Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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April 30, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

NEANDERTHALS UNITE!....Harvard alum Michael Winerip has been interviewing Harvard applicants for the past decade. In the New York Times on Sunday, he wrote a piece that perfectly mirrors something I've thought for a long time:

Meeting the soon-to-be rejected makes me hopeful about young people. They are far more accomplished than I was at their age and without a doubt will do superbly wherever they go.

Knowing me and seeing them is like witnessing some major evolutionary change take place in just 35 years, from the Neanderthal Harvard applicant of 1970 to today's fully evolved Homo sapiens applicant.

....What kind of kid doesn't get into Harvard? Well, there was the charming boy I interviewed with 1560 SATs. He did cancer research in the summer; played two instruments in three orchestras; and composed his own music. He redid the computer system for his student paper, loved to cook and was writing his own cookbook. One of his specialties was snapper poached in tea and served with noodle cake.

In 1975, I applied to Stanford, Caltech, and UC San Diego and was accepted by all three. This was no big surprise: I was an A student, scored 1420 on the SAT, attended an NSF math program the summer after my junior year, had two varsity letters, and was editor of the school paper. Not bad! But as near as I can tell, it would barely get me an interview at a place like Stanford or Harvard these days. I suppose I'd still make it into UCSD, but that's about it.

I dunno. Is this true? Would the Kevin Drum of 1975 be able to get into a top school in 2007? I suppose it's impossible to say. The SAT was renormed in 1995 and my old 1420 would be a 1490 today. I'd have a bunch of AP classes under my belt not because I was any smarter, but because suburban high schools all offer loads of AP classes these days. And I'd probably do outside volunteer work or something on weekends — not because I'm any more altruistic than I was then, but just because everyone knows that's what you need to do if you're trying to get into a top school.

So who knows. Maybe it's just a trick of the light. But all I can say from reading news reports is that the kids who get into elite universities today sure seem a damn sight more accomplished than me or anyone else I knew back in 1975. Like Winerip, I feel like a neanderthal.

On the other hand, we boomers still rule the world. Smarter or not, homo super-accomplishmentus will just have to wait their turns.

Kevin Drum 7:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (172)

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Comments

It's kind of hard for me to believe that our kids are so accomplished. Living in a college town, I am constantly surprised by the college students working who cannot make change without a computer or even seem to be able to concept the basic idea of customer service. Is it possible we have them spending so much time on their college prep that we totally forget to teach them how to do basic things like add and subtract or balance your checkbook? The kids I meet seem to be ignorant on the most basic issues, and this is a college town. It scares me, but then I read things like this and wonder. Is it just me?

Posted by: Doubting Thomas on April 30, 2007 at 7:50 PM | PERMALINK

Look on the bright side, Teddy Roosevelt was taking trig at Harvard when he went there. He would be the homo erectus to your Neanderthal.

Posted by: clone12 on April 30, 2007 at 7:52 PM | PERMALINK

I applied to college fewer than 10 years ago, and I feel like I'd fare significantly worse today. I wasn't applying to Harvard/Yale/Stanford, but instead some top public schools and top 20 or so privates. And from what I've read about today's applicant pool, I'm not sure how well I would have competed. I had excellent standardized test scores, lackluster grades and mediocre extracurriculars -- and there's now a surfeit of kids that score off the charts on all three.

Posted by: Carl on April 30, 2007 at 7:54 PM | PERMALINK

Boomers may be ruling the world, but we're not ruling it terribly well (or we're ruling it, well, terribly). The persistence of the "war on drugs" all these years later is a damning indictment of our collective political cowardice. There are many others.

Mind you, we still need to keep our big ol'demographic boot planted firmly on the collective necks of these young whippersnappers for as long as we can.

Posted by: Rand Careaga on April 30, 2007 at 7:55 PM | PERMALINK

Also, don't forget Kevin, but the SAT recently went to a 2400 scale. So the equivalence of your score is somewhat more nebulous.

Posted by: Carl on April 30, 2007 at 7:55 PM | PERMALINK

Grrrr. I've never seen that chart before. I got a 730/780 in 1989. In 1995 that would have been a freaking 1600...okay, the worst possible 1600, but a 1600 none-the-less. I would have got into Princeton! Well, sure, I'm really glad I didn't get into Princeton, as I'm positive it wouldn't have been a good a fit for me as RPI was. But I would have got in, and I would have gotten a 1600, and...

Boy does this crap not matter. I'd rather my kids spent their teenage years playing video games, goofing off with friends, and mailing in the occasional term paper, than stressing about which university in the top 10% they are going to be able to go to. And if they are doing humanitarian work on the weekends, it better be because they are trying to get laid.

Posted by: Lou on April 30, 2007 at 7:58 PM | PERMALINK

I agree that top candidates to today's top schools are stunningly accomplished and often charismatic too. (I'm an interviewer for Columbia, and I still remember one telling me, with captivating confidence, that he wanted to change the world--he just wasn't sure how. Yet.) But it's so insanely competitive that many excellent students don't have a real chance, in my experience, and that's not an easy thing to see.

Posted by: Kit Stolz on April 30, 2007 at 7:59 PM | PERMALINK

I certainly do believe that the best kids today would crush the best of years ago.. not so sure about the average/median though.

Posted by: davidMeger on April 30, 2007 at 7:59 PM | PERMALINK

It's not hard to explain why the typical student applying to the top schools seems smarter and/or more accomplished than those 30 years ago or more, while the average young person you may know seems less so. There are simply more people in competition for the same number of available positions. Stanford hasn't gotten any bigger.

Posted by: qwerty on April 30, 2007 at 8:06 PM | PERMALINK

meh - show me any of them who can do derivatives in their head after a pitcher of margaritas.

and then still manage to convince a RD that they haven't been drinking.

Posted by: kenga on April 30, 2007 at 8:06 PM | PERMALINK

for a fun and informing time, be sure to go to one of the regional science fairs. I sometimes help judge the San Diego Regional Science Fair for the local chapter of the American Statistical Association, and I meet plenty of smart and accomplished high school students. I knew a science fair winner from 1965, and he would fit right in: musician, high SATs, science fair prize. there were things that I had studied in high school that he hadn't; and there were things I studied in high school that my children didn't; they contributed to my having a higher verbal than mathematical SAT. I don't think there is a difference in talent or accomplishment overall, but a difference in highlights. My sons had more calculus and some linear algebra; I had trig and solid geometry and matrix algebra. Generally, the higher you go up the SAT scale, the more remarkable the highlights are.

Posted by: MatthewRmarler on April 30, 2007 at 8:10 PM | PERMALINK

My nephews, who attend an expensive private school, are taking the same math classes I took when I was their age. However, I skipped 2 grades (so I took first and second semester calculus when I was 15). I recall that third semester calculus has been available at the top high schools in Europe and Asia, and the top US schools may offer it now also. OTOH, in Phoenix's horrible public school system, some seniors take only 2 hours of classes a day; then they worked as receptionists in our office. Guess what their job will be 10 years from now!
Consider this also- in the 70's, the US population was about 200 million, and now it is 300 million. However, the # of Ivy league schools and other prestigious schools have remained about the same, and they have not increased their class sizes. No wonder competition has gotten more intense.

Posted by: gyp on April 30, 2007 at 8:12 PM | PERMALINK

They might know a lot; but can they do anything useful?

Posted by: Mazurka on April 30, 2007 at 8:14 PM | PERMALINK

Are the kids getting smarter, or is Harvard looking at a smaller and smaller slice of the applicant pool? The population is larger now than when I applied to colleges in the early '80s. It wouldn't surprise me if more kids go to college (or want to go to college) and if more foreign students are applying to top U.S. colleges. But the size of Harvard's freshman class probably hasn't changed much during that time. So Harvard can be even more selective than they used to be. They're taking the cream of the cream of the cream, instead of just the cream of the cream.

Posted by: Keith on April 30, 2007 at 8:15 PM | PERMALINK

I'll bet you couldn't get into Regent U.

Posted by: Rula Lenska on April 30, 2007 at 8:16 PM | PERMALINK

My sons had more calculus and some linear algebra; I had trig and solid geometry and matrix algebra. Generally, the higher you go up the SAT scale, the more remarkable the highlights are.

Posted by: MatthewRmarler on April 30, 2007 at 8:10 PM | PERMALINK


Awesome. That should help them when they need to call in airstrike coordinates when they go to Iraq. They are going to Iraq, aren't they? I mean, from a guy who regularly cheerleads the war here, I would expect nothing less. When exactly do they graduate / ship out? Is there someplace we can send a care package?

Posted by: Steve on April 30, 2007 at 8:17 PM | PERMALINK

I work at a small, fairly selective liberal arts school in Waltham MA (not to name names). The same thing appears to be true now that was true when I was an undergrad 20+ years ago: the A kids might be hard working and really smart or their folks might have done the work for them (or paid a tutor to learn it for them). But the straight-C kids all got the grades by the sweat of their brows, and they usually are better prospects in the classroom and as research assistants. When push comes to shove, give me the "dumb" kids any day.

Posted by: R. S. Buchanan on April 30, 2007 at 8:22 PM | PERMALINK

I don't doubt that there are lots and lots of very accomplished kids, but it's also true that increased competition has forced parents to put their kids in programs designed with no other purpose than to create the appearance of the perfect candidate, regardless of whether or not their student really learns or contributes anything to any of their 15 superficially amazing extracurriculars. Not to mention the ever-increasing number of SAT tutors that teach mediocre students how to take tests. So there are a lot more inflated credentials out there, too.

Posted by: Zenga on April 30, 2007 at 8:22 PM | PERMALINK

Fuck boomers.

Posted by: ethan on April 30, 2007 at 8:23 PM | PERMALINK

It seems like there's an arms race going on in the big, upper middle class mostly suburban high schools that act as feeders to the Ivy League-- places like Palo Alto, the upscale New York and Boston suburbs, west L.A., etc. But given that the universities are inundated with applications from those fairly narrow regions and demographics, my sense is that they go a little easier on you if you're from an area from where they don't get a lot of applicants-- the rural west, for example. But really, you can get a great education from any of the big top tier state schools at a fraction of the cost. I guess what they're all competing for is the prestige factor as well as the social networking that goes on at the super-elite schools. But if Harvard is so damned great, why can't Matt Yglesias spell to save his life?

Posted by: Hank Scorpio on April 30, 2007 at 8:24 PM | PERMALINK

Not sure how to put this in a short comment, but is this emphasis on being "smarter" in what seems a technological sense really good?
It seems that larger issues of how this emphasis affect society are being ignored. A society where the rulers are pretty much logical technocrats who feel they're a privileged class isn't a recipe for a society I want.

Posted by: sal on April 30, 2007 at 8:29 PM | PERMALINK

They are going to Iraq, aren't they? I mean, from a guy who regularly cheerleads the war here, I would expect nothing less. When exactly do they graduate / ship out? Is there someplace we can send a care package?

My point was that there is less change in curriculum and talent than is perceived. I suspect that the answers to your questions are matters of public record.

Posted by: MatthewRmarler on April 30, 2007 at 8:32 PM | PERMALINK

My daughter, who is about 10 years younger than Kevin, had a similar record to his. We'll never know if she would have been accepted at Harvard. She got into Swarthmore on an early decision basis.

What bothers me is that mediocre (or worse) students like George Bush, Al Gore, John Kerry, and John McCain wind up as our national leaders, rather than top students like Kevin and my daughter.

I'm hoping that Bobby Jindal becomes a Republican Presidential candidate after he serves as Governor of Louisiana....

Posted by: ex-liberal on April 30, 2007 at 8:33 PM | PERMALINK

This proves the success of the No Child Left Behind legislaion. The students accepted at top-flight universities like Sanford, Bob Jones and Regents already have the equivalent of a degree from 30 years ago.

Posted by: Al on April 30, 2007 at 8:34 PM | PERMALINK

FWIW, I don't think the answer to this question is that there are more high school grads applying for the same number of slots. Seems like I read something just a few days ago showing that the number of slots at top universities had actually increased at a slightly higher rate than the number of high school grads. So that part of the equation, anyway, is about the same as it's always been.

Posted by: Kevin Drum on April 30, 2007 at 8:34 PM | PERMALINK

Aw. Had I taken the SATs a few years later, I would have had double 800s, instead of just one. Damn you, test makers!

Posted by: tavella on April 30, 2007 at 8:35 PM | PERMALINK

How many of the uber-qualified rejected by Harvard are Asian?

One of the things I noticed when I worked in the med school scholarship business was that med schools kept out more Asians as part of demographic management than they admitted Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans.

And if more seats were lost by Asians than gained by other "people of color" this means "Whites" were still getting seats they didn't deserve b/c of demographic management.

I strongly suspect that these almost perfect applicants who get rejected by Hahvahd are disproportionately Asian-American.

Posted by: Carl Nyberg on April 30, 2007 at 8:41 PM | PERMALINK

Maybe when they grow up these prodigies can figure out a way to come up with better leaders than chimpus caligulus.

I agree with the notion that we are seeing an ever more stratified level of accomplishment among our younger generations, with an incredibly accomplished uppermost crust sitting atop a mass of comparative dullards.

One other thing that strikes me about the Harvard-wannabe kid in the anecdote - he obviously didn't have to hold down a part time job flipping burgers for pocket money. Somebody paid for the instruments and the lessons to get into those three orchestras, and had the pull to get him in with the cancer research facility he was at despite having no medical background, and he lived a life where cooking esoteric fine dishes was something he could absorb. In short, this was a child of no small affluence. How many kids making the ever more discerning cut for Harvard these days come from a less privileged background?

Posted by: jimBOB on April 30, 2007 at 8:44 PM | PERMALINK

For what it's worth, I'd think grad school admissions are ultimately more important than undergrad.

Posted by: Jim Bartle on April 30, 2007 at 8:44 PM | PERMALINK

I dunno. In 1968, having been turned down by elite colleges where my SATs would have been at least average (albeit getting two alumni interviews and an invite to an alumni club event), I decided that the SATs were overrated and I should've paid attention to athletics, or at least arranged to go to a high school that wasn't on an Air Force base, or got my dad transferred to Minot AFB. Then again, it seems I shouldn't have assumed Penn State would allow me to start on the main campus, fall term. My freshman roomate is a distinguished neurologist, after all.

Then three years later, I find out that GREs matter enough to get a nice graduate fellowship, even if my maths score was 'way lower than a weirdly high verbal. Must be all those words you have to learn as a biology major.

Lately, the University of Florida got rid of its special scholarships to keep the "best" Florida undergrad applicants from defecting to places like Harvard. Makes me wonder how many normal kids get admitted there.

Posted by: Dave Martin on April 30, 2007 at 8:47 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, when you and I were kids you were only supposed to take the SAT once. Now, I believe you can take it multiple times and take the best score from each section. Given that, how could you not get a perfect score?
Otherwise, the comparison across time for students is just as nebulous as the same comparison for athletes. Are runners faster today than 30 years ago? Yes, because of advances in training methods, science, diet. Would a faster runner from 30 years ago excel today? The answer is unknowable - maybe the 1977 champ wouldn't adapt well to training methods. Maybe he would adapt exceptionally well and blow the doors off everyone.

Posted by: Ronn Zealot on April 30, 2007 at 8:48 PM | PERMALINK

Students applying to college today certainly have better looking resumes. But that doesn't mean that they are neceaarily smarter. They've just focused like a laser beam on getting into a top college and also been lucky enough to have had parents who can afford to support all their extracurricular activities.

I'm guessing that today's super-acheivers are much more stressed out than their counterparts from thirty years ago and therefore much more likely to have mental health problems as adults (or even as teenagers, for that matter).

Posted by: mfw13 on April 30, 2007 at 8:50 PM | PERMALINK

College is overrated. Both my brother and sister have degrees they spent a lot of money to get, and never used.

I'm a college dropout. I was considered an "underachiever" because I was smart and didn't do academics like I was supposed to.

I found it ironic and amusing that a recent issue of the University of California alumni magazine honored me and three other guys who never did college in an article called "25 Brilliant California Ideas that are Shaping the Future."

Here's the link. We're #3, Xtreme cyclist.

Posted by: Repack Rider on April 30, 2007 at 8:52 PM | PERMALINK

At Yale, the administration is using the increasing population argument to motivate the construction of two new dorm complexes and a 10% increase in undergrad enrollment.

Students at elite institutions have better resumes, but they are not necessarily better students. I know because I teach them. They are terrified of making mistakes, and therefore avoid courses where A grades seem less likely. Their curiosity is crowded out by their ambition. In Kevin's day in the 1970s, the Ivy League schools were opening their admissions to bright kids from the suburbs (including women, let us not forget), and accepting a lower proportion of legacy candidates like George W Bush. A smaller proportion of those new Ivy admits had been programmed since birth for their college apps, because no one could have planned for the Great Levelling of the 1960s. In my senior year my parents convinced me to apply to three Ivy schools on a lark, I got into two and attended one of them. Very few of my classmates had the high-stress grade anxiety that I see in today's elite undergrads.

I dont think its particularly good for their education.

Posted by: troglodyte on April 30, 2007 at 8:57 PM | PERMALINK

- show me any of them who can do derivatives in their head after a pitcher of margaritas.

Hah! As my high school calc teacher said, "an orangutan can do derivatives."

Now, doing integration while drunk-- that's a challenge.

Posted by: Constantine on April 30, 2007 at 8:58 PM | PERMALINK

A lot of these stories hyping how difficult it is to get into Ivy League schools take the general form of 1) describe high school kid(s) you know and their ridiculous accomplishments, 2) express astonishment that they didn't get into a particular school, and 3) openly wonder what it takes to get in. The assumption seems to be that there's some single yardstick of greatness or magic formula that college admissions committees use to measure applicants. This simply isn't how admissions at these schools work. Harvard (and similar schools) have enough qualified applicants that they can pick their freshmen from a bunch of odd and not necessarily fair criteria and still have a pretty good shot of filling a new class with reasonably well-qualified students. Sure, you might have a 2400 on your SATs, perfect grades, varsity letters in basketball and football, and play tenor sax, but Harvard could be looking to fill the squash team (or, in my case, the lightweight crew) and the tuba section this year. There really is no way to guess exactly how the admissions committee is going to handle someone. This is why a lot of people who have been through this process refer to it as a "crap shoot," and it's not at all uncommon to meet Harvard students who have been rejected from other colleges, even less selective ones. The students that you do see getting into Harvard (all 2000 or so of them each year) are smart and accomplished, but not superhuman.

One other thought: I wouldn't be surprised if the Ivies have ways of ferreting out the differences between accomplished kids and kids with very ambitious parents and high-school guidance counselors. I had a few classmates at Harvard who came in with stellar high school records and lost interest in pretty much everything once they didn't have mom and dad pushing them in the right direction on everything.

Posted by: ESD on April 30, 2007 at 9:03 PM | PERMALINK

Students applying to college today certainly have better looking resumes. But that doesn't mean that they are neceaarily smarter. They've just focused like a laser beam on getting into a top college

The ability to focus like a laser beam on something is a talent that does not get enough attention. Smart people are about as rare as dirt. It takes a special talent to take all the energy swirling in your head and focus it into something manageable so you can accomplish something.

No one gets stressed when talented athletes are sent to summer camp to develop their talents and recruited by colleges. Given how intellectual talent is probably more comment than athletic talent, I don't see why we shouldn't spend a lot of time getting kids to develop that as fully as they can, given the opportunity.

Posted by: Constantine on April 30, 2007 at 9:05 PM | PERMALINK

My daughter is a HS senior & just went through the college application grind. She's in an International Baccalaureate (IB) program in a very highly regarded HS (it's a public school, but shows up very high on those lists of "best high schools in the country" (as measured by AP & IB participation)), gets good grades (A-, unweighted), SAT scores in the mid-1400s (not counting the new reading section, which nobody knows how to weigh yet), has already taken (and scored well on) 6 AP and 2 IB exams, and will take 4 more IB exams and 6 more APs this May. She's on 3 varsity teams, team captain on 2 (field hockey and basketball), team MVP in field hockey and All-County Lacrosse second team as a junior (we don't know about this year -- the season is not over). She's travelled, studied in Mexico, volunteered at the National Zoo, and coached a team of younger HS basketball players (girls). She's done a lot of the other minor school-related activities (student government, volunteering for various causes, etc.).

She applied to 12 colleges (only 1 Ivy -- well, Stanford too), and got rejected by 6. She's going to attend a fine local public college. At every college that rejected her, her SAT scores were near or above the 50th percentile score of accepted applicants. At one, her scores were well above the 75th percentile. For every college that accepted her, her SAT scores were well above the 75th percentile score of accepted applicants.

Those of you who think that little has changed over the past few decades are absolutely nuts. There is no comparison to the college application situation that I faced in 1973-1974.

Posted by: TomG on April 30, 2007 at 9:09 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin,

See exhibit A: The "Helicopter Parent"

That is the cause of the phenomenon you've noticed.

I mean, what normal parent sees well-rounded as meaning able to do everything? Waiting reception area while your child interviews for his first post-graduate job? The only way a kid can have all those skills competently honed, is to have been started really early down that road. Tiger Woods was hitting golf balls while in his walker. Don't you think some boomers' kids have been prepared for Ivy League acceptance since they came out of the womb?

Posted by: Dismayed Liberal on April 30, 2007 at 9:15 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin: "In 1975, I applied to Stanford, Caltech, and UC San Diego and was accepted by all three."

Impressive achievement.

I was accepted by both San Jose and Washington, and chose the latter. I had a 1280 SAT score, but I think it also helped that I was a good baseball player in high school.

I Really liked living in Seattle, initially because it was so different from my hometown of Pasadena and later because it's a truly wonderful city in its own right. Had I not been offered a great job in Hawaii 20 years ago, I probably would have remained up there.

As it is, still visit my friends there at least once a year each spring or summer. In fact, I'll be up there over Memorial Day weekend, before heading back down the coast to see my mother.

Posted by: Donald from Hawaii on April 30, 2007 at 9:18 PM | PERMALINK

"On the other hand, we boomers still rule the world."
Doomed to listen to your music, pay your social security, read your demographically targeted magazine pablum, for the rest of my life. Sure... but don't rub our noses in it.

(Born in 1965.)


Posted by: ReadSM on April 30, 2007 at 9:21 PM | PERMALINK

ex-liberal: What bothers me is that mediocre (or worse) students like George Bush, Al Gore, John Kerry, and John McCain wind up as our national leaders, rather than top students like Kevin and my daughter.

It's an interesting comment.

Political skill might be something that is neither taught nor testable. FDR had poor grades, but Nixon had excellent grades, at Whittier and at Duke, but FDR was clearly the better president. LBJ also had poor grades, but he was an excellent Senate Majority Leader.

Posted by: MatthewRmarler on April 30, 2007 at 9:22 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, your 1420 translates to a 1490 today, after the 1995 "recentering of scores," as you mention. Then, if you were 17 now and taking the SAT today, you would probably have hired a tutor, so figure that would add, say, 40 points. And you would probably have taken the test at least one more time, and the colleges like to report the highest verbal and highest math scores from any taking of the SAT, so that might add, say, 30 points. Now you are up to 1560! Pretty amazing!

And you would now have taken a lot of AP classes, where an A is a 5.0 instead of a 4.0, so your GPA would be, say, 0.5 higher. And your parents would have sent you to even more summer programs.

So, color me unimpressed with the latest generation. It's mostly smoke and mirrors.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on April 30, 2007 at 9:24 PM | PERMALINK

Al: "The students accepted at top-flight universities like Sanford, Bob Jones and Regents already have the equivalent of a degree from 30 years ago."

Been hittin' the malt liquor again, I see.

Posted by: Donald from Hawaii on April 30, 2007 at 9:31 PM | PERMALINK

Repack Rider: Congratulations on your success. Your comment, though, suggests you might have benefitted from a college-level statistics class.

Posted by: Pat on April 30, 2007 at 9:32 PM | PERMALINK

MatthewRmahler: "Political skill might be something that is neither taught nor testable. FDR had poor grades, but Nixon had excellent grades ..."

I think the fact that FDR wasn't a paranoid borderline sociopath might have had a little something to do with his being the better president.

His successor, Harry Truman, had only a high school education. Anyone care to compare his tenure in office to that of our current MBA president?

Posted by: Donald from Hawaii on April 30, 2007 at 9:40 PM | PERMALINK

"....What kind of kid doesn't get into Harvard? Well, there was the charming boy I interviewed with 1560 SATs. He did cancer research in the summer; played two instruments in three orchestras; and composed his own music. He redid the computer system for his student paper, loved to cook and was writing his own cookbook. One of his specialties was snapper poached in tea and served with noodle cake."

What a dick.

Posted by: mosley on April 30, 2007 at 9:47 PM | PERMALINK

Over on College Confidential, you occasionally hear from these terribly accomplished, straight A, 2300 plus seniors about how terribly unfair it is that they didn't get accepted by Harvard Yale Princeton Stanford. And you start to get a sense that the only reason they practiced their bassoon pieces until they were perfect or participated in that summer program at NASA or spent their summer in Rwanda reading to orphans was for how it would look on their college applications. I can't think of an emptier reason behind all those accomplishments.

Posted by: maurinsky on April 30, 2007 at 9:49 PM | PERMALINK

I got a 1200 on the SATs (I forgot that I was scheduled to take them until that morning, did no prep - got a 790 on the verbal and a 410 on the math), I had a 2.5 GPA (mostly due to the fact I was a total slacker in my math classes), only participated in one extracurricular because my mother was agoraphobic and needed me to do the grocery shopping and bill paying, and even in my A classes, I put forth minimal effort.

Still, I got accepted to all the liberal arts colleges I applied to - Sarah Lawrence, Hampshire, Wesleyan. I think it was based almost entirely on my essays and interviews.

It didn't matter, though, because my parents refused to fill out the FAFSA, so I ended up commuting to the state university system and paying the bill myself. I even got a full scholarship for my second and third semesters, but my free ride ended when I had to take a math class and killed my GPA again. But I have 40+ credits in English, Theater and Music, making me possibly the least employable person ever!

Posted by: maurinsky on April 30, 2007 at 10:04 PM | PERMALINK

I was a well-rounded but more or less normal smart kid from a middle class family of state-college grads. I did sports, theatre, band, and academic extra-curricular clubs, but none of this cancer research kind of stuff.

I got a 1600 on the recentered SAT in 1995, graduated with a 3.98 GPA in 1996, and got into Stanford with good financial aid, but was rejected by Harvard and some other places. (At the time I was upset; in hindsight, thanks East Coast admissions people!)

Since then, many schools - including Stanford - have moved toward the well-rounded student _body_ model - that is, admitting a variety of the highly focused, rather than the well-rounded.

The ability to be highly focused is admirable, but it can also turn you into a brittle freak show. I think we lose something if the Stanfords and Harvards don't admit well-rounded young people like I was.

Posted by: qwerty on April 30, 2007 at 10:08 PM | PERMALINK

It's hyper-competition, not numbers.

It reminds of when I was in Florence, Italy, in the mid eighties and I wanted to "exchange conversation" with a local. I went to the British Institute and put my name in a tidy booklet that people could use to call either English or Italian speakers, as needed. It just had names, general location, hours available and phone numbers. But I put in that I taught English in a Canadian college. Oops! That screwed the British Institute's very proper self-regulating system, one that had probably been the same for decades. For it unleashed red blooded American competition. The US academics in Florence weren't going to let my mediocre qualification lie unchallenged. When I looked at the booklet again a month later, it was in tatters, with everyone touting better and better and better qualifications in every area they could write. Unbelievable!

The qualifications were much better than getting into Harvard. And this was just to exchange conversation with some Iti!

Posted by: Bob M on April 30, 2007 at 10:13 PM | PERMALINK

His successor, Harry Truman, had only a high school education.

I thought I had already made my point, or I would have added Truman and Lincoln to the list. Truman studied trigonometry in artillery school, and rose to the rank of captain. Yes, he was a better Pres. than G.W.Bush. Gerald Ford ranked in the upper third of his class at Yale Law School, and he wasn't a very good president.

Posted by: MatthewRmarler on April 30, 2007 at 10:18 PM | PERMALINK

ESD: This is why a lot of people who have been through this process refer to it as a "crap shoot,"

There's an argument for making it, literally, a crap shoot. See

http://heather.cs.ucdavis.edu/pub/AffirmativeAction/LAT.NM.html

and

http://heather.cs.ucdavis.edu/pub/AffirmativeAction/Chron2000.html

It's also the only palatable form of "affirmative action" I've ever seen. No, it's not the usual approach - it's color blind.

I wouldn't be surprised if the Ivies have ways of ferreting out the differences between accomplished kids and kids with very ambitious parents and high-school guidance counselors.

Now you're ascribing superhuman abilities to the admissions people instead of the students. At top schools there are so many good students applying that there is no way to separate signal from noise. The admissions people probably just apply their own silly ideas. And let's face it, if their selection criteria are not optimal, how the hell are they ever going to find out? That would require experiment.

Posted by: alex on April 30, 2007 at 10:26 PM | PERMALINK

Does the world end if some student doesn't get into Harvard? Does it end for that student?

I know a lot of people who have been pretty darn successful who didn't make it in to one of the elite schools. I know people who have been pretty darn miserable who did.

I have a friend who has two daughters. One went to Smith and the other to some elite little college in California. Both graduated with distinction on the same weekend. It took both of them the better part of a decade to find work. Finally one got married and the other caught on as an artist. College was not necessary for either career.

Anyway 36 years ago when I started law school a Federal judge, who was an alum, told us at orientation that he would never have been admitted to our class. My guess is he would have been admitted.

As to the perfect kid who is example in the set up. Doesn't he seem just a little too good to be true. He does to me. If he is for real, I fear for his long term mental and spirtual health.

There is a story told about Dennis Hopper, the actor. As a young man he visited Thomas Hart Benton and asked him to critique his art. Hopper was uptight and very earnest. His work was technically good. Benton looked at it for a long time, and said somethng like "son sometimes you have to get a little tight before you can paint lose." With that he handed him a bottle of whiskey.

Posted by: Ron Byers on April 30, 2007 at 10:27 PM | PERMALINK

I think that the standards are very clearly changing and very rapidly. I was accepted by a selective liberal arts college in 2002 and graduated in 2006. Over the course of those four years the percentage of admitted students at my school decreased by over 15% (not exaggerating!) and the standards for admission became much higher. I have no doubt that I would not have been accepted to my alma mater if I had applied in 2006 rather than 2002. Meanwhile, I know for a fact that the quality of education at my public high school has not increased in tandem; there are still only a couple of AP classes available, no IB program, same couple of college counselors, etc.

Today's high school seniors are very clearly getting the short end of the stick, just as I probably did compared with those that came before me (like the high school teacher/Harvard grad who thought I could get in to Harvard because my HS record was better than his). But I don't worry about the Harvard applicants at all; I worry about students that are lower on the collegiate food chain and risk being shut out of higher education all together. Students who should have access to their local public universities are increasingly unable to compete. The average accepted GPA of a freshman at UCLA is 4.0. A family friend was rejected from the University of Washington with a 4.0; another found that he could only be accepted to the UW by maintaining a 4.0 in community college for two years and transferring.

I have no doubt that there are tons of qualified students who are being rejected from institutions at which they would absolutely thrive. I was the valedictorian of my class last year, maintained a cumulative GPA of 4.0, and graduated with a double major and honors. But I would not have been accepted to the school at which I was so successful if I had applied only four years later. Scary.


Posted by: Corey on April 30, 2007 at 10:34 PM | PERMALINK

In 1982, I applied to Caltech, MIT, Stanford, and Princeton, during my junior year of high school. I had taken the SAT once and honestly don't recall my scores. I had already taken all of the science and math classes my public high school in Houston had to offer and wasn't looking forward to my senior year. I was accepted at Caltech.

My oldest daughter is now a sophomore in high school--Stuyvesant, NYC, so she does OK on standardized tests. Many of her fellow students take extra prep classes after school. I just received a letter notifying me that she will take the SAT-II for chemistry this year and the check for the prep class (4-7 pm on weekdays and a couple of Saturday mornings) is due tomorrow. It's assumed.

My middle daughter is taking a prep class given at her junior high for the exam to get into Stuy, also at extra charge.

I'm not really sure all these preps are necessary. They are all run by for-profits and increasing parental anxiety increases their profits.

However, daughter #1 took the Hunter exam, passed the multiple choice part, and failed the writing sample. I found that odd because she told me the subject was her favorite food, and she wrote about a pomegranate we had recently eaten. She said she described cutting it open to find the seeds, shopping for rose water to dip them in, the mess they made on her baby sister's shirt, and the myth of Persephone. Not good enough for an 11 year old?

I was later told by a teacher at our whole language elementary (whose son made the cut that same year) that Hunter has very specific expectations for the essay's structure, and most successful candidates prepare with tutors if they don't come from a 5 paragraph essay elementary. Oops.

I'm afraid to make that mistake again.

Posted by: Shamhat on April 30, 2007 at 10:37 PM | PERMALINK

I can't believe that Drum got a 1420 in 1975 -- I got a 1410 in 1974, so that makes him smarter and younger than me... If he's so smart how come he comes up with so many dumb opinions on this blog? Like, is Harry Reid really such a swell leader for the Democrats? Inquiring minds want to know... As for the poached tea snapper boy, I wonder how much pressure his parents put on him to be so charming. I first started worrying about this competitive pressure when I read about mandatory volunteerism at some of the tit-totter's high schools. Orwell pointed out that abuse of language is a good indicator of when things are going off the rails.

Posted by: minion on April 30, 2007 at 10:39 PM | PERMALINK

I applied to Caltech and Stanford in 1973 and was accepted at both as a transfer student (admission as an incoming junior after graduating from my local community college). As a narrowly-focused grind, I did extremely well in all my classes in high school and junior college, but ... extra-curricular stuff? Not a whit of it. I didn't join a single club or participate in a single activity outside the classroom.

Today I'd be doomed, I fear.

Posted by: Zeno on April 30, 2007 at 10:52 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin: I was an A student, scored 1420 on the SAT,
i also was an A student.. two A students.. more A's than A students... lots of students... A's..

attended an NSF math program the summer after my
i attended an NSF program.. two NSF programs.. every program.. i attended a program...

had two varsity letters,
i got letters in varsity... every letter was for my varsity.. my letter was for every varsity... all my varsities..

and was editor of the school paper.
my newspaper had an editor... two editors.. had every editor.. lots of editors..

Not bad!
I'm not bad... i'm..

But as near as I can tell, it would barely get me an interview at a place like Stanford or Harvard these days.
i could barely get an interview everywhere.. everywhere wants to barely interview me.. i could interview barely..


[sorry... just riffing off that self-obsessed character from SNL. Hopefully to immunize us all from battling egos with our dear moderator.]

Posted by: social climber on April 30, 2007 at 10:52 PM | PERMALINK

Why all the insecurity, folks? Its what you do after college that really counts. Hasn't anybody seen animal house?

The really successful people invent their own lives. They follow their passion. Some get rich, but most are really happy.

Students like the kid in our example doing cancer research when he isn't poaching snapper end up as post-docs with some Nobel prize winner stealing their work to help some big Pharmaceutic Company get rich selling a better erection pill.

Posted by: Ron Byers on April 30, 2007 at 10:52 PM | PERMALINK

Part of the explanation for declining acceptance rates, especially at elite colleges, is revealed by TomG's tale of his daughter's experience. She applied to 12 schools! In 1994, I was near the top of my IB class, but only applied to 4 schools. Few of my classmates applied to more than 6 schools. The result is that acceptance is much harder to predict, and kids (or their parents) feel compelled to apply to even more schools.

Posted by: Karlyn on April 30, 2007 at 10:53 PM | PERMALINK

I worry about students that are lower on the collegiate food chain and risk being shut out of higher education all together. Students who should have access to their local public universities are increasingly unable to compete.

I went to the bookstore of the community college where my son was studying while trying to get into the Navy. Why he had to work to get into the Navy is too tedious to discuss. Anyway, the textbooks for biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics were good college level. I looked at his homework for differential equations, and it was challenging. I know at least one Fellow of the American Statistical Association who began his college career at a local community college. He got his PhD at a well-regarde university.

Your first college is important, but it isn't career-limiting to start low and close to home.

Posted by: MatthewRmarler on April 30, 2007 at 10:55 PM | PERMALINK

Sounds like a system that creates deep inequality. If you can't draw from the pool of socioeconomically disadvataged to fill these slots, then the schools should be shut down. This isn't even worth a conversation.

Posted by: john on April 30, 2007 at 10:58 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin- thanks for the links. It's an interesting concept. I doubt that anything like that lottery system would ever get put into place at an Ivy, even if current system probably produces a similar result. I don't think that the egos of Ivy administrators could take it- they need to feel that they are personally guaranteeing the selection of the best and brightest, or at least the most interesting.

[I]Now you're ascribing superhuman abilities to the admissions people instead of the students.[/I]

Not really. See what I wrote above about the obvious examples of Harvard kids away from their parents not living up to their CVs. However, I do think that those "helicopter parents" occasionally leave a few classic fingerprints on their kids' applications, and admissions officers are smart people who have done their job for a long time and have probably figured out by now how to pick up on a few of those signs.

[i]And let's face it, if their selection criteria are not optimal, how the hell are they ever going to find out? That would require experiment.[/i]

And that would require agreeing on some set of variables that identify what counts as an optimal outcome, and I doubt that even Ivy admissions offices have a coherent idea of what that is.

jimbob-
I doubt that your concern has escaped the attention of Ivy admissions offices. My impression is that some administrators at elite schools see this as a pretty significant issue- Larry Summers flagged economic diversity as an issue a few times, for one. It's not impossible to get into elite schools without rich parents financing a batch of expensive and exotic hobbies, although it might be harder. My app listed boring jobs landscaping and bagging groceries at QFC, among other things. That, and I "wasted" quite a bit of time on slow public transportation getting to the one extracurricular that wound up mattering to Harvard, which I'm sure some of my more affluent high school classmates could have put to use on other expensive resume-building activities.

Posted by: ESD on April 30, 2007 at 11:01 PM | PERMALINK

A few additional comments:

This really needs to be framed as a sort of class issue rather than some generational change in students themselves. There is an enormous chasm between students with access to the sorts of opportunities that facilitate fantastic resumes and students that have to work with what they already have.

To Steve Sailer: I am really surprised with the number of people willingly playing the “today, my scores would be” game. Unless you are a relatively recent high school grad, you simply have no basis to compare. Not only are the tests different, but the educational system itself is fundamentally different. You can’t assume that your GPA would be X.XX higher because of AP tests, because you don’t know if your school even has weighted grades or AP classes! I had no weighted grades in high school and my school only offered two AP classes, both science and both by application only.

To Jim Bartle: You are absolutely right that grad school admissions are “more important” than undergrad. Today, however, there is a relationship between the two. I am a first year graduate student at a major research university and have spent time talking to other members of my cohort about undergrad records. The students who attended super elite private schools (ivys, Stanford, etc.) were accepted with much lower GPAs and GREs than those of us who attended public schools or lesser known private colleges. We concluded, based on what we could tell, that it appeared that some students had to overcompensate for attending a lesser known school.

To Ronn Zealot: It is true that students can take the SAT multiple times, but that doesn’t mean that all do. You need time and money, which not all high school students have. So, there is really only a very small number of students who can realistically earn themselves a perfect SAT score. It should be noted that this small minority is not reflective of young people as a whole.

Posted by: Corey on April 30, 2007 at 11:01 PM | PERMALINK

At least by the mid 80s, it was already ridiculously hard and basically random whether you got into Harvard. The guy who graduated #1 in my high school class was super smart, did all sorts of volunteer work, blew away the SATs, and ended up at Brown. His Harvard obsession didn't end and he went to Harvard Law.

I had two other high school classmates who went to Harvard. Both were a lot less smart than the guy who got rejected (but still very smart). They got in because they were recruited as athletes.

What is with the sudden obsession with college admissions? Boomers rule the world and their kids are applying to college.

I went to Cornell, then to Penn for grad school, and nobody ever made much of it (its not like I went to Harvard) But parents of high school kids swoon when I tell them where I went to school.

Calm down people. Getting your kid into a brand name school doesn't confirm your excellence as a parent. A lot of kids I knew at Cornell turned into drug addicts.

Posted by: pj on April 30, 2007 at 11:01 PM | PERMALINK

One of his specialties was snapper poached in tea and served with noodle cake.

If, as an interviewer, you think this is charming in a HS boy, rather than a mark of absurd affectation, you've lost all perspective.

Posted by: frankly0 on April 30, 2007 at 11:03 PM | PERMALINK

Ron Byers: Hasn't anybody seen animal house?

Robert Hoover--- Public Defender in Baltimore
Larry Kroger--- Editor of "National Lampoon"
Greg Marmalade--- ex-Nixon White House aide (raped in prison, 1974)
Eric Stratton--- Gynecologist, Beverly Hills, California
Doug Neidermeyer--- killed in Vietnam by his own troops
Kent Dorfman--- Sensitivity Trainer, group encounter therapist, Cleveland
Daniel Simpson Day--- whereabouts unknown
Barbara Sue Janson--- Tour Guide, Universal Studios, Hollywood
Senator and Mrs. Blutarsky--- Washington D.C.

Posted by: alex on April 30, 2007 at 11:04 PM | PERMALINK

Your first college is important, but it isn't career-limiting to start low and close to home.

I agree; my boyfriend of five years attended community college and went on to excel at a four year college and now a PhD program. The problem is that I am increasingly hearing stories about intelligent kids who are being rejected from all of the schools to which they applied. In my area, it is even getting harder to attend local community colleges because the waiting lists are so long.

Posted by: Corey on April 30, 2007 at 11:08 PM | PERMALINK

To Jim Bartle: You are absolutely right that grad school admissions are “more important” than undergrad. Today, however, there is a relationship between the two.

Very true. While my GPA was middling, at my undergraduate university, I was able to participate in a lot of research, and this allowed me to get accepted at a top-notch graduate program (and after getting an M.S. I returned to my old undergrad uni for my Ph.D., but that's another story).

If, as an interviewer, you think this is charming in a HS boy, rather than a mark of absurd affectation, you've lost all perspective.

I am highly in favor of absurd affectations in college students. Without them, you get nothing but a bunch of students who are good at being good at the things everyone expects them to be good at. And that's no fun.

Posted by: Constantine on April 30, 2007 at 11:12 PM | PERMALINK

where did harvard rank on the monthly's best colleges list? what was it i read in charlie peters' column about parents scheduling their kids to within an inch of their lives so they get all the right qualifications checked off to make it into elite colleges? the parents who complained they blew six figures putting their kid through all the right private schools only to see her enroll willingly in a state university?

Posted by: mudwall jackson on April 30, 2007 at 11:12 PM | PERMALINK

ESD: I doubt that anything like that lottery system would ever get put into place at an Ivy ... I don't think that the egos of Ivy administrators could take it

Bingo. That and it would destroy the mystique (which would have the marketing dept. up in arms).

Posted by: alex on April 30, 2007 at 11:14 PM | PERMALINK

I am highly in favor of absurd affectations in college students.

De gustibus.

Posted by: frankly0 on April 30, 2007 at 11:15 PM | PERMALINK

While my GPA was middling, at my undergraduate university, I was able to participate in a lot of research, and this allowed me to get accepted at a top-notch graduate program

That really is the flip-side of my experience. I went to a little known liberal arts college in California with limited research resources, but took every opportunity I could find. Even with my perfect record/scores, however, I feel like I was fundamentally limited by the fact that I was not at a research university. The possibility of being an RA didn't even exist; in order to present at a conference, I actually had to produce my own research.

Anyway, I applied to 10 graduate programs, all in the top 20 of my field. While all of the public universities accepted me and offered funding, only one private (Cornell) would go near me with a ten foot pole. I still don't know what it would have taken to get me into Harvard or Stanford (other than having the same record only at a "better" school), but I will say that I am very very happy with the public university that I wound up choosing!

Posted by: Corey on April 30, 2007 at 11:21 PM | PERMALINK

So sick of this bullshit discussion about test scores. A little over 10 years ago, I was in the top 5% of my (competitive) high school class with an above 4.0 average. By the "weighted" standards, I had 1330 SATs. I got into U.C. Berkeley and UCLA and wait-listed at Claremont Pomona. But apparently, anything less than a 1400 means I'm a certified idiot. Never mind that I went on to get an above A- average at Berkeley and was nearly magna cum laude. I went through the same crap again with applying to law schools -- I had above the 75% GPA in most cases, yet because my score wasn't super-high, I got rejected from several schools that likely accepted the students with poorer grades.

Posted by: wilder on April 30, 2007 at 11:21 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, I was accepted by Cal Tech in 1956. I have no idea what my SAT was because we weren't told in those days. My high school (in Chicago) was asked to send a transcript to USC where I had been offered a scholarship and, not knowing what USC was, they sent it to Cal Berkley. I got a letter from Cal accepting me and asking me to submit an application. I never thought of Harvard. Too cold.

My kids were accepted to USC in the 80s. Now ? I don't know. One graduated from UCLA and one to go. The medical students I teach are accomplished but lack some breadth, often. Many are from other countries.

Posted by: Mike K on April 30, 2007 at 11:23 PM | PERMALINK

I agree with Karlyn's (10:53) take on the incentive to apply to more schools, and its effect on admission rates. Clearly, admission rates are declining in part due to students applying to more colleges.

But that's not really the issue of Kevin's post (as I read it). His bottom line question is:

"Would the Kevin Drum of 1975 be able to get into a top school in 2007? I suppose it's impossible to say. The SAT was renormed in 1995 and my old 1420 would be a 1490 today. I'd have a bunch of AP classes under my belt not because I was any smarter, but because suburban high schools all offer loads of AP classes these days. And I'd probably do outside volunteer work or something on weekends — not because I'm any more altruistic than I was then, but just because everyone knows that's what you need to do if you're trying to get into a top school."

The answer, Kevin (and others), is "no." Sure, you "could have" hired tutors and taken SAT prep courses; you "could have" spent your middle school and HS years developing additional athletic skills to allow you to play more sports (or other skills such as music or art); you "could have" been involved in more activities; you "could have" taken more advanced courses, heck, you "could have" taken courses at the local community college; you "could have" travelled overseas to learn a new language; you "could have" worked yourself much harder than you actually did.

But the fact is you didn't do what you "could have" done; I didn't either, nor have 99% of the readers of this post over age 30. That's the difference -- the kids today are doing things we never would have even thought about.

To repeat my earlier conclusion: those of you who think that the college admissions game hasn't changed (e.g. "smoke and mirrors") are nuts.

Posted by: TomG on April 30, 2007 at 11:26 PM | PERMALINK

So sick of this bullshit discussion about test scores.

Amen!

A little over 10 years ago, I was in the top 5% of my (competitive) high school class with an above 4.0 average. By the "weighted" standards, I had 1330 SATs. I got into U.C. Berkeley and UCLA and wait-listed at Claremont Pomona.

I hope you realize you still had it good! I know any number of 4.0 students with virtually-to-actually perfect SATs that could not get into any of the schools you did.

You should know, though, that there are an increasing number of colleges that do not require SATs anymore. One of the other schools in the Claremont consortium, for example, does not require SAT scores. This is a movement that does not get enough attention!

Posted by: Corey on April 30, 2007 at 11:29 PM | PERMALINK

A couple quick thoughts:

- High school credentials are wildly inflated. Rich kids take SAT tutoring classes to learn how to answer multiple choice questions. High school teachers are enormously pressured to inflate grades--even if a high school teacher wants to, say, give mostly C's, it'd be hard to justify given that a single C can kill a student's chances at harvard and so on. Or at least I assume this is the case--I teach at a writing program at UC San Diego, and one of the common student complaints is that this required class will lower their GPAs which will make it harder to get into medical/graduate/law school. I don't inflate my grades, per se, but I end of feeling guilty any time someone gets below a B- (and that guilt, to be honest, has probably pushed a few borderline students out of the c-range.)

- I was one of those overachiever high school kids in the late 90s who did volunteer work, joined clubs and so on. I don't regret that at all. But I do regret putting tons of work into subjects like chemistry, which never interested me during my sophomore and junior years. During my senior year, I started dating someone seriously and completely blew off my classes in subjects that didn't interest me (physics and statistics, if I recall.) I got B's in those; my GPA was a bit lower; but it was no big deal, even though I did a minimal amount of work--see what I said about grade inflation--and I had a lot more fun and learned a lot more about how to function in the world than I ever would have learned by figuring out how to calculate the velocity of an egg dropped off a high school roof.

- Colleges should want self-directed students, not kids who are going through the motions, and as far as I can tell, that should mean letting in kids with crappy grades who show some obvious engagement with the world. They would be a lot better than the academic overachievers who see college as a steppingstone and nothing more. I've been lucky to have mostly pleasant students, but I've also had some obnoxious students. On an evaluation last quarter, I received the following comment: "I am not a fan of the writing program. Your grade is based on several writing assignments; however, you are forced to attend class and finish readings. This is bothersome." The comment was atypical, but not that atypical. People with those sorts of attitudes really don't belong at a university, but they have to attend one, because they don't want to work at WalMart.

- The real problem, as I've said on other similar comment threads on this blog is that employers are increasingly relying on academic credentials for hiring choices. Harry Truman couldn't get a job as a legislative assistant today unless he first went to college, interned for two summers for free, and so on. As long as employers, potential lovers, and other significant folk see college as the ultimate measure of life achievement, then we'll have disappointed teenagers who don't really care about learning, but don't want to spend the rest of their lives feeling like they would have been able to achieve much, much more if they had just played the cello instead of the flute.
And of course, colleges don't want to admit that while what they do--give young people the opportunity to spend a few years getting smarter--is really cool, it isn't all that important to most people professionally, since that would mean lower attendance rates, fewer professorial jobs and the like. In other words, the system sucks and it will probably get worse in the coming years, producing even more frustrated super-genius kids who couldn't get into harvard, and who have no idea what they want to do with their lives other than to be able to say they went to Harvard.

Posted by: brad on April 30, 2007 at 11:37 PM | PERMALINK

The real problem, as I've said on other similar comment threads on this blog is that employers are increasingly relying on academic credentials for hiring choices.

And how were you hired to teach your writing program? ;)

I think you are almost spot on; employers shouldn't be dependent on academic records for hiring, unless academic records are actually somewhat pertinent to the position being sought. For some of us (and it sounds like you as well), academia is a chosen profession. The problem is also one of distinguishing between individuals who are/were genuinely committed to their academic work and the kids who just wanted "to be able to say they went to Harvard".

Posted by: Corey on April 30, 2007 at 11:51 PM | PERMALINK

We're starting to sound more and more Asian about all of this. ("Must get into top college! More study! Eek!") If it ever comes down to entrance exams....we're sunk.

I was talking about present day college applications with a friend of mine whose daughter has just gone through the process. My friend couldn't stop commenting "I don't remember ANY of this stuff when we applied!" Get a copy of one's grades, SAT scores, application form, saunter over to the kitchen table and write down "Why I want to go to X" as a one-page essay, list the astronomy club and year abroad on Rotary exchange, then dump it in the mail. No sweat. She went to Cornell and I went to MIT.

Now the kids are frantically working on their essays for months, with high schools having the students bring them in to English classes...sheesh.

I'm pretty convinced the reason I got into MIT was due to having had the interview right after I had finished the summer section of a very intense full-time Japanese language program. I must have come off as very blase, world-weary, and unflappable, where what was actually going through my head was "oh wow, this person is speaking English to me! And I can answer back in English, too!"

And my roommate is convinced the only reason she got in was they kept losing the records of her interview and asking her to repeat it. She's convinced that by the time Round III rolled around they were too embarrassed to do anything but admit her.

Good times, good times....

Posted by: grumpy realist on April 30, 2007 at 11:53 PM | PERMALINK

Ha! Grumpy, you must have been early-mid 70s, right? Ha -- that sounds about right!

Posted by: TomG on May 1, 2007 at 12:02 AM | PERMALINK

But I do regret putting tons of work into subjects like chemistry, which never interested me during my sophomore and junior years

You know, I have to say that one of the nice things about high school is that I was forced to apply myself in subjects I might not have thought "interested me," but I got a lot out of them and realized that they did have a lot to offer me. I thought I was going to major in political science and go to law school. After my friend convinced me that it would be better for college to take Physics my junior year instead of skipping out on science until my senior year, 15 years later I ended up as a computer scientist.

Oh, for the record, in the early 90s, I was one of those obsessive-compulsive high school students obsessed with college. I applied to 13 schools and got accepted to 7.

As long as employers, potential lovers, and other significant folk see college as the ultimate measure of life achievement

On the potential lover thing, I doubt I would have held much interest in someone who hadn't been to college when I was 22. However, now that I'm in my 30s, the pool of people who haven't been to college that I come across is much more interesting. The 20-something pink-collar worker isn't too appealing, but the 30-something small businesswoman is a pretty compelling package.

Also, I wouldn't have minded some "coaching" on my applications. To this day, I really am not very good at the art of the "personal statement."

Posted by: Constantine on May 1, 2007 at 12:11 AM | PERMALINK

All of this makes me incredibly happy I didn't take achievement any more seriously. Don't get me wrong, I was widely considered a major overachiever and I busted my ass in a very competitive HS. But apparently I was playing in a very different league. While I was exhausted, my focus was on learning and not on doing things for the sake of doing them. My parents made sure I stayed on track, but they also made sure I didn't go overboard.

When it came time to apply to schools, I researched for *two years*, found internships to verify my career path, visited campuses, even read entire course catalogs, and in the end applied to three very good but not top tier institutions (Syracuse, Purdue, WashU) and was accepted easily. I was tempted to apply to an Ivy just to find out if they'd take me, but the financial disclosure form was so offensive I passed. I picked the cheapest school (Purdue) and while I hated being stuck in Indiana, I got a great education at a respected school, all without incurring debt.

I took it seriously, but I am so glad I didn't get caught up in the insanity.

Posted by: filosofickle on May 1, 2007 at 12:29 AM | PERMALINK

1) I don't think Stanford does interviews.

2) I don't think tea-poached snapper on kugel has universal appeal. How about a desert?

3) Decade long trends notwithstanding, Harvard alumni have been bragging about the kids they reject since at least 1775.

Posted by: B on May 1, 2007 at 12:44 AM | PERMALINK

You know, I have to say that one of the nice things about high school is that I was forced to apply myself in subjects I might not have thought "interested me," but I got a lot out of them and realized that they did have a lot to offer me. I thought I was going to major in political science and go to law school. After my friend convinced me that it would be better for college to take Physics my junior year instead of skipping out on science until my senior year, 15 years later I ended up as a computer scientist.

I agree that high schools should require students to take requirements in different fields and expose them to a variety of subject areas. I just mean that, for me personally, I imagine I would have enjoyed high school more if I had spent more energy on meeting girls and less energy on remembering what a mole was in chemistry class, and I doubt there would have been many reprecussions professionally.

I will say, though, that I don't think elite colleges should ignore students who do somewhat poorly in a subject or two (as long as it's the same field over and over and reflective of a particular disinterest balanced out by a meaningful interest in something else.)

Posted by: brad on May 1, 2007 at 12:45 AM | PERMALINK

dessert . . . and to think I hand wrote my essays to Stanford and mailed them in four days after the deadline.

Posted by: B on May 1, 2007 at 12:47 AM | PERMALINK

This is why you get people like Aleksey Vayner at Yale. An outlier of rampant self-promotion.

(Caveat: I went to Yale for two years back in the Neolithic (1989-91), before I decided that I didn't like it, so I can say this.)

Posted by: sara on May 1, 2007 at 12:50 AM | PERMALINK

You know, I was admitted to Harvard this year, and my experience wasn't of all this insanity that you guys are describing at all.

I didn't go to a single prep session for any test I took; my school did offer one, but I blew it off. I've taken a grand total of two AP classes. I'm not taking the exam in either. I did a lot of extracurriculars, but I knew people who did more, and I also knew people who did just as much as me while working 25 hours a week.

It's an over-generalization to say that the specter of the Harvard admissions committee is hanging over our heads from birth to age eighteen. Maybe that applies to some of these metropolitan suburbs that are being discussed, but it sure doesn't apply to the middle of Kansas.

I'd already applied to University of Kansas, and was happy with the full ride I'd been offered there. Then I applied to Harvard basically on a whim. The stress lasted for maybe two weeks while I was putting the application together.

Everything I did, I did because I wanted to and because it was fun. Perhaps my experience is atypical, but nothing in the process that I went through has led me to the conclusion that you have to grind at Harvard your entire life to have a chance to get in.

Posted by: Leoniceno on May 1, 2007 at 12:50 AM | PERMALINK

Can we try just a little bit to look at this phenomenon rationally?

How much harder could it be to get into an elite college today than it was in, say, 1975?

Very basic constraining fact (according to Kevin upthread):

The number of openings in elite colleges today is pretty closely proportional to the number of openings in 1975 (i.e., the larger population of today is roughly tracked by a larger number of openings in elite schools).

So are students today at the top of the pyramid actually smarter? Very doubtful. Are they scoring in higher percentiles on tests? Almost by definition, no. Even any Flynn effect would not indicate students were smarter, but rather that they simply test better.

Are their grades better? Perhaps, but that may be simple grade inflation -- the class ranks would have to be essentially the same.

Do top students more regularly go for the very best college they might get into, making it more likely that the best students always end up in elite institutions, and crowding out the less capable ones? Perhaps. This would also imply, of course, that lesser schools would have fewer of the very good students.

As best I can make out only the last explanation for a greater difficulty in getting into elite colleges could hold any water. And I'm certainly not confident it really is operating in a major way.

Posted by: frankly0 on May 1, 2007 at 12:52 AM | PERMALINK

More interesting than how students are admitted to colleges is how people are hired to serve on college admissions committees. And how their work is evaluated. And how admissions committees come up with rankings of the different ways of cooking snapper.

Posted by: JS on May 1, 2007 at 12:53 AM | PERMALINK

I sure hope that the best students of 300 million Americans and throngs of foreign applicants are more accomplished than the best students of 200 million Americans (circa late 1960s)!

Or did the elite colleges increase their enrollment class by more than 50%? (Drum didn't have to compete against as many would-be-rival female/poor/minority students of his era, either)

Posted by: peatey on May 1, 2007 at 12:57 AM | PERMALINK

So sick of this bullshit discussion about test scores.

I went to a high school that wasn't even accredited until my senior year. My GPA was about 3.6 on a scale of 4. But in my junior year I took the German and chemistry achievement tests (as they were called then) and got very high scores. Those high scores helped to convince the admission committees that my high school was good. Standardized test scores are the only way to take into account the varying quality of schools.

I have met people with the opposite experience: high grades, but low test scores. Despite higher high school grades than mine, they truly had learned less, and it was reflected in the standardized test scores.

Prepping for the tests might be useful, but the best preparation is doing all the homework and reviewing all the material as though for a regular test. I was hired in high school to tutor other students. As "prep" I outlined all the stuff and made lesson plans. Similarly, both my kids had high SAT scores without much prepping.

Posted by: MatthewRmarler on May 1, 2007 at 12:59 AM | PERMALINK

Leoniceno, interesting comment. It is of course possible that you are a self-deprecating genius without knowing it or admitting it. Or, you may be as smart and "accomplished" as many of those who were rejected but, as ESD pointed out above, your application came up at the right moment -- when some kind of balancing (possibly having to do with ethnicity or geography or athletics or hobbies or whatever) created a relative vacuum in your particular vicinity of the n-dimensional space inhabited by this particular admissions committee.

Whatever it was, have a blast.

Posted by: JS on May 1, 2007 at 1:05 AM | PERMALINK

This really needs to be framed as a sort of class issue rather than some generational change in students themselves. There is an enormous chasm between students with access to the sorts of opportunities that facilitate fantastic resumes and students that have to work with what they already have.

Bingo.

The number of seats at top universities has not grown much in the past 25 years, but financial aid has been gutted. In other words, the admissions pool is a smaller fraction of the population.

A glance at the parking lots of top schools, and conversations with the students verifies that there are now very few college kids from working class and poor families. The kids who are there are there because of financial ability and social class.

This is not a popular topic, but we have eliminated prior American meritocracy. The GI Bill - creating the great middle class - allowed a huge wave of kids off the farm and out of the factories to go to college. Any vet with talent and inclination could go to college. The social churning of first generation college grads was impressive, as was the impact on the economy.

Here in CA, the same creed lasted until roughly 1981. In the '50s and '60s, UC was free, as were CSU and junior colleges (more or less). In 1980, fees at Cal Poly, an elite public technical school, were about $100/quarter, now they are about $5,000/year.

You read that right. UC had zero tuition. The best public university system in the world, and the home to record numbers of Nobel Prize winners, was available to anyone with the grades, no matter their ability to pay. (Sadly, the only real cut Gov. Reagan made out of his promise of across the board cuts was to education. He instituted tuition for the first time at UC).

But making college available to any qualified kid was also a federal pledge for another decade or more after Gov. Reagan's war with "Ivory Tower" UC liberals. Poor kids were able to get a combination of grants, loans and work study hours to make a degree nearly free. It's painfully obvious which president/former governor ended that.

The point being, top schools no longer draw from the highest merit kids across society. The bottom tier of kids at UC and Harvard would get bumped to their safety schools if fairer financial aid allowed the sort of merit based admission as when competition was at its peak.

Sadly, this is a taboo subject in liberal circles, for obvious reasons. Teixeira and Judis found the same thing you can see in the demographic threads at dKos - modern self-identified liberals are largely highly educated, upper middle class. Opening up education to the most talented students would be a major threat to current liberals' social station.

Looping back to Kevin's question, I've been hiring technical professionals for 20 years, and don't see a surge in talent. In fact, I see a sort of academic sterility, hot house flowers, kids who are good at theory, but have less of the intuition that came from keeping junk cars running or working at family shops. I also see less kids who have had to overcome adversity, and aren't afraid of hard situations. I see less entrepreneurialism, and more interest in cubicles. Blech. Perhaps there is a bit of dark justice that this less talented batch will oversee the decline of American prosperity and influence. Even if it's not fair, it's prophetic. Why not promote the best of society when the times demand it?

I suspect this would change in the face of a competitive playing field not tilted in favor of upper income families.

/dark rant - maybe that's out of my system for another ten years or so.

Posted by: Pacific John on May 1, 2007 at 1:08 AM | PERMALINK

That's the conclusion that I came to as well, JS. I represented a combination of skills that they needed. For one thing, I play the viola, which is one of the instruments that is in perennial short supply.

And by the way, Pacific John, Harvard doesn't ask for any financial information until after acceptance, and families that make less than $60,000 pay nothing. Families that make less than 80k pay almost nothing. My family is around 120k, and more than half of the tuition is covered. At least at the Ivies with huge endowments, places like Yale and Harvard, financials don't keep anybody out-- except, I imagine, that students from low income brackets don't have access to good schools or the money and leisure time to build resumes.

Posted by: Leoniceno on May 1, 2007 at 1:21 AM | PERMALINK

Can I adopt that "charming boy," please?

That snapper dish sounds fabulous, btw.

Posted by: LAS on May 1, 2007 at 1:34 AM | PERMALINK

That's excellent, Leoniceno. I'm a more that a little focused on CA ed.

Do Ivy financial aid packages pay for books and living expenses? That's the largest barrier to entry here. Even though $5k in fees may not seem like much, it is if your mom earns $8/hr, and fees are a fraction of the total cost.

Posted by: Pacific John on May 1, 2007 at 1:36 AM | PERMALINK

I'm with Doubting Thomas above. I can't tell you the number of Ivy grads I have met who don't have a clue about anything other than the "activities" they have spent so much time perfecting for their college entry interview. And even on those subjects, they have precious little understanding of how it all fits into the big picture. (and never ask them about international issues.)

Posted by: billy on May 1, 2007 at 1:49 AM | PERMALINK

MatthewRmarler wrote: "I have met people with the opposite experience: high grades, but low test scores. Despite higher high school grades than mine, they truly had learned less, and it was reflected in the standardized test scores."

Me: Five years of French (starting in junior high). A.P. everything. Won a journalism award and wrote a novel.

Tell me again how lower test scores mean that I've learned less or am less intelligent.

Posted by: wilder on May 1, 2007 at 1:50 AM | PERMALINK

Carl Nyberg writes:

I strongly suspect that these almost perfect applicants who get rejected by Hahvahd are disproportionately Asian-American.

There's a lawsuit against Princeton accusing them of doing that.. and in fact, a serious of studies indicate that is exactly what is taking place. However, it seems unlikely to me that the civil rights community will take up this cause.

Looking at all the websites whose founders were under 30 and made ridiculous amounts of money, (YouTube, Google, Yahoo), and thinking back to previous generations of like-minded individuals (Apple, Microsoft), there seems to be a disproportionately higher number of companies founded those under 30 in the last 10 years, which speaks well of the so-called Generation X (for which I am a part of). The proof will come when we see what this current "Generation Y" can do in terms of applying their smarts.

Posted by: Andy on May 1, 2007 at 1:52 AM | PERMALINK

I took the SAT twice even way back when (high school class of '71), but had no prep for it other than taking a practice test in a Barrons book, and applied to 8 schools,which was fairly high back then. With a high score of 1430 and top 5% of my class, I was still rejected at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Of course, I went to a very low rated urban New Jersey public high school, was a non-athlete, and had nothing "special" on my application beyond routine stuff like student government and school paper. I went to Colgate, which I regarded as my top safety school, but wonder if I would've got in today.

Posted by: Marlowe on May 1, 2007 at 2:14 AM | PERMALINK

Pacific John, I agree with everything you said except for one thing -- in my opinion, the top schools are the only ones that can draw from the highest-merit kids. I grew up in a very rural area and my parents made ones that can draw from the highest-merit kids. I grew up in a very rural area and my parents made less than 30K a year (with five children to support, no less)... so basically I knew the only way I was going to college was if I could come up with a way to pay for it myself. I applied to Stanford and MIT basically on a whim -- because nobody from my high school had done so for over a decade, I didn't have any real expectation that I would get in; and even if I did, I didn't think I could pay for it -- but, lo and behold, I got into both. (This was the late 90s). And, most surprisingly, I found that it was actually cheaper for me to go to either of those than to go to the state school I had figured would be all I could afford.

Moral: The Stanfords and MITs and Harvards of the world have the kinds of endowments that they can afford to support the poor, high-merit kids. It's the mid-range colleges that can't. So if you're a poor kid who doesn't luck out in the "big rich university acceptance" lottery, then there aren't many good secondary options.

The other thing is that because these top colleges are perceived to be so expensive and impossible to get into, students with low incomes or from bad schools overwhelmingly select themselves out of the pool (just as I almost did). They simply don't perceive Harvard or Stanford (or even a four-year college, often as not) as a remotely realistic option; so they don't even apply.

FWIW - and I don't believe it's too different nowadays - I do think that the "top" universities try to evaluate a person's accomplishments with respect to their opportunities. I can't imagine that I would have gotten in otherwise. And I also think they are right to do so: I'm now teaching at one of these very same universities, and some of my best students, in terms of creativity and stick-to-itness and intellectual fearlessness are those from a less privileged background. (Though I see some incredible students from privileged backgrounds, too; overall most of them really are pretty amazing kids).

That said, I'm sure tons of amazing kids didn't get in, also. But I really don't think it matters that much (except on the extremes). I had an amazing time at my undergrad, and I love where the opportunities I had there have taken me. But I think I would have been able to find (and make) similar opportunities at nearly all of the schools I applied for. I know people in grad school who did exactly that. To a large extent, it's not the school, it's the person. If you're smart and creative and interesting and dedicated, you'll do fine -- you'll be happy -- wherever you end up. I know it's easy to think this at my end of the process, but I wish more high school parents and kids would trust in themselves enough to realize that.

Posted by: Rayven on May 1, 2007 at 2:15 AM | PERMALINK

billy:

(and never ask them about international issues.)

heh. A buddy teaches poly sci at a major school, and regularly complains that freshmen are breathtakingly clueless about current events. Back in '95-ish when the Contract with America dominated the news, only a couple of his first year poly sci majors could identify Newt Gingrich.

Posted by: Pacific John on May 1, 2007 at 2:19 AM | PERMALINK

Rayven:

I should have known that, I have friends who have told me similar stories. I admit to having blinders on since the CA environment is dominated by state operated schools with attendance that dwarfs the odd Stanford or SC.

Posted by: Pacific John on May 1, 2007 at 2:27 AM | PERMALINK

Pacific John, yeah, in terms of sheer numbers I agree that working class and poor families are really losing out here. The top universities may be able to help a few, but the vast majority is made up of kids who can't get into those but who could contribute a great deal somewhere else yet can't afford to do so. As a result, we have many many capable people who end up working in factories or waiting tables or doing construction (which, nothing wrong with any of those things, I have family members doing some of them) but not if it's because you have no other options.

Posted by: Rayven on May 1, 2007 at 2:34 AM | PERMALINK

As someone lacking a college degree I would like to point out that one of my neighbors, who lets everyone know that he has a degree in economics from Harvard (and I checked... he does), is the stupidest son of a bitch I have ever met.

Like talking to a rock, and not even a bright and shiny rock at that.

Posted by: tbogg on May 1, 2007 at 2:36 AM | PERMALINK

How can you top Professor Bogg?

Posted by: Pacific John on May 1, 2007 at 2:44 AM | PERMALINK

Ah the glory days. If only you college folk could have stayed there forever. You would still be important somehow.

Posted by: Michael Buchanan on May 1, 2007 at 3:30 AM | PERMALINK

Congrats Mr. Drum. Your blog consistently attracts an absurdly over-educated crowd. Send this comment thread to the New Yorker, the Economist, and the Atlantic Monthly. They will clamour to buy advertising.

Other folks on the thread have pointed out that a subset of the population is effectively raised to get into college. That is a factor which was absent 30 years ago.

Furthermore, the admission rate statistics are utter crap. People who would have applied to 4 colleges 30 years ago are applying to 40 colleges now (if they can afford it -- isn't it interesting how so much of this process is structured to turn a parents's money into a progeny's matriculation).

Finally, a lot of the accomplishments described by the students in these articles are frankly bullshit. I am a grad student obliged to manage 4 undergrad research assistants at a private research university. They are very smart folks, but intelligence is nothing as to experience (I'm sure my advisor would be quick to say the same about me). Typically I'll sent up an minor experiment, design a circuit, etc. They'll run the experiment, collect the data, build the circuit, etc. A high school student working at NASA is without a doubt engaged in a similar exercise.

Posted by: Adam on May 1, 2007 at 4:19 AM | PERMALINK

There is so much here that says so much about our anxieties.

Shamhat

I can't tell you how much I feel for you. I went through the Canadian system in the 70s (which was fairly relaxed). Here in the UK it's a nightmare. Oxford and Cambridge are the holy grail, and a group of elite private schools teaches you how to 'game' the admissions system: which colleges to apply for, which subjects to read, etc.

If you saw the play 'The History Boys' or the movie, then you get a feel for how the game is played. The historian in a wheel chair, Irwin, is a character based on the bestselling (conservative) historian Nial Ferguson, by the way.

If feeds all the way back to which nursery school you go to! Then to which primary school, which preparatory school, which elite London private school...

A friend of mine taught at Pomona (elite US liberal arts college in LA, one of the highest rated). His comment was the students were great, but they 'didn't take risks'.

Even when you are in undergrad, the emphasis is not on stretching yourself, it is getting As, so the top postgrad and professional schools will look at you.

I mean in MBA admissions we look at undergrad GPA. I can't think of a worse predictor of your life performance in business than your undergrad GPA (or to be precise, as long as you were a B student, it's everything else that you did that counts-- businesses founded, clubs you ran, etc. A C student in a hard major like engineering or maths, is OK, but you have to worry about the C student in economics-- application to the subject).

It's hard to persuade my colleagues though that a 50 in differential equations, is worth a 75 or an 80 in international politics.

The number of times I see a transcript where it is obvious the student took undergrad courses in a language his parents are native in, and would have used at home, is ridiculous. It's an obvious way to raise your marks for pre meds, pre law, etc.

Asians in American Universities

Someone above comments that the main purpose of the multi-faceted admissions criteria (or the main effect) is to screen out Asians, back in favour of whites (especially legacy whites). In my experience, this is completely true. If you just took academic achievement, Americans of Asian origin would be 30, 40, 50% even of the freshman class of most elite universities.

There is a distinguished history of this. In the 1940s, there were explicit criteria to screen out Jews, to prevent them from becoming half the Harvard undergrad class. Jews were the Asians of the 1940s.

I don't know whether the effect extends to what a Brit would call 'Asians' ie from the Indian Subcontinent, but I would suspect so. The same reverence for education and academic achievement is present in the culture.

Academic achievement is what psychologists call 'overdetermined': it's like becoming a tennis star. You have to have natural talent, but the real discriminator is how many hours you put in, and how hard you work.

(I have a good example of this, a college roomate who is now professor at Harvard Business School. Never seen anyone work harder. Yes he was a smart guy, but he was also harder working than anyone else)

Asian American families emphasise education, and make sure their kids study long, and hard. Even the hyper-organised and drilled kids of the American elite, probably don't have that commitment to learning, in and of its own sake.

If you want to start really caring about this stuff, have a daughter who is *not* of your racial group. Can one lie on a university application form?

Posted by: Valuethinker on May 1, 2007 at 4:28 AM | PERMALINK

Pacific John

You are speaking to a converted audience.

In 1980, when America was convulsed with the Iran hostage crisis, we discussed it in history class every day. We *knew* what the difference between a Shia and a Sunni was. I remember listening to President Carter over breakfast, announcing the failure of the rescue mission at Desert One-- I lived in an anti-American household, but my parents thought it important enough to get a teenager up *early* to listen to it.

22 years later the MBA students, 26 year olds at the top of their game, had no clue on any of these issues. (apparently neither do our politicians).

I have a friend who teaches computer science. He says every year the kids arrive with more 'knowledge' of computers, but less understanding of the fundamentals of logic, mathematics and english communication. He spends more and more time 'unteaching' them of bad habits.

Somehow we've bred a generation of 'idiot savants' who are very good at taking tests, very good at 'pressing the buttons' but lack the general knowledge that one would expect of the citizens of a democracy.

Posted by: Valuethinker on May 1, 2007 at 4:46 AM | PERMALINK

Reading the thread one might be forgiven for wondering what the purpose of a university education is. Or, for that matter, how anyone might learn anything while grilling the fish in tea before dashing off to fencing practice.

Sigh.

I'm in Canada where the grade inflation/credentialism rot is nearly as deep. So deep a Prof has written a book about it which was featured on the front page of the National Post (http://tinyurl.com/37enzb)

As AP/IB, extra-curriculars, SATS and hyper-prep substitute money for learning the result is a growing class of fit morons who, upon graduation, are in grave danger of never reading another book nor learning another thing for the next forty years of a career obsessed life.

Learning, even intense learning, is a process which requires time rather than scheduling, curiosity rather than testing. For the moment my partner and I are home schooling our 3 and 6 year olds. Possibly, by the time they hit highschool age, we'll think about dropping them into that world; but I doubt it.

The four helmet households of Brooks' Bobos in Paradise may very well edge my boys out for the slot at Harvard or the UofT. Which will be fine as both of them will actually know quite a lot and have had the time to think and write about what they know.

Elite education is a funny thing: it was, originally, designed for a hereditary elite with virtually no thought given to its practicality. Now it is built around a gatekeeping function for an aspirant elite. Gatekeeping is a very different enterprise and one which, prima facie, has little or nothing to do with learning. A fact which will become more and more apparent as brute technology bypasses the gates altogether.

Posted by: Jay Currie on May 1, 2007 at 5:41 AM | PERMALINK

Here in the UK it's a nightmare. Oxford and Cambridge are the holy grail, and a group of elite private schools teaches you how to 'game' the admissions system: which colleges to apply for, which subjects to read, etc.

Not to my knowledge. Private school and Oxbridge, and I never received any hints on gaming the system; no practice interviews, no advice on which subject to choose. The only help I got was a handbook (which everybody gets) on how to fill in the application form (which covers all universities, not just Oxbridge). I was advised which college to apply for, but on the grounds that "someone from the same school went there three years ago and he seemed to enjoy it". I never met anyone else at university who admitted to receiving any of that sort of advice; without exception they had picked their college either at random, because of the faculty there, or because of the architecture, and picked a subject they liked.
"The History Boys" was completely alien to my experience and that of everyone I knew.

Posted by: ajay on May 1, 2007 at 6:48 AM | PERMALINK

Valuethinker,

When I was doing research we had a guy who took a year off because he didn't get into medical school. He spent that year rediscovering his Hispanic heritage--he had a Mexican grandmother. He frantically studied Spanish for the first time in his life in case they challenged him on it, since he really didn't look the part.

As an Hispanic, he was accepted to Harvard Med.

Posted by: Shamhat on May 1, 2007 at 7:20 AM | PERMALINK

ajay

I had friends who attended Westminster, Winchester, Eton and University College School (?) in Hampstead. Colleagues have kids at St. Paul's and Golphin & Latymer (Hammersmith), Haberdasher's Aske and I get the impression the situation I describe is quite similar.

Bedales is a different matter ;-).

It was pretty clear the emphasis on Oxbridge entry, and the deep cultural and personal connections between the advisers to the senior classes and the colleges.

I remember one colleague wryly commenting 'they sent us on an Outward Bound course, not because the school thought it would do us good, but because they knew Oxford liked that sort of thing'.

In a way the 'second tier' of UK universities (St. Andrews, Exeter, Bristol, Edinburgh, UCL, Durham, LSE to an extent) are more 'public school' than the 'top rank'. Because Oxbridge really do have the ability to pick out the brightest of the brightest from the pool, and the 'boost' that going to an elite public school gives you, is more helpful to the chances of those who 'don't quite make the grade' at Oxbridge-- puts them into the second tier. The Royals being prime examples of this: by all accounts, none too bright or academic, but bright enough for St. Andrews.

There probably is a net discrimination in admission *against* public schoolers in Oxbridge, but conversely over half the students at both were independently (privately) educated, whereas in the population as a whole this is about 6%.

Surely it's not the case that half the brightest students in the country come from families that are pretty much all in the top 10% of the socio-economic spectrum?

Posted by: Valuethinker on May 1, 2007 at 7:37 AM | PERMALINK

Shamhat

The data I saw, when this was first discussed, perhaps in the late 80s or early 90s? was that if Stanford simply used academics *plus* an affirmative action factor for Black and Native Americans (and maybe Hispanics) then it's matriculating class would be roughly:

10% minorities
40% whites
50% Asians

I think at U Cal Berkeley (where perhaps the admission was more based on raw test results?) the figure was more like 60-70% Asians. As I say I don't know if this included 'Asians' ie from Indian subcontinent.

Indian Asians weren't a noticeable factor in the US (at least to me ;-) before the mid 90s and the tech boom. I don't know if you get the TV show 'The Kumars at Number 42' but it is this completely brilliant parody of a talk show, set in a suburban (Asian) household in London, written by Asian comics. They are interviewing Patrick Stewart (Captain Picard in Star Trek) and the grandmother (who gets all the best lines) asks Stewart the question:

'Why are there not more Asian characters in the Star Trek series, Mr. Stewart? Doesn't the Enterprise have computers that need fixing?'

http://www.bbc.co.uk/comedy/guide/articles/k/kumarsatno42the_66602080.shtml
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Kumars_at_No._42

2% of Americans are being massively discriminated against in higher education. At least from the data I saw at the time. Call it negative affirmative action.

The scandal is potentially as big as it was when there was a quota on Jews at Harvard and other Ivy League Schools.

One of the reasons City University of New York (Manhattan campus) was such an incredible producer of talent for future America (step forward Andy Grove, Chairman of Intel) was that it was free, but also, if you were a smart Jew in New York in the 1930s and early 40s, they had to take you (whereas Columbia didn't, and I think NYU didn't rate in those days). They then went through a phase when admission was less selective (trying to help the local community, which is Harlem) and the reputation of the school suffered (also very hurt by the post 1976 budget cuts in NYC).

http://www.gladwell.com/2005/2005_10_10_a_admissions.html

has some interesting insights.

Malcolm Gladwell himself is an interesting character, himself. He is Canadian of Jamaican extraction. Jamaicans are/were our 'blacks'. He went to a famously 'WASP elite' college at U of Toronto (famously termed in a later court case as 'Upper Canada's last stand', much changed since then, but you might say the colour of the skin has changed, but not what motivates the students).

http://www.gladwell.com/1996/1996_04_29_a_black.htm

Nina Revoyr's thriller 'Southland' about the 1960s Watts Riot in LA, had some interesting things to say about Asian Americans, race and the American Dream:

http://www.akashicbooks.com/southland.htm

Posted by: Valuethinker on May 1, 2007 at 7:55 AM | PERMALINK

Shamhat

The data I saw, when this was first discussed, perhaps in the late 80s or early 90s? was that if Stanford simply used academics *plus* an affirmative action factor for Black and Native Americans (and maybe Hispanics) then it's matriculating class would be roughly:

10% minorities
40% whites
50% Asians

I think at U Cal Berkeley (where perhaps the admission was more based on raw test results?) the figure was more like 60-70% Asians. As I say I don't know if this included 'Asians' ie from Indian subcontinent.

Indian Asians weren't a noticeable factor in the US (at least to me ;-) before the mid 90s and the tech boom. I don't know if you get the TV show 'The Kumars at Number 42' but it is this completely brilliant parody of a talk show, set in a suburban (Asian) household in London, written by Asian comics. They are interviewing Patrick Stewart (Captain Picard in Star Trek) and the grandmother (who gets all the best lines) asks Stewart the question:

'Why are there not more Asian characters in the Star Trek series, Mr. Stewart? Doesn't the Enterprise have computers that need fixing?'

http://www.bbc.co.uk/comedy/guide/articles/k/kumarsatno42the_66602080.shtml
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Kumars_at_No._42

2% of Americans are being massively discriminated against in higher education. At least from the data I saw at the time. Call it negative affirmative action.

The scandal is potentially as big as it was when there was a quota on Jews at Harvard and other Ivy League Schools.

Posted by: Valuethinker on May 1, 2007 at 7:57 AM | PERMALINK

Shamhat (cont'd)


One of the reasons City University of New York (Manhattan campus) was such an incredible producer of talent for future America (step forward Andy Grove, Chairman of Intel) was that it was free, but also, if you were a smart Jew in New York in the 1930s and early 40s, they had to take you (whereas Columbia didn't, and I think NYU didn't rate in those days). They then went through a phase when admission was less selective (trying to help the local community, which is Harlem) and the reputation of the school suffered (also very hurt by the post 1976 budget cuts in NYC).

http://www.gladwell.com/2005/2005_10_10_a_admissions.html

has some interesting insights.

Malcolm Gladwell is an interesting character, himself. He is Canadian of Jamaican extraction. Jamaicans are/were our 'blacks'. He went to a famously 'WASP elite' college at U of Toronto (famously termed in a later court case as 'Upper Canada's last stand', much changed since then, but you might say the colour of the skin has changed, but not what motivates the students).

http://www.gladwell.com/1996/1996_04_29_a_black.htm

Nina Revoyr's thriller 'Southland' about the 1960s Watts Riot in LA, had some interesting things to say about Asian Americans, race and the American Dream:

http://www.akashicbooks.com/southland.htm

Posted by: Valuethinker on May 1, 2007 at 8:00 AM | PERMALINK

I got into Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford in 1985. Today, my FICA score is in the low 500s, so I can't even get accepted at Rooms to Go!

Posted by: wetzel on May 1, 2007 at 8:16 AM | PERMALINK

Juvenile delinquency ruined my chances of going to Yale. I burned down a small elementary school one night, attempting to carefully burn a slogan into the freshly cut grass on the playing field that adjoined that school with a larger sports complex. I was trying to burn the phrase "Exeter Girls Are Fat" into the grass and the evening wind took chunks of burning grass and carried them onto the roof of the elementary school. The resulting fire hurt no one. Had I not been passed out with a beer bottle in my left hand when the police came through the area, I would have gotten away with it, scot-free.

Father sent me to Princeton because his brother was a Princeton man. I suppose there was a legacy system or something or other in place. I was a D student, didn't study, didn't care. I was street smart, not book smart, and that has always allowed me great success. What can I tell you? The ability to prey on the weak and separate people from their money is a skill I happen to possess. And Democrats would likely make this a crime in the coming years.

Look for Wall Street to be disbanded when Barack Hussein takes over America and surrenders us to the terrorists.

Posted by: Norman Rogers on May 1, 2007 at 8:24 AM | PERMALINK

Do Ivy financial aid packages pay for books and living expenses?

Yes. Financial aid packages take the entire cost of being at college into account. People underestimate the generosity of the financial aid packages of elite universities. The tuition is absurd -- Harvard has enough money in its endowment to simply not charge any tuition at all -- but pretty much if your family doesn't have a lot of resources, much of the expenses will be covered, leaving students with at most a modest load on loans at the end of the process.

But, yeah, the UC system and a lot of good public universities went from being effectively free, minus some token fees and tuition payments, to being genuinely expensive. It wouldn't surprise me if the financial aid packages of Princeton for some families could in some cases result in paying less out-of-pocket than UC Berkeley.

You know, another thing I've noticed is that people of my parents generation (early stage boomers) and older had no problem going to local colleges, even if they were some of the most academically accomplished in their class as a high school student. Now those top students in their high school classes are applying all over the country to schools that are "ranked."

Posted by: Constantine on May 1, 2007 at 8:25 AM | PERMALINK

My son applied to four colleges and was accepted into three (#4 is missing paperwork the high school counseor has yet to send in). All except one were state universities. He has chosen to go to WSU, but we are not residents of Washington State.

College is college is college at the undergrad level, and not everyone's career goals or personal goals require a graduate degree. Would I have gotten into the elite private university I did today instead of in '75? No telling.

The bigger impediment for my children attending college is the outrageous price--and the significant decline in financial aid. I came out of an expensive four year college with just over $3000 in loans. We have had no offer of any help outside of loans, and his first year will cost us ten times what my entire college degree did. We are middle class, single income, single parent, and the FAFSA suggests that we can pay an amount that suggests I have no expenses other than paying for college....

Posted by: monoglot on May 1, 2007 at 8:52 AM | PERMALINK

Applied and got into a couple of snooty schools in 1988 (Stanford, Princeton). Why? Basically to see if I could. Took the SATs once my junior year, figured scores were "good enough"--and they were, apparently. At the end of the day, I came to the conclusion that my acceptances came largely on the strength of...my essays. My parents wanted me to stay at the state U.--my father kept making snarky comments about "raccoon coats"--so parental pressure had nothing to do with it. Were my classmates obsessed with college entrances--yes--much more than I. Some were a bit piqued when I got into schools they didn't and I just didn't seem to care as much as they did. But I guess you could get away with that in those days...

I think (or hope) that part of the college crunch right now is a result of demographics...ie echo boomer kids making it through the system. By the time my kids are ready for college, it will be echo-genXers and we are a smaller cohort by far, while at least some college facilities will have expanded to accommodate the echo boomers. So we'll see how much the sky will fall on my children--or if they'll even be interested in such schools.

Don't get me wrong--I really enjoyed being in college--but in the grand scheme of things, it was a somewhat narcissistic enjoyment. I didn't change the world, or end up doing anything where a snooty degree was of much use or interest. It was not *useful*. My mother would say, awfully expensive for something that wasn't useful.

Posted by: JMS on May 1, 2007 at 9:12 AM | PERMALINK

I think the big difference is between who would have gotten in in the 1950s, early 60s, and who would get in today.

I sometimes meet alumni from the prestigious undergraduate school I attended, and the older ones WERE overwhelmingly male, white, and upper-class when they applied. Many of them recount stories about going to private high schools where the vast majority of their peers went to a top 10 school.

In the last 40 years, a lot more people have joined the applicant pool. It's my impression that even the prestigious private high schools no longer can guarantee that 3/4 of their student body will go to a top 10 school, but they once could guarantee it.

Posted by: MDtoMN on May 1, 2007 at 9:21 AM | PERMALINK

I'll give you an SAT.
Put 'em in a room with a bluebook and have the proctor come in and write "Lincoln--2000 words" on the board.
You can shuffle the topic, but that would give you a better idea of probable college success than any other measure--good works should be repaid with an indulgence, not college admission.

Posted by: Steve Paradis on May 1, 2007 at 9:49 AM | PERMALINK

I didn't change the world, or end up doing anything where a snooty degree was of much use or interest.

You know, there are other people who have a different experience than you had at other elite collegees and universities. Plenty of people do think, "Ok, I've got 4 years. The clock is ticking. I'd better find out how to get everything out of this opportunity that I can." I assume that, in theory, these are the sorts of students that the admissions committee is trying to find.

I engaged in a lot of narcissistic enjoyment in college-- boy, was it awesome. But I also got a lot out of the academic environment by working with professors and taking advantage of the resources that I might not have found in another university. So was it worth going to an elite university? Yes, I'd say so.

Posted by: Tyro on May 1, 2007 at 9:52 AM | PERMALINK

I engaged in a lot of narcissistic enjoyment in college-- boy, was it awesome. But I also got a lot out of the academic environment by working with professors and taking advantage of the resources that I might not have found in another university. So was it worth going to an elite university? Yes, I'd say so.

For me the best thing about Harvard wasn't even the professors or the classes -- it was the other students, the vast majority of them driven, brilliant, interesting people. I learned more about how to think from being among them than I learned from being in class.

Posted by: Stefan on May 1, 2007 at 9:58 AM | PERMALINK

In the late 70's I had 1490 SAT's, took AP English, and was ranked 8th in my class at a very exclusive private high school. I didn't get into Harvard, but another guy in my class with much lower SAT's and grades did. He was 6'7" and played basketball and his grandfather was a famous composer.

Posted by: Not Crimson on May 1, 2007 at 10:12 AM | PERMALINK

I went to the University of Wisconsin ca. early 1970s and then University of Iowa for a PhD. Most of my faculty colleagues went to Ivy Leagues as undergrads and either Ivy Leagues or places like Stanford, UC-Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, NYU, or U of Chicago for their PhDs. I've never felt surpassed by any of my colleagues.

Incidentally, I place no confidence in standardized tests, especially the tests of verbal or language ability. I wrote well from an early age (I still have a diary I wrote when I was about 11 and I'm still amazed). Yet, when I was 17 and took the SAT three times, I never broke the low 400s on the damned thing.

Posted by: Danton on May 1, 2007 at 10:36 AM | PERMALINK

For what it's worth, the rise in amazing records of applicants to elite universities has a correlation (though I haven't seen the numbers) in the faculty of non-elite universities; there's something of a trickle-down effect going on. Check out where the professors at your local above-average-but-not-elite university went to school. The odds are (at least this has been my observation) that most of them went to elite universities as undergrads or for grad school.

Posted by: RSA on May 1, 2007 at 10:46 AM | PERMALINK

I suspect a lot of undetected college admissions fraud is going on. College admissions officers are so overwhelmed with applications, I doubt if they ever bother to check any of the candidates' credentials. I also suspected obituary fraud after the Virginia Tech shooting. After reading about a dozen bios of the kids who were killed in the shooting, I marvelled that the shooter didn't kill even one loner or underachiever. It was amazing how every person he killed was a wonderful person whom everybody loved, with a long list of wonderful accomplishments. As the hiring attorney for a small law firm, I also marvel at how every candidate somehow managed to be in the top 10% of their class in law school. Apparently the other 90% of students were figments of their professors imaginations.

Posted by: Pocket Rocket on May 1, 2007 at 10:49 AM | PERMALINK

As someone who studies Neandertals, I hate it when people use the term as a pejorative. However, what irks me even more is when people don't use appropriate biological taxonomy. In the Linnaean system, the first letter of the generic/genus name (e.g., Homo) is always capitalized while the first letter of the specific/species name (e.g., sapiens) is always in lower case. Both should be underlined or italicized. I know that my nerd quotient just went through the roof here, but I wish Kevin would alter his post accordingly.

Posted by: Trent on May 1, 2007 at 10:49 AM | PERMALINK

And we boomers are doing a crappy job of being on top, too. Me-firsters, narcissistic, corrupt, incompetent -- and in denial about the idea of growing up.

Posted by: Scorpio on May 1, 2007 at 11:05 AM | PERMALINK

Very good point, RSA. Denton implies the issue as well-- if you want to get a faculty position at a "good" university, usually the path taken is through undergraduate and graduate school at an elite university. This is because many faculty positions are filled by looking at students and researchers that have top publication records and top people in the field advocating on their behalf.

Take medical schools for example. If your goal is to "be a doctor," odds are you'll do fine at just about any med school in the USA. If you want to have a career as a medical/scientific researcher, then suddenly the med school you went to starts to matter, because of the quality of the research you will have the opportunity to engage in, along with the quality of the faculty members.

Yet, when I was 17 and took the SAT three times, I never broke the low 400s on the damned thing.

That is such an unbelievably low score (I assume on the verbal), that you are either exaggerating your writing skills (though clearly you're literate enough to have written a Ph.D. thesis), or you're one of the few literate people who simply can't handle multiple choice tests. You are the wide exception. Pretty much I've never met anyone who had a good relationship with the process of reading and writing who didn't at least do reasonably well on the verbal section of the SATs. Invariably the people who did poorly were those who didn't like to read and couldn't epxress their thoughts on a page. If what you're saying is true, the correlation isn't 100%, but in my experience it's pretty close.

Also, I was at MIT when the WWW first became "public." I got to see a lot of students who were themselves pioneers in popularizing the web and developing some of the first applications for it. The ability to experience that environment and participate in it was invaluable to me, so, yeah, I think that which college you go to does matter. Whether you take advantage of that is a different issue. You can live alone in an apartment, read the textbooks, show up to class, and take the tests, and chances are your experience might be the same as everyone else's at any other university. Or you can take advantage of everything your campus has to offer, and you'll find that some universities have a lot more to offer than others.

Posted by: Constantine on May 1, 2007 at 11:30 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin,

It looks like the University of Illinois for you.

Posted by: Yancey Ward on May 1, 2007 at 11:33 AM | PERMALINK

Interesting factoid - the LSAT is, in comparison to other standardized tests, amazingly accurate as a predictor of law school success. Relatively high correlation with success.

Interestingly - use of both the SAT and LSAT would probably violate Title VII if directly used by employers - they would have disparate impact in hiring and not meet the safe harbor requirements. It's possible that the increasing "credentializing" of America is a result of employers using educational institutions to do screening on the basis of tests that the employers could not legally do themselves.

Posted by: MDtoMN on May 1, 2007 at 11:54 AM | PERMALINK

Methinks it would be interesting to cross-reference this 'accomplished' trend of the present student generation with the epidemic of plagarism that is also occuring in academia at this time (many estimates place figures above 50% of all undergrad papers) - seems like they apply to the same generation...

Posted by: Michael on May 1, 2007 at 11:58 AM | PERMALINK

I certainly do believe that the best kids today would crush the best of years ago.. not so sure about the average/median though. Posted by: davidMeger

My recent classroom exposure to undergrads left me unimpressed, and this was at decent Jesuit university. Supposedly, the quality of the applicant pool had actually risen over the last decade or so, but of a class of 25 for an introductory global politics course, most were completely clueless about politics and government in general and world affairs in particularly, and this included the few seniors and juniors.

What was so shocking is having students who did just plain shitty work come up to me and tell me they've never gotten a "C" in any class. There was definitely a sense of academic entitlement with some of the students.

I have no idea whether the SAT has gotten easier (it wasn't required in my day), but we all know that grade inflation has given us far too many students graduating from high school with a 4.00 GPA or near that.

That being said, the kid still seemed like a pretty impressive "failure" by Harvard standards. Unfortunately, some trust-funded legacy will take his place because mumsy and daddy threw $50K or $100K into the endowment fund.

Posted by: JeffII on May 1, 2007 at 11:59 AM | PERMALINK

Honestly, every time I read one of these stories about how superior the kids of today are than those of previous generations, I'm under whelmed. (Call me cynical, but I highly doubt that the high schooler's "cancer research" was motivated by or contributed anything to anything other than his/her Harvard application!)

People are more than CV's (or should be), but the hyper-competitive careerist parents of today often treat their offspring as accomplishments instead of individuals. Almost from birth, more care seems to be directed toward developing the kids' résumés than anything else about them. Every waking moment is scheduled for them with an eye toward either developing some skill set or simply pawning them off onto others for a few hours at a time.

Everything is for show. I'm reminded of the subdivisions of cookie-cutter "McMansions" abandoned for all but a few hours a night by their over-mortgaged, over-worked yuppie-owners. Every one sports the inevitable several thousand dollar wooden swing set for children who no longer have time to swing because of gymnastics, swimming, soccer, music lessons, cancer research...

It's no longer enough for a child to play an instrument, he/she has to play "two instruments in three orchestras," not to mention composing the music between the poached snapper and computer programming. It's not enough to be prodigious in some area of passionate interest - they have to be prodigies in multiple disciplines (otherwise I guess they're not very well rounded)! It's not enough for a kid to be a bussing Einstein, he has to be Beethoven, Tom Brady and Wolfgang Puck if he wants to get into his first choice of day care!

A generation ago, there were horror stories of Little-league fathers who cared less for what enjoyment and lessons their kids derived from playing baseball and more about winning at any cost. It seems that, at least among the moneyed classes, this attitude has metastasized to afflict academics and every other area of kids' lives. They're under so much pressure to perform, nowadays that it's little wonder that so many of them are so medicated.

There have always been individuals born with exceptional talents who have enriched the world with their skills. But a person's worth is not found in their accomplishments, it's found in who they are, not what they are. The unhealthy fixation of the privileged class upon achievement will no doubt produce quite a few highly accomplished, but spiritually empty, emotionally stunted, terribly unhappy technicians.

Sorry for the rant, but children deserve better than this. Vapid admiration of the superiority of this new age of uber-achievers ill-serves anything but the bloated egos of an extremely superficial group of parents (WASPs on crack).

Posted by: Chesire11 on May 1, 2007 at 12:06 PM | PERMALINK

The *need* to attend a university is a subtext of sorts here. In the not too distant past you could get by quite well with a High School diploma, landing a job at GM or GE (i.e.), work your way up and make a decent salary. The information economy may require more credentials to function, but the sobering reality is if you don't run through this post-modernist gauntlet of *designing* your career starting with Jr. High School (or having your parents design it for you) you join the ranks of the working poor no matter how capable you might be. A large sand mound being scaled by an ever growing army of ants that is collapsing comes to mind.

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on May 1, 2007 at 12:09 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, Kevin, Kevin

Why do you post such interesting posts from time to time so that now my comment is to be burried at the end where no one will read it?

Look folks, this college competition is insane. So many kids are working so hard for college that they are bound to be disappointed. The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow just simply ain't that great. Harvard and Princeton degress and the campus experience simply are not THAT great.

Which means that they are going to be pissed off.

They've had no real say in all this pressure competition. Mommy, daddy, the guidance counselor, society, their own youthful foolishness
have lead them to this.

This fellow who played the instruments and did the cancer research. Did he do it for its own sake, for the love of it, or did he do it to build his resume? To the extent he was padding his resume, you are going to be dealing with one burnt out, turned off nego.

Meanwhile, tuition is soaring. So if this guy really is the self motivated stud you give him credit for being, then really Mugwash State would do him just fine.

Posted by: Thinker on May 1, 2007 at 12:17 PM | PERMALINK

MDtoMN I take it that (1) you did real well on the LSAT and (2) you are looking for a job.

There isn't a law student admitted to any of the top 100 schools who hasn't demonstrated academic ability. Once in hard work and ambition are more important than LSAT scores. Remember, you are not measuring people in a normal population. You are measuring differences between people from the far end of the bell curve.

Posted by: Ron Byers on May 1, 2007 at 12:22 PM | PERMALINK

I couldn't agree with you more, Doc. Although most professional jobs require college degrees, except in the sciences, the actual job functions rarely make use of any knowledge conferred in the course of a college education. College education is now less about personal development or opportunity for a better life and has become more of a drawbridge keeping the unwashed masses away from well paying jobs.

Posted by: Chesire11 on May 1, 2007 at 12:22 PM | PERMALINK

As someone who studies Neandertals, I hate it when people use the term as a pejorative. However, what irks me even more is when people don't use appropriate biological taxonomy. . . Posted by: Trent

I bet you hate those GEICO Auto Insurance commercials too.

Posted by: JeffII on May 1, 2007 at 12:23 PM | PERMALINK

Ahhh, time for my two cents ... I applied in the '80s, got in everywhere, went to Harvard.
Good grades, test scores in 99 percentile, some extracurriculars, summer jobs in a law office and a commercial bank.

Objection to the class whiners: why don't you *hustle* into the best summer job you can get? Why *are* you flipping burgers? You're going to have to hustle in the job market, Harvard degree or no, so get started now.

Agreement with the class whiners: the hardest part about Harvard was the fact that all of my classmates were from richer and more functional families than me. They were all leaving well-feathered nests for the first time, whereas I was coming from a situation in which the nest had long since disintegrated out from under me. That must be multiplied in spades now.

Best reason to go to Harvard: the academics. You can really study whatever you want, with as much focus and detail as you want. People who just want the credential won't have the requisite enthusiasm once they're there, so if your principal worry is that the name won't be on your resume, go elsewhere and enjoy yourself more.

Posted by: Diana on May 1, 2007 at 12:27 PM | PERMALINK

Why work so hard, when degrees from Messiah College and Regent U. are what you need to get a good job in the senior levels of the administration?

Posted by: biggerbox on May 1, 2007 at 12:29 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin - I think you are asking the wrong question: the Kevin of 1975 would not get into the elite schools of 2007; but the Kevin of 2007 would get in.

The Kevin of 1975 did all the things that someone who wanted to get into elite schools in 1975 had to do in order to get in; I see no reason to think that the Kevin of 2007 would not do the same - Derek

Posted by: derek on May 1, 2007 at 12:36 PM | PERMALINK

"Objection to the class whiners: why don't you *hustle* into the best summer job you can get? Why *are* you flipping burgers? You're going to have to hustle in the job market, Harvard degree or no, so get started now."

Job opportunities for teens are often limited by things like geography/transportation and social background. If you live out in the sticks there may not be many law firms looking to hire a high school kid for the summer. If you're from the inner city, a burger joint may be the only place that will even interview you.

Posted by: Chesire11 on May 1, 2007 at 12:56 PM | PERMALINK

I bet you hate those GEICO Auto Insurance commercials too.

In point of fact, sir, those are "cave men" on that commercial and they are the ancestors of modern homo sapiens.

Neanderthals were wiped out when man and mammoth and saber toothed tiger teamed up and eliminated them from contention for food. In fact, Neanderthals were the "liberals" of their day, refusing to join the camels and the rhinos and fight early man and his allies, instead preferring to whine about their predicament and wait for the Supreme Court to be invented so they could exact revenge they didn't deserve on people who worked harder than they did.

Posted by: Norman Rogers on May 1, 2007 at 1:04 PM | PERMALINK

People are more than CV's (or should be), but the hyper-competitive careerist parents of today often treat their offspring as accomplishments instead of individuals. Posted by: Chesire11

I agree with you, but as Doc posted, and you concurred, the bench mark for minimum academic credential for securing a decent job with the potential for a good income is not even a BA any longer. The BA is, almost, what a HS diploma was a generation ago, unless you pursue a strictly vocational field of study like computer science. I believe it's pretty difficult today to get a job in engineering or sciences with only a BA.

My father flunked out of the state school he was attending in the late 1950s (he was apparently majoring in pinochle, beer and cigarettes). He then went to a "business school" (a forerunner of the ITT group), got a job with the railroad as a clerk. But by the time he retired in 1990 he was making nearly $100K including benefits. Not much hope of doing that today with just a HS diploma and glorified secretarial training.

Posted by: JeffII on May 1, 2007 at 1:08 PM | PERMALINK

I went to MIT in 1969 and don't think there's a snowball's chance in hell that I would be admitted there today. As qwerty noted above, it's mostly just musical chairs - there are lot more kids and the same number of seats.


My daughter is a high school senior so we've just been through the whole college application thing. The one thing that astounds me is how many academically elite D-III schools recruit athletes and how many admission slots they reserve for recruited athletes. They may not offer athletic scholarships but they surely lower their admission standards, in spades, to fill those teams. I guess how else would Harvard ever field a competitive hockey team? There are plenty of fancy private schools and public high schools, too, that rely on athletics to get their kids into elite colleges. I believe this is a change from 1969. MIT never used to recruit athletes but I understand that it does so today.

It's encouraging that Yale is going to build two more residential colleges so it can admit more undergraduates. What we really need is a repeat of what happened at the end of the last great period of wealth creation in the United States -out of that, we got Carnegie-Mellon, Stanford, U. Chicago, Duke, etc. Where are Dell U, Allen U, Jobs U, Ellison U, Buffet U, Gates U, Bloomberg U, and so on?

Posted by: DBL on May 1, 2007 at 2:35 PM | PERMALINK

Cheshire11

Good point, and it goes deeper than that.

Kids (not law students) who get summer jobs or internships in law firms, have fathers (or mothers) who are partners in law firms (often other law firms) or who are big clients of law firms.

This was true in the early 80s, and it is even more true now.

Anyone want to not believe that the children of major donors and active fundraisers of congressmen and Senators are more likely to have prestigious internships in the Congress or the US government?

Kids who get meaningful summer jobs in companies, ditto. You want to work in media? You'd better have a dad (or mum) who is something, or has a senior role in a major advertiser.

The CEO of Ford (a Brit who previously ran Jaguar for Ford) actually stepped down, after it was found out that his son had been given a great job in WPP Group, the advertising company (Ford is about 8% of WPP Group's world sales). But does anyone think it doesn't still happen?

I've seen this in investment banking and consulting so many times I can't count. Except it's international now. That idiot kid who parties all night and never does any work, but who the Managing Director (who barely acknowledges your existence) comes over personally to greet? His father is Sultan of some oil sheikdom, or is CEO of a Bank in Shanghai.

Believe me, there are a *lot* of countries where the bank is trying to get a license to operate or a privatisation mandate.

Ordinary kids get jobs in warehouses, flipping burgers, the school bookstore. Much harder to sell to Morgan Stanley when you are interviewing for that Analyst job.

If your goal is postgraduate research, the playing field is more level *but* it really helps to do research for a prof who is known in his field, so if you go to Podunk State U, which isn't known for its research, then you have a challenge.

I know from my own experience that grad school is all about recommendations. Most grad schools of any worth can take their pick out of qualified applicants with perfect scores and GPAs, it is the recommendations from people who have published in the field and are known in the conference circuits that count.

There's even a term for it 'social capital'.

Posted by: Valuethinker on May 1, 2007 at 3:42 PM | PERMALINK

Constantine:

I don't think I'm "one of the few literate people who simply can't handle multiple choice tests." Rather, I've always thought that standardized tests, at least the way they were once structured, really couldn't test writing skills. One might be able to correctly answer a multiple choice question on the SAT--something like "Crest is to barrow as gondola is to _______." But that sort of question doesn't measure writing. I know that one of the tests now includes a writing component, but I have several reservations about this. First, I think the writing component is the concluding section of the verbal test (nothing like asking a tired test-taker to write clear prose). Second, the test asks the student to merely write a rough draft (but writing is a process that includes revision and, of course, good writers can write awful first drafts but superb final drafts). Third and finally, I have little confidence in (likely underpaid) test graders moving through and assessing hundreds or thousands of essays.

Posted by: Danton on May 1, 2007 at 3:47 PM | PERMALINK

What scares me about the kids I've interviewed for my one-time upper-tier university isn't just how "accomplished" they are but how upbeat and untouched by the world. I get the sense that one misstep (as opposed to a touching story of adversity overcome) pretty much puts you out of the running for the schools (other than Regent) that expect to be educating the nation's future leaders. And that's a terrible thing.

Either these kids will screw up down the line, and it will break them because they're used to being perfect, or they won't, in which case devil take the rest of us. Maybe some of them will actually learn from their experiences.

Posted by: paul on May 1, 2007 at 3:56 PM | PERMALINK

What we really need is a repeat of what happened at the end of the last great period of wealth creation in the United States -out of that, we got Carnegie-Mellon, Stanford, U. Chicago, Duke, etc. Where are Dell U, Allen U, Jobs U, Ellison U, Buffett U, Gates U, Bloomberg U, and so on?

Posted by: DBL on May 1, 2007 at 2:35 PM

Along these lines...

A week or two back, this site was temporarily down and some stuff from the January '04 Washington Monthly was in its place. One of the articles was by Richard Florida of "creative class" fame, who said that in order to bolster some of the more lagging reaches of America, more educational opportunities needed to go to places where the creative classes weren't going. It was a good idea in my opinion.

How I would love to see a University of the United States -- sort of a non-military equivalent of West Point -- be built in several places in the U.S., perhaps building campuses in the east, south, midwest and west. Top-flight education at an affordable price, without the elitism or snobbery of the Ivies; give faculty tax breaks to draw them from top colleges. Greatness need not be synonymous with elitism.

Posted by: Vincent on May 1, 2007 at 4:03 PM | PERMALINK

What we really need is a repeat of what happened at the end of the last great period of wealth creation in the United States -out of that, we got Carnegie-Mellon, Stanford, U. Chicago, Duke, etc. Where are Dell U, Allen U, Jobs U, Ellison U, Buffet U, Gates U, Bloomberg U, and so on? Posted by: DBL

I don't think we need more colleges and universities. And in any case, most of the people you cite have given substantial sums of money to their ala mater or other universities. The Gates Foundation is also giving a good deal of money to public secondary education, which is a lot more important.

While many public universities struggle for funding, most of the top tier private schools have substantial endowments. But what's truly criminal is the lack of support given to public primary and secondary education in the U.S.

Posted by: JeffII on May 1, 2007 at 4:46 PM | PERMALINK

without the elitism or snobbery of the Ivies

You know, I really detest these stereotypes. Outside of a few eating clubs at Princeton, or finals clubs at Harvard, I really can't say I find the people who went to Ivy League schools to be "elitist" or "snobs." Ok, "elitist" in the sense that many of them were intelligent or hardworking, but among the ones that weren't, they new they were outclassed by some of their classmates and had the humility that goes along with that.

Greatness need not be synonymous with elitism.

I think it would help if you told me what you were arguing against when you talk about not wanting "elitism"? Any academic institution in which people are graded and the admissions are competitive is going to naturally gravitate in favor of the "elite," when "elite" are those who are those who are academically talented.

Posted by: Constantine on May 1, 2007 at 5:24 PM | PERMALINK

I don't think I'm "one of the few literate people who simply can't handle multiple choice tests." Rather, I've always thought that standardized tests, at least the way they were once structured, really couldn't test writing skills.

Amen to everything Danton said.

I think that if the SATs (and their graduate school equivalents) must be used, it ought to be as a last resort. Such as if your grades and activities make you a borderline candidate, or maybe slightly under the bar, a high score can work as a boost to get you through. It should never hold the weight that it does, diminishing four years of hard work or overriding a mediocre transcript.

Posted by: wilder on May 1, 2007 at 7:38 PM | PERMALINK

wilder:Tell me again how lower test scores mean that I've learned less or am less intelligent.

I didn't write about you, or about everyone, but about some more-or-less extremes. you missed the part about my highschool being non-accredited. For students at some unusual schools, high scores on the standardized tests are the way that admissions committees can tell that the grades are meaningful.

Surely after 5 years studying French you didn't have low scores on the French language tests, did you?

Posted by: MatthewRmarler on May 1, 2007 at 11:30 PM | PERMALINK

wilder: I think that if the SATs (and their graduate school equivalents) must be used, it ought to be as a last resort. Such as if your grades and activities make you a borderline candidate, or maybe slightly under the bar, a high score can work as a boost to get you through.

I merely pointed out the complement: if you are borderline or just above the bar, low test scores can be a warning. If the test scores are not valid for both purposes, then they should not be used at all. Evidence is that they are valid.

Posted by: MatthewRmarler on May 1, 2007 at 11:33 PM | PERMALINK

Great thread. It reminds me of a book a philosophy prof suggested I read when taking a logic class: Herman Hesse's "The Glass Bead Game"
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Glass_Bead_Game

The Glass Bead Game (German: Das Glasperlenspiel) is the last work and magnum opus of the German author Hermann Hesse. Begun in 1931 and published in Switzerland in 1943, the book was mentioned in Hesse's citation for the 1946 Nobel Prize for Literature.

"Glass Bead Game" is a literal translation of the German title. The title has also been translated as Magister Ludi. "Magister Ludi," Latin for "master of the game," is the name of an honorific title awarded to the book's central character. Magister Ludi can also be seen as a pun: lud is a Latin stem meaning both "game" and "school."

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on May 2, 2007 at 1:26 AM | PERMALINK

The millenials lie and cheat at an alarming rate. "Honor code" violations are so rampent college administrators are holding sessions about understanding the millenials. The students are worldy, smart and driven but their only goal in life is to make partner at Goldman Sachs or get in to medical school and they will do almost anything in support of this goal.

The boomers final act of revenge on the country was siring and raising a giant army of unethical corporate drones. Good thing millenials are all emmotionally stunted and incredibly fragile or the country would be in real trouble.

Posted by: Gen Y Sucks Ass on May 2, 2007 at 7:21 AM | PERMALINK

a comment on the sat exams:

i have a friend,who works as a gov. scientist in

wash., whose wife makes a good living

tutoring kids for the sat exams ($50- $75/hr.- the price goes up as the exam

gets closer. his wife has a giant bookcase

filled with notebks.full of old sat and sat-like

exams. to impress her students she takes the exam

with them but half way through every timed quest.

she holds up her pencil and stops working on the

exam. in spite of this handicap she almost always

gets a score of 1600. is this because she's a

super mega-mind or is it because she's had an

immense amount of practice on an immense no. of

old exams-----i think it's pretty clearly the

latter

i don't think the kids today are any smarter or

dumber than they were yrs. ago but the exam

preparation has sure been souped up.

Posted by: wschneid25 on May 2, 2007 at 9:28 AM | PERMALINK

wschneid25

There is any amount of evidence that things you practice, rigorously, again and again, you get better at.

This is true of playing the violin, or playing football, or running the Marathon, or learning a language, or doing standardised tests.

There *is* a role for natural ability, but persistence and sweat beats brains. You might say the key thing you inherit from your parents is your tenacity or gumption, as we say in the UK.

This is why foreign students from many countries do better than American students of the same age: they spend more hours in schools, and they do more homework. It's not usual for kids in other countries to have jobs after school, or cars. It *is* common to have school on Saturdays.

Yes if you practice enough at tests (with feedback!) you will get better at them.

Posted by: Valuethinker on May 2, 2007 at 9:49 AM | PERMALINK

paul

In a world where CEOs are made at 40, and partners at 32-35, there isn't much room for late bloomers, or those who have setbacks.

You tend to find this in corporations (I recently read a book (Andrew Cockburn's study of Donald Rumsfeld) suggesting something similar could be applied to the careers of Messrs Bush, Rumsfeld and Cheney ie an insulation from failure). Often the high flyers have never spent much time actually *doing* a job, and managing their way through failure.

*this* more than anything, I suspect, is the cause of the loss of 'leadership' in corporate life. You have a bunch of terribly young men (and they are still mostly men) who have never really been given a tough job, and failed at it, and had to work their way out. Most organisations have been merged, delayered, 'restructured' so many times that the experienced old hands who know how things work, and don't work, just aren't there any more.

So when the rubber hits the road as a CEO, they can't function.

The US Army is falling into this pattern too: you have 'up or out' promotion systems, and you have everyone being promoted because of a shortage of junior and mid level officers.

Posted by: Valuethinker on May 2, 2007 at 9:54 AM | PERMALINK

Hey, Gen Y Sucks Ass? My 21-year-old son is a "millenial," and coincidentally a student at Harvard. He does not lie or cheat at an alarming rate, or at any other rate, or indeed at all. Yes, he is "worldy, smart and driven," but he has no Goldman Sachs or med-school goals. He is just the opposite of an "unethical corporate drone," and he is neither "emmotionally [sic] stunted" or fragile. I venture to say that I'd rather have the country in his hands than in those of a bigoted, puerile generalizer like you. I suggest you go find the horse you rode in on and take the appropriate action.

Posted by: Bob on May 2, 2007 at 5:31 PM | PERMALINK

Standardized test scores are the only way to take into account the varying quality of schools.

Which highlights the very fact that not all students in this (or any) country have access to the same quality of education. Standardized tests are notoriously ethnocentric and, more than anything, favor those with the resources to prep for them or those with a natural affinity for standardized tests of a particular type.

I strongly suspect that these almost perfect applicants who get rejected by Hahvahd are disproportionately Asian-American.

I wonder if this is why the UC system has disproportionately high Asian-American and international Asian enrollment. There was an interesting piece in the NY Times a couple of months back that compared the demographics of the state of California with the demographics of the student body at various UC campuses.

Somehow we've bred a generation of 'idiot savants' who are very good at taking tests, very good at 'pressing the buttons' but lack the general knowledge that one would expect of the citizens of a democracy.

As a 24 year old, I take some offense at your characterization of people my age. While I would never claim that everyone in my age group is a perfect citizen or a great intellect, I know countless 21-29 year olds that bear no resemblance to your description. As an undergrad (I graduated last May), my friends were thoughtful and active: union organizers, activists, and budding scholars. They (variously) organized academic conferences, went around the world on Fulbright and Watson fellowships doing research and teaching English to students abroad, did conservation research in South America, built houses for the impoverished, counseled inner-city youth, traveled during vacation time to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina to provide relief, spent vacations driving through unfamiliar cities providing rides to early voting locations during the last presidential election, and that's just what I can think of off the top of my head. Just because the young adults you've met don't know a Shi'a from a Sunni, doesn't mean they are representative of their generation. And if you think that older generations are so much better, I have news for you. There are ignorant people of all ages; I have more than once found myself explaining to someone twenty years older than I am that Osama bin Laden is not a Shi'a, that the term is 'cloture' not 'closure', or that Persians do not typically speak Arabic.

As an undergrad, I edited a American politics journal, I wrote papers on ithna ashari messianism and the relationship between bahai fundamentalism and babi historiography (as neither a history nor Islamic studies major), my friends and I started a group to educate our community about the Arab-Israeli conflict and its effect on the human rights of Palestinians and Israelis (I'm neither Jewish nor Muslim/Arab), and that was only two years of undergrad. Most of my classmates didn't go on to graduate/law/medical school, they just went out to get a job like their parents had before them. So, please, save your generational stereotyping for the yelling at the damn kids in your front lawn. Let us recognize that no generation has a monopoly on ignorance.

Check out where the professors at your local above-average-but-not-elite university went to school. The odds are (at least this has been my observation) that most of them went to elite universities as undergrads or for grad school.

Very important point. Val Burris at the University of Oregon (himself, I believe, an ivy league grad) has done a great deal of interesting research in the hiring patterns at PhD granting institutions. His work is worth hunting down, although a bit depressing if your graduate degree isn't from a top 5 or 10 institution.

I really can't say I find the people who went to Ivy League schools to be "elitist" or "snobs."

I don't think that the point is that the individuals at Ivy League schools are elitist so much as the institutions themselves are, by their very nature, elitist. As others have pointed out, Harvard doesn't get any bigger, but the pool of qualified students does. To the extent that the vast majority of qualified candidates will not have access to the institution, I would call that elitist.

Posted by: Corey on May 2, 2007 at 8:12 PM | PERMALINK

Bob - Are you still doing your son's homework? Time to let go old man.

Posted by: Gen Y Sucks Ass on May 2, 2007 at 9:19 PM | PERMALINK

I engaged in a lot of narcissistic enjoyment in college-- boy, was it awesome. But I also got a lot out of the academic environment by working with professors and taking advantage of the resources that I might not have found in another university. So was it worth going to an elite university? Yes, I'd say so.

Tyro: You were the type of kid that everyone talked about behind his back and the kid who made sure to make at least one or two self-aggrandizing comments during class that usually bored the rest of your peers to tears but were vital nonetheless in validating your own sense of worthiness in a pond of competitive and talented students.

For me the best thing about Harvard wasn't even the professors or the classes -- it was the other students, the vast majority of them driven, brilliant, interesting people.

Stefan: As a recent graduate of an Ivy, I agree that I was equally impressed by my peers both inside and outside the classroom. Some classes that were discussion based seem to be run by students entirely.

Posted by: goosestep on May 3, 2007 at 4:13 AM | PERMALINK

Norman Rogers

I am impressed you know so much more about Neanderthal Man than paleontologists and anthropologists do.

Just about everything we know about Neanderthal is pure guesswork. We have recently revised our opinion about his intelligence (probably as great as our own) and the nature of his demise (lived alongside humans for thousands of years).

Would you sell access to your Time Machine?

Posted by: Valuethinker on May 3, 2007 at 7:18 AM | PERMALINK

MatthewRmarler:Surely after 5 years studying French you didn't have low scores on the French language tests, did you?

I wound up not taking the French AP exam, so who knows? That example points to what bothers me most about SAT/GRE/LSAT. While you need to have some knowledge to do reasonably well, these tests still don't test your accumulative knowledge as well as a comprehensive exam based on a subject that you have been studying. While not able to "ace" the SATs, I was able to "ace" essay tests that required me to bring up and analyze knowledge that I had accumulated over time. To me, the latter tests are more demanding, yet I'm supposed to think that my verbal score on the SAT is more representative of my intelligence?

Posted by: wilder on May 3, 2007 at 1:08 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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