College for Whom?

When my father got out of the army at the end of WWII, one of the colleges he applied to was Oberlin. A good school, it wasn’t far from home; he knew very little more about it. As it happened, according to his story, one hundred other GIs had also applied–and the college suddenly had just that many extra beds: A barracks utilized during the conflict had been emptied. Oberlin decided to experiment: The college accepted all of the soldiers, keeping track of them to see how they managed in comparison to those who had come through the regular admission process.

They did just as well.

That probably wasn’t surprising. My father, who had graduated from high school in 1942, wanted to make up for lost time. Through overloads and summer classes, he managed to finish college in 1949 and then completed his doctorate at Duke in 1952. He and his peers were highly motivated, to say the least, but they also had support that allowed them to concentrate on their studies in ways available to very few students today. Sure, there are plenty who are motivated, but they don’t often have the resources. And the “elite” students who have plenty of support don’t often have the kind of motivation months on Leyte Island in wartime can bring–let alone the discipline of an experienced soldier. My father and his peers were lucky: they came to college with both.

All of this came to mind this morning when I read Stanford University professor Mitchell Stevens’ op-ed in today’s New York Times. He writes that the GI Bill:

sent more than two million grown-ups to college, made campus culture much more serious and helped American higher education become the envy of the world.

He’s right, of course. His main point, however, is that:

Rethinking the expectation that applicants to selective colleges be fresh out of high school would go far in reducing risk for young people while better protecting everyone’s college investment.

Again, I would tend to agree. However (and this goes back to the problem of yoking motivation and resources together when few naturally come with both), Stevens’ vision may prove of limited utility in the quest for reform of higher education as a whole. The key word in his quote above is “selective,” something the Oberlin experiment clearly was not. What Stevens is talking about is higher education for the elite–something that, quite frankly, should be low on our list of national priorities. One way or another, those from the one-percent are going to ensure that their children get this best education they can buy. What those students do with it is another matter, but motivating rich kids, too, should be way down that national list.

Stevens opens his article saying:

A CRUEL paradox of higher education in America is that its most coveted seats are reserved for young people. Four-year residential colleges with selective admissions are a privileged elite in the academic world, but their undergraduate programs effectively discriminate on the basis of age. Admissions officers typically prefer that the best and brightest be children.

A crueler paradox is that most of those seats are reserved for the best and the brightest from the elite. Only the most extraordinarily lucky from the ninety-nine percent will ever attend a top selective college or university. Most, if they are able to go to college at all, have to juggle jobs and family obligations while playing catch-up caused by a lack of educational resources (compared to the elite) both at home and in their high schools.

Stevens writes:

Massive online open courses (MOOCs) and other forms of online learning make it possible to experience fragments of an elite education at little or no cost.

Maybe. But one must have time and background (in addition to motivation) to make use of these “fragments” (for more on MOOCs, download this book; my own article in it raises questions of MOOCs as little more than colonialist tools). There may be “little or no cost” to these things, but they are still a luxury to students who have to choose between learning and a few extra hours at low-paying jobs for necessary income. Also, the MOOCs and things like them presuppose certain types of background knowledge and skill that, while they may be part of the culture of the elite, are not often available to the rest.

Though Stevens points to an “arbitrarily segregated world of teenagers and young adults” he accepts without question that other arbitrary segregation, admissions. He extols an

Open Loop University [that] would grant students admitted to Stanford multiple years to spend on campus, along with advisers to help them time those years strategically in light of their personal development and career ambitions.

This would be wonderful for the lucky few, but what about the rest? Stanford undergraduates aren’t magically better than students elsewhere or more deserving. They simply have (and have had) the resources (and, in most cases, the motivation) allowing them to step into a magical kingdom of elite education. My father, due to the unique circumstances of the years after WWII, had something of the same luck.

Most others do not. Not even those with equal talent and intelligence.

Rather than worrying that education is being wasted on the young (though I agree that it is), might not time be better spent worrying that too much of our educational resource base is being wasted on the elite, on people who, quite frankly, have lesser need than most in the population? Working to develop adequate resources to bolster educational possibilities for all and to enhance motivation of students who, currently, have only the vaguest idea of what they are striving toward would be a much more fruitful task.

As the experience of those soldiers, admitted wholesale to one of the best undergraduate colleges of the time (or any time) shows, we have more to gain by expanding real access (which includes providing adequate resources and the support for developing motivation) across the board than by expanding possibilities for those who have already made it.


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