The Race to College

The frantic race for admission to college has its counterpart in the frantic race for admission to graduate school. And in both cases, says Columbia University philosophy professor Robert Wolff, the fulfillment of intellectual potential has been sacrificed to the narrow ends of competitive achievement.


IN AMERICA today, the pursuit of knowledge has turned into a frenzied race. The origin of the problem is the spectacular rise in the number of students going to college since World War II. In 1950, 2,214,000 students were enrolled in American colleges and universities, and by 1963 the total had risen to 4,207,000. Projections for 1970 range as high as 7,000,000. Before the war, colleges set admissions requirements; now they must think in terms of an admissions policy by which to choose from among the excess of well-qualified applicants.

The applicants fall readily into three groups: the clear admits, the clear rejects, and a large middle group of “possibles.” In this third segment are to be found the students with strengths and weaknesses which must be weighed against one another and translated into a one-dimensional scale of preference. Should the college admit a boy with strong but not spectacular grades and little evidence of independence, or the boy whose relatively weaker but not disastrous grades are balanced by signs of creativity and ambition? Should the admissions committee deliberately strive for a heterogeneous freshman class, or judge each case purely on its merits without reference to the character of the other applicants already admitted?

The situation is aggravated by a number of interactions between the colleges and the high schools. Students, aware of the increasing difficulty of obtaining admission to their chosen colleges, begin to make multiple applications in order to protect themselves. The result is an inflation of applications to the best colleges, forcing them to estimate the percentage of freshmen who will actually show up in September.

Simultaneously, the “college advisers” in high schools and preparatory schools discourage students from applying to schools to which they have little chance of being admitted. This entirely laudatory move merely worsens the problems for the colleges, for it reduces the number of “clear rejects” in the file of applications, leaving a still more unwieldy group of “possible admits” from which to select a freshman class. The colleges also experience some misgiving at the thought of gifted students being discouraged by uninformed college advisers.

Meanwhile, the colleges have been making their task still more difficult by their attempts to adopt objective nonparochial criteria of admission. It is true that athletic ability, the right prep school tie, or an alumnus father will better a student’s chance to get into many colleges. But as applications mount and colleges strive to improve their student bodies, these factors have a decreasing pressure on admission decisions. By and large, the men who run the admissions offices of the top colleges are dedicated to the principles of fairness and equality of opportunity.

It is no wonder, then, that colleges have turned more and more to the multiple-choice aptitude and achievement tests developed by Educational Testing Service (ETS), and in particular, to the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). The college boards have come under severe attack, both on educational grounds and as inadequate predictors of success in college. Nevertheless, they continue to grow in importance as a major tool of admissions procedures. The reasons are not difficult to discern.

First, and by far the most important, is the admissions officer’s need for some way of comparing the cases in his burgeoning file of “possible admits.” Fairness and the bureaucratic strictures of committee work require him to produce reasons for favoring one candidate over another. The SAT serves as just such a measure. Closely related to this is the desire of admissions officers to reduce the percentage of admits who may flunk out later on. The SAT claims to predict college success; deans are haunted by the possibility that a good and potentially successful student will be turned down in favor of one who eventually fails to complete the college course. A low percentage of dropouts is considered a sign of a good admissions program.

Finally, as the average SAT scores of incoming freshman classes rise at the elite schools, ambitious colleges begin to treat the scores as a sign and measure of their own place in the educational system. A rise of fifty points in the freshman average is used by recruiters as an additional inducement for prospective students and their parents. What began as a means of handling a swollen tide of applications becomes in the end a measure of educational status.

Here, as with the pressure of admissions itself, there is feedback to the secondary school level. Parents quickly become informed (and misinformed) about the importance of college boards. Pressure is put on high schools to coach the collegebound seniors in the mysteries of multiple-choice tests. Despite ETS’s insistence that careful research reveals the futility of such preparations, classes in SAT-taking sprout. Soon, high school juniors are submitting to “preliminary SAT’s,” whose purely tentative results are then used to guide the students in their college choices.

The ever earlier testing is merely the most striking element in the hectic business of college preparations. Students are exhorted by parents and teachers to raise their grades. The colleges, which have never based their decisions solely on academic achievement, begin to emphasize extracurricular activities, and as the news filters back to the high schools, teen-agers are hastily enrolled in dance classes, music lessons, outing clubs, and intramural sports. The colleges counter with a search for signs of individuality and originality; desperately teen-agers are pushed into beekeeping and piccolo playing. And so it goes, on and on — colleges searching for ways to sort the applicants and predict their college careers, students desperately twisting themselves into what they hope will be appealing shapes.

What has been the effect of the endless testing and evaluating on our high school boys and girls? First of all, the ever present imperative to “do well” in an objective and measurable way is intensified, to the detriment of real education, or even of noneducational growth experiences. Americans have come to treat education as a process of homogeneous, crisis-free absorption of information and development of skills. The irregular, the irrational, the unconforming, the random, is seen as a failure of education. The only difference between the traditional and progressive attitudes is that the first blames these aberrations on the student while the second blames them on the school. That they are undesirable is never questioned.

But as so many perceptive observers of adolescents have pointed out, growth from childhood to maturity is necessarily ungainly. It is the trying on of ideals and life styles, the committing of newfound emotional energies. The “identity crisis” of late adolescence or early adulthood is positively creative, and certainly not an embarrassing misfortune to be excused and quickly suppressed.

Unfortunately, the college race has just this repressive effect on many of the most intelligent and sensitive — hence vulnerable — youngsters. Experiment and commitment require a willingness to accept the possibility of failure. They demand an incautious, even imprudent singleness of purpose. But the wise counseling and anxious hectoring of the college-mongers are death to experiment.

In his junior year in high school, John, an A student, becomes fascinated by boats. He spends hours at the docks, quizzing sailors about their tasks, cadging rides on tugboats, dreaming of distant places. For a year he is completely wrapped up in the sea. Then, abruptly, the passion leaves him, and he puts behind him as childish the dream of becoming a sailor. He has tentatively tried on a role, given himself up to it, and found that it does not answer his needs. The year has been immensely valuable to him as a stage in his growing up, but he has had scant time for history, French, math, and physics. In his school record there is no indication of the milestone which this year has marked in his life; only the low grades, dropping his cumulative average below the “top college” level. Discouraged by the unaccountable slump of a promising student, John’s college adviser directs him to a solid local state college.

John has been hurt by the system, for the education available to him at the top schools really is superior to that offered by the local college. But at least he has had his junior year, and he will be a better man for it. Far worse off are the other young men and women who have been cajoled or harassed away from creative adolescent commitments by their parents and teachers. Thus, in the name of a “good education” in the future, wellmeaning adults stifle the exploratory education which can be so exciting in adolescence. The energies which should be used for growth are instead diverted to deadening “college preparation.”

Aware of the tragedies of secondary education, many colleges have begun to make room in their admissions policies for a controlled measure of irrationality. Each year, a school will accept a certain number of applicants who defy all objective criteria but simply “smell right.” Admirable as such risk-taking is, it has no effect on the high school student, for he cannot be sure that he will be one of the mavericks who is saved by an intuitive dean. If the internal dynamic of his growth carries him outside the limits of secondary school acceptability, he must be prepared to forfeit the race to college.

WHAT does the successful applicant find when he finally enrolls at the college of his choice? No simple description can be given, any more than for the high school, but again trends are visible which are deeply disturbing. Until a very few years ago, the entering freshman at any of a number of top colleges would have been confronted with a mixed program of broad survey courses designed to make him “liberally” or “generally” educated, specialized courses from among which he could select a sample, and in his last year or two, a departmental major requiring him to concentrate on a single discipline. In addition, he would have had the opportunity to do independent research, usually as a means to a degree with honors. The premises of this sort of undergraduate program were two: first, that the typical freshman had not yet had a chance to roam at will in the realm of ideas, acquainting himself with the excitements and potentialities of the intellectual life (I remember my astonishment when, as a freshman, I discovered that there was a field of knowledge — sociology — which I had not even known to exist!); and second, that several years should be given over to relatively uncontrolled experimentation before a young man or woman was required to decide about a career.

In the past decade, however, both of these premises have been yielding to pressures from below and from above. The general education movement is under severe attack at Columbia, Chicago, and Harvard, the three schools which have done most to foster it. The causes are complex, involving problems of personnel and administration as well as of educational principle. One reason is that good high schools have instituted advanced placement college level courses using many of the same books which appear on the general education reading lists. Consequently, more and more students have had the material by the time they reach college. Now, just what it means to have “had” Dostoevsky or Freud or Marx is, of course, problematical. It may mean that the student has read works by the author, brooded over the ideas, and grown through his struggle to understand them. It may also mean that he has been intellectually immunized by being inoculated with small, weakened dosages of the author. At any rate, the well-prepared student can pick the right answer out of five choices an adequate number of times, and so he is assumed to be generally educated.

In response to the improved preparation of the freshman (which manifests itself in better language, math, and English composition training as well as in advanced placement courses), the colleges decide to “enrich” the undergraduate curriculum. The job is turned over to the departments, or at universities, to the graduate faculties, whose general view of undergraduate education is that it is a watered-down version of graduate education. Everywhere the same solution is hit upon: give the bright, able, well-prepared undergraduates a firstrate training in some graduate department. Administratively, this amounts to listing graduate courses in the undergraduate catalogue and requiring the concentrator to take baby generals and write baby dissertations. At a school like Harvard, for example, a senior honors thesis in history may be a 150-page research monograph, and the honors generals in English demand a mastery of large segments of the literature of the last millennium.

At the same time, pressures of military service, postgraduate professional training, and the rapid growth of specialized knowledge place a premium on choosing a career early. The sciences have long insisted that they cannot give adequate graduate training to the college graduate who has not already tucked some of the requisite material into his mind, and medical schools, of course, set pre-med requirements. But now the same song is sung by economists, psychologists, philosophers, and historians. As the undergraduate population swells, the admissions squeeze reappears at the best medical, law, and graduate schools. Once more, the education of the present, for which the student gave up so much in high school, is sacrificed to the demands of the future. Eager to relax and reap the fruits of his race to college, the student must instead climb onto the treadmill to graduate school.

But here the race for education ends. Upon entering graduate school, the student, now an adult, is told that his education lies behind him. From this point on, his intellectual and spiritual maturity is taken for granted. Graduate schools do not educate the whole man; they train the specialist. So it seems that somewhere, somehow, the successful student has lost an education. Always it was before him, over the next exam, beyond the next degree. Now suddenly it is behind him, and that unique moment of potentiality in the growth of the soul is gone.

What has gone wrong? The answer is simple: Each present was sacrificed to the future, until the presents were all past, and the future an empty present. It is a familiar enough story in our society. We call it prudence, or deferral of gratification, depending on our tastes in moral discourse.

What can be done? Alas, the answer is not so simple. It won’t help to administer the system with more intelligence, awareness, compassion, and imagination. These qualities arc already in surprising abundance among the educators of our country. The solution, if there is one, must cut to the root of the problem. It must reverse the order of priority, and at every stage subordinate the education of the future to that of the present. A good high school experience must count for more than admission to a great college. An exciting college education must in turn take precedence over preprofessional preparation for postgraduate training. How can this be done?

First of all, there is no point in demanding that college admission procedures be made fairer. The harm they inflict on high school students does not flow from their imperfections. It flows from their very existence. So long as the education in our colleges varies widely in quality, and admission to college is based on an evaluation of pre-college performance, parents and teachers will push students into a competition for admission. Nor should we issue pious warnings to high school students about the dangers of listening to their elders. They do not yet have the inner resources to withstand the threats and seductions of the adult world. Indeed, their spiritual growth demands identification with precisely those individuals who are encouraging them to compete. The adolescent student is faced with an impossible dilemma. If he accepts the values of his elders, he loses his chance for real growth and instead climbs on the treadmill. But if he shies away from the grade race, where else will he find the adult figures through identification with whom he can realize himself?

Why do students struggle so desperately to get into the best colleges? There is no absolute shortage of places in the system as a whole. Quite the contrary, each year a number of perfectly respectable institutions open their doors to a freshman class only partially filled. One reason, of course, is that the education available at the top schools is significantly better than that offered even by the solid second-run institutions. But it is surely not cynical to insist that superiority of education alone does not begin to explain the intensity of the admissions race. The primary reason is simply that for millions of American boys and girls, higher education is the gateway to the middle classes, and a diploma from the best schools is a passport to the upper middle classes. An Ivy League tie is a head start on the road to a corporate vice presidency or a partnership in a bank. It is much easier to get into a good medical school from a top college, easier even to gain admission to a first-rate business school, from which one is almost assured a start up the executive ladder. In short, the race for college is a crucial lap in the great race for wealth, position, and power in American society.

America used to be very largely a collection of local societies centered in the major cities scattered across the continent. A young man in, say, Columbus, Ohio, might get his start as a student at Ohio State University, and then go on to a good job with a iocal manufacturing company. The graduate of the Ivy League school back East was at a positive disadvantage in seeking the same job because of the ties of loyalty between the hometown school and the neighboring firms. But once that company is bought up by a national corporation with offices in Chicago or New York, the young man from Columbus is thrown into a nationwide competition against countless other ambitious young men. The hiring policies of the corporation are geared to a nationwide standard of values, and the Eastern schools have the advantage. The result is that hundreds of thousands of high school seniors are aiming at the small number of nationally known colleges and universities.

The increasing competitiveness of our system of higher education thus reflects the breakdown of regionalism in American society. So long as we use our schools in this large, impersonal system as an instrument by which we sort, prepare, and grade our young people, in order then to distribute them among the different and extremely unequal positions in our society, education will inevitably be a race for achievement rather than a fulfillment of intellectual and spiritual potentialities. As Socrates said, the unexamined life is not worth living; today, we seem more concerned with the grade than with the examination.