In my last post, I talked in Excellent Sheep, the Miseducation of the American Elite & The Way to a Meaningful Life, William Deresiewicz says “The purpose of life [has become] the accumulation of gold stars.” (Excellent Sheep, page 16) How does he relate that to education? How does it relate to college admissions?
Deresiewicz goes into the history of school in the United States, how the Ivy League schools started, where the influences came from for the structure of all universities (academic scholarship from Great Britain and the research component from Germany).
He then points out ways the Ivies historically controlled admissions to control the kind of student who was admitted. At one point admissions were controlled to establish the “aristocracy” that arose from the newly rich of the Industrial Revolution. But in the 1960s, there was a shift “from the old aristocracy to the new meritocracy: from caste, ‘character,’ and connections to scores and grades.” (Excellent Sheep) However, Deresiewicz shows again and again that the influence of connections never entirely went away. And there’s more.
The admission requirements today are the result of adding on requirements, not replacing.
In addition, schools want a flood of applicants, so that their acceptance rates will be lower and they’ll appear more elite. This has lead to a “resume arms race” where more and more is required for your college admission application to look competitive. Deresiewicz says the system was put in place to add more and more, and higher and higher, “hoops,” so that the elite could buy their way to their child’s qualifications, keep them with an advantage, and keep them isolated above the rest of the population.
Deresiewicz thinks that while this practice gradually spread to other schools, this admissions arms race isn’t as prevalent at elsewhere. But I’ve seen first hand that parents and kids in many communities and schools are getting the message that every college, not just the elite colleges and universities, has an acceptance rate of less that 10%, and that you can’t get into any “good schools” unless you attempt to build that super resume. (If you do some research you’ll find that’s not true. But most parents don’t think about researching college admission requirements before their 8th grade children pick out their classes for their freshmen year, which is when you suddenly start hearing about worrying about your college application.)
Colleges and universities don’t do anything to help this illusion. Every school, no matter what they’re current status, is hoping to climb up the ranks. Because colleges move up in the rankings based on the statistics of their incoming freshman class (not by any results that they have with that class), to move up in the rankings they have to get kids to enroll with more and more impressive “resumes” on their admission applications. So when you inquire, all colleges will tell you to take as many AP classes as you can handle and make sure you have extracurricular activities that show leadership skills.
Then again, I think part of the pressure comes from the dreams, of both parents and kids, of attending an elite school. It’s interesting to me that in Texas it appears that there’s not nearly as much pressure to attend and Ivy League college, but the irony is that we’re still impressed by it. I mean, part of the appeal of Excellent Sheep is it’s written by a product of an Ivy League education (Deresiewicz.)
If you listen to parents, we’re even impressed by kids applying to those schools. Which is just as crazy as being impressed by what the statistics are for an incoming freshman class, instead of what they are for the outgoing seniors. That is another discussion of its own.
So what problems doe college admissions create at the high school level? I’ll cover that in my next post.
Posts in this series reviewing Excellent Sheep
- Excellent Sheep review and discussion – Excellent Sheep Part 1/5
- The Accumulation of Gold Stars for Success – Excellent Sheep Part 2/5
- The College Admissions Arms Race – Excellent Sheep Part 3/5
- AP Failure and the College Admissions Arms Race – Excellent Sheep Part Part 4/5
- The Worth of Being the Best – Excellent Sheep Part Part 5/5