Singin' the Varsity Blues: Leave Them Kids Alone
Early in Moby Dick, Ishmael is warned about his new skipper: "He's a queer man, Captain Ahab . . . Ahab's been in colleges, as well as 'mong the cannibals."
Last week's news of parents bribing officials to get their average kids into above-average universities reminded me how queerly Melville connected colleges and cannibals. Those kids are certainly among the cannibals now.
took the first bite, immediately tweeting that Felicity Huffman's and Lori Loughlin's
daughters were as "stupid" as their mothers. https://www.huffpost.
com/entry/kellyanne-conway-college-admissions_n_5c88aa61e4b0fbd7661f025c.That was rich, coming after Michael Cohen testified that he sent threatening letters to ensure that their boss's grades and SAT scores were never revealed. You can guess why the world's loudest braggart wants to hide his SAT scores. It seems the only person anywhere with any recollection of President Trump in his college years is his marketing professor, who called him "the dumbest goddamn student I ever had."
But enough of him. Today's more visible problem is the Hunger Games world we created where college-bound high school kids are among the cannibals -- each other!
Operation Varsity Blues threw light on a shady business that allowed parents to bribe coaches to recruit their kids as college-level athletes even if they never played, to pay proctors to correct their imperfect SAT answers, and (even easier) to hire smarter kids to take the SAT for them. https://www.justice.gov/usao-ma/investigations-college-admissions-and-testing-bribery-scheme. This conduct had the effect, according to the US Attorney, of "robbing students all over the country of their right to a fair shot" to get into an "elite" college.
but it is an odd right to be robbed of. Of course there
should be a level playing field for all college applicants,
but there never has been. Rich kids have always tipped the table merely by
being rich. Forget legacy and athletic admissions, which are minor in
comparison. Wealthy parents rig the game from the start, with top-notch
prenatal and pediatric care, followed by Montessori preschools, homes in
high-end public school districts, private schools, personal tutors, SAT coaches
and all the other "enrichment" programs that not-rich people can't afford. All
those educational supplements are bricks in the wall that protects the haves
from the have-nots. See https://www.theatlantic.com/
magazine/archive/2018/06/the-birth-of-a-new-american-aristocracy/559130/. Is it any wonder that, when that all fails, some desperate parents would resort to fraud?
But for all that, do kids really benefit from their struggles to get into one top college over another? The criminal complaint talks about 28 students. I assume there were more. It seems, then, that a few dozen privileged applicants unfairly edged out an equal number of other privileged applicants for spots at a few prestigious colleges. Those who were "robbed" were then forced to attend a different college, but likely just as prestigious. I just can't muster much sympathy for whoever had the hard luck of having to go to Berkeley for being "robbed" of a shot at Stanford. This is not to condone the scam, but because I think there's a much bigger one behind it -- the long con that, at least as among the country's top hundred or so colleges, one is any "better" or "worse" than another.
I've now lived long enough to doubt it matters much where one goes to college, and not just because of billionaire dropouts. Research shows that, except for disadvantaged minorities, attendance at an "elite" college has little if any effect on income in later years. https://www.nber.org/papers/w7322.pdf. After some experience in the world, we've all encountered successful, intelligent and happy persons who've gone to every rank of college as well as none at all. In most cases, what one had before going to college, what one brings to college -- intelligence, diligence, and moral compass -- matter more than what one takes from it.
Now, I don't blame qualified high schoolers for wanting to go to the "best" college they can get into. I just don't think that ranking colleges one "better" than another is a useful exercise. Perhaps there is a top tier, but a meaningful top tier will be surprisingly wide.
According to the College Board, an SAT score of 1010 or better means you are 75% likely to earn at least a "C" in college. About half of the population will score a 1010 or better, and most would pass. The real world doesn't need more than a passing grade, because (as we all know) most things that real people do are not critical to life, liberty or anything that really matters.
But the range of accepted scores of the national university that ranks 100th place in the US News & World Report survey bottoms out not at 1010, but at 1230. That is also the bottom-range score of the country's 61st place liberal arts college. Those top 161 colleges and universities admit about 450,000 applicants annually. That's a lot of freshmen.
Yet a 1230 SAT puts one in the top 15% of the country. The 1230 SAT score that scrapes the bottom of the barrel of the 100-ranked university still marks you as being a foot smarter than just about everyone else. Isn't that "elite" enough?
there's more. What difference is there between someone in the 15th percentile
and someone in 1st percentile? I'm not talking about scholars and academics.
I'm talking for those of us who live and work outside the ivory towers on real
world problems. I've met many smarter than me, and here's what I think. Someone
with a higher IQ (or SAT, which still is 80% correlated to IQ) will solve some
problem faster that I will. But I too will solve that problem eventually, and I
may end up understanding it better for having put more time and effort into the
solving. For most real world applications, the extra speed that a higher IQ
gives you doesn't count for all that much. Being able to explain a solution to
someone else (which is the only way to be sure you understand it) counts for a lot
more. That takes work, and work trumps brilliance. See https://som.yale.edu/news/2009/11/
why-high-iq-doesnt-mean-youre-smart. In other words, those extra 300 SAT points that separate the top ranked from the 100th ranked college give one little more than bragging rights. That we still use them to discriminate between applicants is insidious. I'm glad some colleges are starting to make them optional.
By the way, I'm not a disgruntled outsider. I'm a disgruntled insider. I'm a Harvard graduate, and for over a decade, I have interviewed prospective applicants for admission. Each year, I see high school kids competing for "the best" colleges, with all the stress and anxiety that goes with the effort. They are all bright, and all qualified; about 85% of Harvard applicants can do the work. But their high school careers are impossibly overscheduled with AP courses and extracurricular achievements, each student trying to outdo his classmates to impress some faceless college admissions committee. They do it to please their insecure parents and striving teachers, and because they've been brainwashed into thinking the prize of attending a college ranked a spot higher by US News & World Report is worth the abuse they endure. That's the fraud that dwarfs Varsity Blues.
But every so often, I meet a young person insightful enough to call bullshit. They live comfortably in their own skins, they do their own thing at their own pace, they march to the beat of their own drum. I know they will be happy wherever they matriculate. They seldom have perfect SATs, or valedictory grades, or armfuls of faux achievements, but I always root for them. They are too few. I hope the Varsity Blues inspire more bright kids stand up and denounce the whole college rank/college prep complex for the scam it is. They deserve better than to be just more bricks in the wall.