing “15 words” and having a poor knowledge of the language...

Today we have Wikipedia, the Internet, and as many cheap books as Amazon can supply us. Back in the old days they had to make do with whatever they could get from their local library. Even more troubling, today we start with a huge advantage – the Flynn Effect has made our average IQ 10 to 20 points higher than in 1900. Yet once again, even with our huge technological and biological head start, we are still doing worse than the Old Days, which suggest that here, too, the Old Days may have had some kind of social/political advantage.

Teaching Critical Thinking

I like "modern flashpoint". Students don't grasp that a professor would assign readings he thinks are totally wrong but good for discussion and showing how misguided or dishonest some people are. Contradictory readings distress them; what should they memorize for the test? See