21-Jan-2007

College Admissions

A recent editorial in TOI (well, I was forced to - away from home, TOI was one of the two newspapers available). It's about the lack of consistency of some academics who want more autonomy for universities, yet want quotas to be set by government.
The admission of students and the appointment of teachers are two of the basic processes through which the university maintains its identity and continuity as an institution. These are complex and delicate processes whose successful operation requires the adoption of good rules and the exercise of sound academic judgment.

Nothing could be more detrimental to the health and well-being of the university as an institution of teaching and research than to whittle down its freedom to exercise academic judgment on the ground that such judgment is bound to be arbitrary, subjective, and socially biased.
Now something I had read sometime ago and was meaning to post about for sometime. It's about the admission process of Ivy League universities in the US - it doesn't get higher than those,does it? I had heard about admissions requiring good references and essays written by the candidates and concluded that, well, they don't just concentrate on academics but on a well-rounded personality. Then I read the thing I mentioned above (link here) and realised the real reason. The blogger is discussing a review of a book. It turns out it was all due to the need to keep Jews out in the 1920s (no, these are not conspiracy theories):
Have you ever wondered why that process places so much emphasis on sports, extracurriculars, personality, “leadership,” “character,” and suchlike, as opposed to the more obvious intellectual criteria? The answer, it turns out, is that in the early 1920’s, Harvard and Co. had to find some way to limit the number of Jewish admits:
By 1922, [Jews] made up more than a fifth of Harvard’s freshman class. The administration and alumni were up in arms. Jews were thought to be sickly and grasping, grade-grubbing and insular. They displaced the sons of wealthy Wasp alumni, which did not bode well for fund-raising. A. Lawrence Lowell, Harvard’s president in the nineteen-twenties, stated flatly that too many Jews would destroy the school … Finally, Lowell — and his counterparts at Yale and Princeton — realized that if a definition of merit based on academic prowess was leading to the wrong kind of student, the solution was to change the definition of merit. Karabel argues that it was at this moment that the history and nature of the Ivy League took a significant turn.
Gladwell writes that from that point forward,
The admissions office at Harvard became much more interested in the details of an applicant’s personal life. Lowell told his admissions officers to elicit information about the “character” of candidates from “persons who know the applicants well,” and so the letter of reference became mandatory. Harvard started asking applicants to provide a photograph. Candidates had to write personal essays, demonstrating their aptitude for leadership, and list their extracurricular activities … The personal interview became a key component of admissions in order, Karabel writes, “to ensure that ‘undesirables’ were identified and to assess important but subtle indicators of background and breeding such as speech, dress, deportment and physical appearance.”
Well, that was in the 1920s you say. Things can't be the same now. It turns out things aren't different. A quote from an Economist article by the same the blogger, a year later:
Mr Golden shows that elite universities do everything in their power to admit the children of privilege. If they cannot get them in through the front door by relaxing their standards, then they smuggle them in through the back. No less than 60% of the places in elite universities are given to candidates who have some sort of extra “hook”, from rich or alumni parents to “sporting prowess”. The number of whites who benefit from this affirmative action is far greater than the number of blacks…

Most people think of black football and basketball stars when they hear about “sports scholarships”. But there are also sports scholarships for rich white students who play preppie sports such as fencing, squash, sailing, riding, golf and, of course, lacrosse. The University of Virginia even has scholarships for polo-players, relatively few of whom come from the inner cities…

What is one to make of [Senate Majority Leader Bill] Frist, who opposes affirmative action for minorities while practising it for his own son?

Two groups of people overwhelmingly bear the burden of these policies — Asian-Americans and poor whites. Asian-Americans are the “new Jews”, held to higher standards (they need to score at least 50 points higher than non-Asians even to be in the game) and frequently stigmatised for their “characters” (Harvard evaluators persistently rated Asian-Americans below whites on “personal qualities”). When the University of California, Berkeley briefly considered introducing means-based affirmative action, it rejected the idea on the ground that “using poverty yields a lot of poor white kids and poor Asian kids”.
Re-read this excerpt from TOI again:
Nothing could be more detrimental to the health and well-being of the university as an institution of teaching and research than to whittle down its freedom to exercise academic judgment on the ground that such judgment is bound to be arbitrary, subjective, and socially biased.
We may be not as far gone down the "success" lane as the US, but that doesn't mean we won't get there.

Do read the New Yorker article mentioned above. I don't know about you, but I'd never thought of the Ivy League colleges as being in the "luxury brand-management" business.

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