Sham Admissions and the Sham Meritocracy

Student's_SongIn all of the hoopla about a fake meritocracy, illegal shenanigans for college admissions, legacy and other legal but questionable methods of getting in, and all the other things swirling around the internet this past week since a bunch of rich folk were busted for buying college entrance for their kids, one thing has been forgotten: The whole process of college admissions is a sham that has very little to do with the education the students might earn.

Almost any of the students involved in the scams that came to light last week can succeed at almost any American college. Admission criteria don’t keep out students who can’t make it in college, whatever college. Instead, they weed out those the college doesn’t think will reflect well on them after graduation. That’s why the children of the wealthy and of alumni are given special treatment: They are more likely to stay rich or match their parents’ accomplishments than students from more mundane backgrounds. Critically, they are more likely to give money later than will students from hoi polloi backgrounds.

There are, of course, many college students needing special support to succeed. The reasons are various: Poor high schools and trauma may be the two most common but other factors, such as learning disabilities and physical disabilities, also place students in awkward positions when they try to compete with their peers. But even these students can succeed in earning legitimate college degrees, emerging with just as much knowledge as their peers at Stanford and Yale.

I teach at an urban public university where the challenges faced by my students are quite different from those facing kids destined for selective colleges. Not only are the high schools they come out of mostly substandard “factories” processing students through to graduation based on very little accomplishment, but my students haven’t had, before college, much in the way of effective outside tutoring or test-prep. Not only that, but their parents, few of whom have graduated from college or even attended, cannot offer the support taken for granted by luckier and wealthier students. Oh yes, I should add that half of my students don’t speak English as their first language–many of their parents hardly speak  it at all.

And then there’s the trauma. I had a student some years ago who walked for five days through floods in Pakistan to reach a place where he could get a bus to Islamabad and then a flight back to New York for school. Many of my male students have been arrested or, at least, stopped and frisked, and some have spent a night or two (sometimes more) in jail. Some of them come from broken homes rife with abuse or have lived in shelters from time to time–or both. Some are teen-aged parents. Some are veterans who, now just coming out of their teens, have seen more death and destruction than most of us see in a lifetime.

And that’s just for starters. The things my students have experienced are often far beyond the imagination of their luckier peers.

Yet, for all that, these students can succeed in college. That Pakistani man? Last I heard, he was working on a doctorate at an ivy-league school. Another student hailed me as I was walking in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn: “Hey, professor!,” she shouted from across the street, “I just finished my Masters in Computer Science at Columbia!”

Like them, I wasn’t able to get into a selective college out of high school. So, I spent a year and a half at Utica College in upstate New York and a summer at Brooklyn College before wrangling a transfer to Beloit College in Wisconsin. I was only a mediocre student even there, never really learning how to buckle down until I entered grad school at the University of Iowa as a special student five years after graduation (I entered a degree program a year later).

What I learned for myself, and why I teach where I do, is that it doesn’t really matter what college a student attends, not in terms of the education. What’s important is the preparation and support the student has had before entering, the support for the particular needs of the students at the college, and the desire of the student to engage in the learning offered in her or his courses.

If a student has been adequately prepared and has sufficient motivation, he or she can succeed in earning a degree in almost any American university. Without the preparation, the student can still succeed, though the institution may need to provide focused and frequent support. Ours tries to, starting with a faculty willing to provide academic support at a level unnecessary at so-called “better” institutions. With it, our students can (and do) move on, like I did, to top-flight institutions, competing comfortably with students from elite colleges they never could have hoped to attend as undergraduates.

The panic to get one’s kids into top-ranked colleges and universities, we should always remember, has nothing to do with the education the students might receive at one place over another. There’s very little difference between what a motivated student can learn at Medgar Evers College and what he or she might learn at Harvard.

What those busted parents were paying or cheating for isn’t education–but simply status.