On Saturday, May 23, the Web site AlterNet published an essay in which I argued that selective colleges bear some responsibility for our current economic crisis because their admissions policies reward and encourage unethical behavior and their graduates account for a disproportionate share of those in positions of economic or political power. The essay was widely e-mailed and republished and generated a lot of discussion on the Internet. The responses to it included amens and applause, ad hominem attacks on me and my educational background by people who know little about me and absolutely nothing about my educational background, and critiques that, in some cases, were thoughtful.
The ad hominem attacks don't deserve a response other than to say it is sad to see people who claim Ivy League degrees or positions as tenured professors incapable of coming up with anything better.
Common courtesy demands that I give those who applauded my essay my thanks.
The criticisms that I found relevant and at least somewhat worth taking seriously deserve an answer. The AlterNet piece is reprinted immediately below, and my response to its critics follows.
Elite Colleges Are Promoting a Culture of Selfish, Cutthroat Behavior and We Are All Paying the PriceAlthough he meant the remark as a joke, he stood as living proof that he was absolutely right, that students who have gotten through the doors of a top college need not perform well there to have other doors opened to them.
By Peter Schmidt
Like many of us, the nation's elite colleges and universities have taken a financial beating over the past year.
Among them, Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford all watched their endowments shrink by about 20 percent as a result of investment losses.
Despite all their brainpower, such institutions appear to have failed to learn what every simple farmer knows: you reap what you sow. Elite colleges and professional schools bear a share of the blame for the economic crisis that now plagues them, because it is they who educated and bestowed academic credentials upon many of those who got us into this mess.
It should come as no surprise to them that many on Wall Street and in Washington have proven ethically bankrupt and without regard for people of lesser means, because their admissions policies have done much to ensure such a result.
In determining which applicants they will admit and put on the fast track, most elite higher-education institutions systematically favor people from privileged backgrounds who display selfish, cutthroat behavior. The results are campus environments where disregard for society is socially accepted, where bad people are encouraged to become worse.
Consider, for starters, how most such institutions rely on standardized admissions tests such as the SAT, even though they know perfectly well that the nation's massive test-preparation industry has severely compromised the reliability of such instruments, turning them into tools for measuring, as much as anything, wealth and willingness to seek unfair advantage.
Test-preparation programs make people better test-takers not better prospective students. They raise scores mainly by teaching various test-taking tricks, such as how to quickly spot the "sucker" answers to a multiple-choice question to improve the odds of guessing correctly. Yet many are effective enough to offer those families that can afford their fees -- typically, $500 to $1,000 -- a chance to buy their children enough extra points to transform many from also-rans into shoo-ins.
In turning a blind eye to the widespread tainting of admissions test scores, higher-education institutions argue that they lack better mechanisms for efficiently judging applicants from high schools of sharply varying quality. But many education researchers disagree and say some alternatives to such tests, such as admissions systems that give substantial weight to class rank or samples of each applicant's work, are more reliable predictors of applicants' academic performance.
Moreover, selective colleges have ulterior motives for relying on standardized admissions tests that have nothing to do with academic considerations and everything to do with their bottom lines. The more high-scoring students they admit, the higher their "selectivity" ratings in the college-ranking guides that help determine how many applicants knock on their doors each year. And not only is sifting through applications based on test scores a lot cheaper than hiring enough people to consider each candidate carefully, but relying on such scores helps skew the process in favor of wealthier applicants, who will not need financial assistance and are likely to donate generously down the road.
If young people find that artificially inflating their test scores isn't enough to get them into a choice college, they always have the option of having someone bribe their way in with a big donation.
Selective colleges are so happy to have their palms greased in such a manner that some make little effort to hide how much they lower the bar for applicants connected to generous alumni and other contributors. To improve their odds of having favors done for them by people in positions of power, many selective higher-education institutions also admit mediocre applicants at the request of state and federal officials.
They let their professors and administrators in on the game by lowering the bar for the children of employees, as a job perk. Despite all of their talk about operating athletics programs to promote sportsmanship, they assure recruited athletes the playing field will be tilted in their favor in the competition for freshman-class seats.
Through such admissions policies, colleges end up giving the nation's high school students crash courses in cynicism. They teach young people that money talks, fairness is for losers, who you know matters more than what you know, and some people are simply entitled to what others may never attain, no matter how hard they work.
Considering how much selective colleges and universities favor applicants who take such lessons to heart, should it surprise anyone that about half of all graduate- and professional-school students admit on surveys to having recently cheated?
Investors take note: MBA candidates have been found to be the biggest cheaters of all, with 56 percent admitting to having cheated in the past year, in a 2006 survey published by the Academy of Management Learning and Education. Many business schools have responded to the latest economic crisis by broadcasting their intent to beef up their ethics classes, but they might as well be promoting sobriety in a bar.
Give George W. Bush credit for this much: He admits to having gotten into Yale through his family connections, and he is quite capable of self-effacing humor. In delivering Yale's 2001 commencement address, he declared: "And to the C students I say, You, too, can be president of the United States."
Historians of education say the Great Depression shook the nation's faith in its leadership and helped inspire many selective colleges to reform their admissions policies to do more to take in the best students and not just the best-connected.
Our latest economic crisis could inspire similar soul-searching and a renewed emphasis on meritocracy in higher education. But it also could have the opposite effect, prompting selective colleges and universities to even more heavily favor those applicants with cash and connections in an effort to repair their own finances.
If the recent devastation of their endowments should teach such institutions anything, it is that basing their admissions policies on the short-term pursuit of monetary gain is likely to cost them -- and the rest of American society -- dearly down the road.
So far, at least, the more serious critiques of the essay have taken one of four forms: 1) assertions that it places too much faith in meritocracy 2) complaints that it paints elite colleges and their students with too broad a brush 3) allegations of faulty logic 4) allegations that it makes assertions based on no evidence. I'll pick them off here one by one. (Full disclosure: I'll get a marginal commission from Amazon every time you buy a book through one of the links I provide below.)
Re: the assertion the essay places too much faith in meritocracy
I take this criticism more to heart than any. I'm a huge fan of Michael Young's landmark satirical essay, The Rise of the Meritocracy, which makes abundantly clear how a society ruled by those considered "the best"--and therefore confident of their superiority--could indeed be a very brutal place. I'm also well aware that most definitions of "academic merit" in college admissions also tend to be measures of economic and cultural advantage and, in some cases, the willingness of parents to give their children an edge by any means necessary--basic fairness and the good of society be damned. (The second chapter of my book gives a thorough overview of research on this topic.)
But I fail to see how admissions decisions based solely on academic merit would be worse for society than admissions practices that suspend considerations of academic merit in the case of people who have displayed unethical behavior. With a merit-only approach, you get some mixture of people who are smart/essentially decent and people who are smart/unethical and, if Young is right, run the risk of everyone involved being corrupted by belief in their own superiority. With our current admissions policies, you have people who are dim/unethical bumping the smart and ethical out of seats in freshmen classes, thereby enlarging the unethical population on campuses and reducing the enrollments of smart/ethical people who might go on to help hold the unethical in check. Meanwhile, the colleges insist everyone on their campus actually belongs there based on merit, so the perceptions of superiority that Young worries about exist anyway.
Critics of the essay likewise themselves grasp at too broad a brush in asserting that I argue that all political leaders or business people responsible for our current economic crisis came out of elite colleges. I simply don't.
Re: complaints that the essay paints elite colleges and their students with too broad a brush
Any careful reader will see that the essay does not argue that all students at elite colleges engage in selfish, cutthroat behavior or that all elite colleges engage in every admissions practice cited as favoring the ethically challenged. To suggest otherwise is to construct a straw man. Plenty of elite college students and graduates who profess idealism and concern for the best interests of society have agreed with my characterization of many students on such campuses without taking my essay the least bit personally.
Based on research to be discussed later in this blog entry, I will say this much, though: Elite higher education institutions credentialed a disproportionate share of the political leaders and business people responsible for our current economic crisis. Nearly all selective colleges engage in at least a few of the admissions practices my essay describes. And the population of selfish, cutthroat, entitled students found on most such campuses is large to provide considerable social support for such thinking and behavior.
Re: allegations of faulty logicEvery allegation of faulty logic so far directed at this piece has been based on straw men constructed by misconstruing my statements. For example, people have claimed the essay argues that all unethical people come out of elite colleges and therefore everyone enrolled at an elite college is unethical. That's nonsense.
At the core of my essay is a sound deductive argument. It goes like this:Premise 1 (based on extensive research): Elite higher education institutions educate and credential a disproportionate share of our society's leaders and influence even those who do not pass through their doors.
Premise 2 (also based on extensive research): Many of the admissions practices of elite higher education institutions favor applicants based on displays of unethical behavior and send the clear message that those institutions regard at least some unethical behavior as acceptable.Conclusion: Elite higher education institutions therefore bear some responsibility for the presence of unethical people in our society's leadership positions.
Re: allegations that the essay makes assertions based on no evidenceI'll acknowledge offhand that the essay makes several assertions without expressly citing the research and data they are based on.
This was partly a function of necessity. The article was a journalistic op-ed, not a book or submission to an academic journal. It is a roughly 1,000-word essay in a world where many newspapers and magazines will not print essays over 600 words. Buttressing every assertion with a full discussion of its factual basis likely would have caused the essay to grow to 5,000 words or more, making it unpublishable and damn near unreadable.For the record, however, every single assertion in the essay is fully supported by extensive research, much of it discussed in the book Color and Money and on this Web site.
Here's a breakdown of how the essay's key assertions are backed:
The assertion that elite colleges train a disproportionate share of people in positions of economic or political power is supported by several books, studies, and legal documents cited in Color and Money, including:Michael Useem and Jerome Karabel, “Pathways to Top Corporate Management,” 175–207; Charles L. Cappell and Ronald M. Pipkin, “The Inside Tracks: Status Distinctions in Allocations to Elite Law Schools,” 211–30; both in The High Status Track: Studies of Elite Schools and Stratification (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990)
Paul W. Kingston and John C. Smart, “The Economic Pay-Off of Prestigious Colleges,” in The High Status Track
Jerome Karabel, The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005).
Anthony P. Carnevale and Stephen J. Rose, “Socioeconomic Status, Race/Ethnicity, and Selective College Admissions,” in America’s Untapped Resource: Low-Income Students in Higher Education, ed. Richard D. Kahlenberg (New York: Century Foundation, 2003).
Briefs submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court by a long list of top corporations, business and professional associations, and retired military leaders in the cases Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger.
(To update one set of figures given in my book, it is worth nothing that seven of the 19 presidents inaugurated since 1900 earned their bachelor’s degrees from Harvard, Princeton, or Yale, and all but three attended prestigious colleges or professional schools.)
My assertions regarding selective colleges disproportionately serving students from privileged backgrounds are supported by extensive reporting for The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Carnevale and Rose study cited above, and several reports and books cited in the Chapter 1 of Color and Money, including:
Douglas S. Massey, Camille Z. Charles, Garvey F. Lundy, and Mary J. Fischer. The Source of the River: The Social Origins of Freshmen at America’s Selective Colleges and Universities. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003)
Danette Gerald and Kati Haycock, Engines of Inequality: Diminishing Equity in the Nation’s Premier Public Universities (Washington, DC: Education Trust, 2006).
My assertions regarding student attitudes at selective higher education institutions are supported by extensive reporting by me and other Chronicle reporters, The Source of the River (cited above), several studies cited in Chapter 5 of Color and Money, and by research conducted for the Center for Academic Integrity.
My assertions regarding selective colleges' reliance on the SAT are backed by extensive Chronicle reporting, research presented at the American Educational Research Association's 2008 annual conference, a recent National Association of College Admissions Conference report, and the following authoritative history of the SAT test:
Nicholas Lemann, The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999)
Lemann's book also includes a discussion of the SAT test preparation industry and its impact on scores. For more information on that subject, see David Owen's book None of the Above.
My characterizations of selective college admissions policies are backed by extensive Chronicle reporting and nearly all of the studies and books cited in Chapter 1 of Color and Money (see the links under "Chapter 1" on the right side of the screen). Perhaps the best recent work examining how people use cash and connections to get into specific elite colleges was done by Dan Golden, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, for the Wall Street Journal and the book The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges, and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates. William Bowen, a former president of Princeton University, has co-authored several exhaustive studies of the impact of various admissions preferences. They include:
William G. Bowen, Martin A. Kurzweil, and Eugene M. Tobin, Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005).
William G. Bowen and Sarah A. Levin, Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational Values (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003).
The research cited above provides just a smattering of the data supporting the AlterNet essay's assertions, which rest on a wide body of empirical data gathered in recent decades. Those interested in locating more can find it by surfing around this Web site.