Admit and Flunk

In this article, LAIRD BELLlooks squarely at the problem of the large number of admissions to our state universities. A Chicago lawyer with an informed, devoted interest in education, Mr. Bell is currently chairman of the board of the National Merit Scholarship Corporation and has been a member of the governing boards of the University of Chicago, Harvard College, and Carleton College.


THE war babies have now grown up and are knocking at the college gates. As they swarm in, it is hard for the layman to avoid wondering whether all of them are qualified to profit by higher education. After all, society is supporting them, by taxation or by generosity, and is entitled to expect some public benefit from them.

Under our system a student’s progress up to the point of entering college has been largely automatic, as he went along from one grade to another. But at about the college level the intellectual demands on the student’s capacity suggest that not all may be capable of profiting by further study. College calls for a different kind of intellectual effort, and a more difficult one. There must therefore be a considerable number of the applicants who are not so qualified. At the same time, from the point of view of the public, it is hard to see how the nation is benefited by providing further free training of students who are not able to take advantage of it.

If, however, some are to be chosen and some are to be refused, a problem is presented in determining which students can be considered capable of profiting by further study and which ought to be discouraged from it. It is no kindness to the individual, or benefit to the nation, to offer higher education to one who in all probability will not be able to hold the pace.

Privately supported schools can, of course, set their own standards and select the students that they conclude may benefit by college and university training. But the publicly supported schools are not so free to deal with the matter. The problem is particularly acute in the several states in which the state-supported universities are obligated by law to admit the holder of the diploma from an accredited high school in the state, “without regard to mental aptitude or other factors.” There are eleven such states.

In addition, ten other state institutions have as a matter of long-standing policy accepted high school graduates of their state. While this practice has not the binding force of a law, it is obvious that a state-supported school with a large alumni following would for the sake of public relations find it very difficult to impose entrance requirements that might exclude a substantial number of state residents. There is always a legislator ready to be indignant on behalf of a constituent’s child — or possibly his own. Even if an institution is ambitious to increase its academic standards, the admission officers may well be tempted to take the easy way and let the stream of applicants flow past, waiting for the teaching staff to screen out the unfit at the end of the first semester or first year.

This practice seems indefensible in principle. High schools are not uniform in excellence, nor are their courses equally adapted to preparation for college. Some high schools are rural, some urban; some tend to be vocational, some are terminal. According to rumor, too, some schools have shoved students along year after year regardless of their records. Indeed, it is not hard to understand this. What else can be done with the hopeless dullard, or the natural troublemaker, who cannot be dismissed because he is protected by the child labor laws? It is not easy to do much with a student who cannot be dropped or to force learning upon those who will not learn.

The great majority will be qualified, but the skeptical layman may question whether we should be expected to spend our resources, particularly the services of our teachers, on the unqualified ones. The whole effort expended in getting the unqualified into college, and then dropping them, must be almost a complete waste, sociologically and economically. The college must gear its staff and plant to take care of this mass of dropouts, even though they are only temporarily there. The instruction in the freshman classes must be conditioned by the standards of a class with a percentage of incompetents. Certainly it is a drag on the teachers to work with them; they must devote time and attention to them, to the neglect of the better students; and the progress of the whole group must be slowed down. This may account in part for the common complaint that first-year students are bored by a repetition of ground already covered. Meantime, from the point of view of the community, the economic loss of a productive year of employment is not to be shrugged off.

The system is a cruel one. The unqualified student is taken in full of hope and surely at some sacrifice in money or lost earning power, and then a few months later he will receive the flunk notices. This cannot be good for either the student or the educational system. Some students will take this lightly, some will be stimulated to further effort, but many will suffer from the stamp of failure in a test to which they never should have been subjected. It is not merely the individual who suffers; most families are disappointed. There must result not a few inferiority complexes. It should be possible to find out less painfully whether one is qualified for college.

Any attempt to increase selectivity runs full face into democratic dogma. Much heat is generated in academic circles on the issue. It is said that everyone should have the right to try. College education, it is argued, should not be for the elect only. It is alien to the spirit which gave birth to public education and the state universities to close the doors of opportunity to the aspiring but slow student. The contention is appealing. But are there no limits to the principle? How long may one continue to try? Isn’t there a point at which it no longer benefits the individual or justifies state support to continue to provide instruction? Is everyone entitled to his Ph.D.? It may not be easy to draw the line, but it must be drawn somewhere.

THE problem is not new, and it is being tackled in various ways. In California, where the university is the head of the whole state educational structure, the purpose is to make higher education in some form available to all comers. This poses the question of what to do with the unqualified student. Students are now admitted in California in accordance with a Master Plan. In broad terms, the plan admits to the university the highest-standing students of the high schools, those in the top eighth of the high school classes. The next in high school rank are admitted to the several four-year state colleges. And there remains for those less qualified, but still determined to get a post-high-school education, the junior college. This does not make everybody happy, but a division along these lines is logical and is a practicable solution to the problem of selectivity.

The University of Minnesota, too, has worked out a procedure. The university is the head of the educational hierarchy of the state, and as such it makes the proud claim that its doors are open to students with a wide range of ability; but two of its undergraduate divisions — the Institute of Technology and the College of Science, Literature, and the Arts — have different policies of selective admission. A student may be admitted to the university but not necessarily to these divisions. Those excluded from the institute and the college may enter the two-year General College of the university. They may move up as their ability develops. Meantime, no one is denied entrance to higher education.

Similar policies are developing in other strong state institutions. The aim is to permit the university to become an institution of learning of the highest grade by transferring junior college functions to junior colleges, by developing public regional four-year institutions offering instruction in liberal studies, and by concentrating the university’s resources on advanced undergraduate, professional, and graduate education and research. Obviously, this implies rational selectivity in admissions of those who are to be taught at these different levels.

The rapid development of the junior college lends itself to this trend — in fact, is an essential foundation for it. Perhaps the junior (or community) college lacks the social glamour and prestige of the others, but it does perform a necessary function in serving those who might fail in the more advanced education but who want something beyond the high school. It also leaves open the possibility of transfer later to the senior college.

Other states may not be able to establish such procedures as those in California and Minnesota, but there appears to be a growing struggle to increase selectivity, and many states have now developed machinery to work in that direction.

The University of Illinois, for example, while not required by law to accept high school diplomas, has as a matter of practice followed this course for a long time. To meet the difficulty of inadequate qualification, it has developed a plan of “progressive administration,” based on the fact that the facilities of the university are limited and that some form of priority of admission is necessary. In April the high school students ranking in the highest 25 percent of their classes may apply and receive admission priority; two weeks later students ranking in the upper 50 percent may apply, provided facilities are available; after that time all applicants who can qualify may apply for whatever facilities are still available. For flexibility, test scores may in some circumstances be substituted for high school rating. This procedure gives legitimate advantages to the best students but avoids the charge of denying educational advantages to anyone. It has resulted in a substantial decrease in dropouts.

In Ohio, where some of the state institutions must by law accept state high school diplomas, a plan has been developed which, while not excluding any diploma holders, temporarily defers the admission of the less qualified diploma holders. Freshmen in the lower third of their high school class are urged to enter the university in the summer quarter. They are then given guidance and counseling services. Preliminary adjustment to college life thus can be effected. From the Ohio experiment it would seem that the counseling and guidance procedure can be used to convince both unqualified students and, what is even more difficult sometimes, their parents that the applicant is not adapted to higher education, and he or she can withdraw at the end of the quarter without the stigma of flunking.

Other states have developed procedures along this line. In Florida, for example, the members of the lowest fifth of the high school class receive a letter stating that they will not be admitted to the university unless they come with a parent for an interview with the freshman counselor. If the parent is not encouraged to withdraw the student after the conference, he knows what to expect. In the first year this was tried, about half the applicants asked for interviews, a third of them entered, and they had all flunked out by Easter.

Any system of restriction is bound to raise the matter of the late bloomer. It is a question how far the standards of the whole student body should be lowered to be considerate of the potential late bloomers. Most restriction plans have escape provisions that should take care of any genuine cases of the kind. The rare cases where a student is a truly late bloomer should not be allowed to affect the whole selective process. If he has genuine ability, he will make his own way regardless of academic rules.

We are constantly being told about the intense interest and hard work of the Soviet students and the vast number of engineers being turned out among them. Are our present standards in college life sufficient to produce engineers and others equal to hard-driving, dedicated Soviet youth? Perhaps it does not take enough effort to go to college in the United States today. A generation or two ago, attending college was a privilege. For most students it meant some family sacrifice, it meant the student’s earning a large part or all of his way, it meant borrowing money, it meant earnest competition for the limited number of scholarships available. Now a great many children grow up assuming without question that they will go — or be sent — to college. But if college education is to be either free or subsidized to some extent, it would seem not unreasonable to expect students to make some sacrifice on their own part.

In fact, making higher education a little hard to get may well enhance its worth. Witness a by-product of the National Merit Scholarship program. Although the scholarships awarded have been less than a thousand in number each year, those taking the qualifying tests have grown from 60,000 to more than 600,000 in the first six years they have been given. The chance of getting the stipend is obviously small in comparison with the number of students involved. Clearly, another motive must be at work. Perhaps it is response to a challenge. Perhaps scholastic ability has become respectable; no longer is it a term of scorn for an undergraduate to be called a “brain.” At any rate, the testimony of high school principals is uniform that the pressure of competition for Merit Scholarships has stimulated good work in schools in many ways. There is even testimony that the effect is felt at the college level.

The matter of admitting a few ill-qualified students is just a small corner of a large field. It could be disregarded except for the shortage of teachers and facilities. We can perhaps afford to give all our children a pleasant four years’ residence in academic groves; but it would seem more worthwhile to work toward making college a genuine intellectual experience — and a privilege.