Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Merit and College Admissions

Recently on "NPR News with Tony Cox" (I heard it on WEOS Geneva, NY) I heard an interview with Ward Connerly, an African American who has long fought against racial preferences in College admissions in California and Michigan. Connerly believes that admission to college should be based on merit, not race. Right now, I'm not going to get into whether affirmative action is appropriate, or helpful, but I'd like to ask a more fundamental question: Why should college admission have anything to do with merit?

It seems to me that a university is providing a service to its students. The students are basically customers. Does it make sense to ask whether a customer is deserving of your product?

Well, here's one answer: I think that there may be a good reason to be somewhat selective in offering eduction in that you don't want to waste time and effort trying to teach someone who doesn't have the capacity and background necessary to learn what you are teaching. It seems to me that the selectivity to get into some colleges (such as the Ivy League schools) goes far beyond the question of proving that you have what it takes to handle the material.

What it really amounts to, in some cases, is that colleges are so selective because that that drives up the value of a degree. It's a self-reinforcing circle: The degree from a prestigious university is valuable because it is so hard to obtain, and it is so hard to obtain because there is so much competition to get in, and there is so much competition to get in because the degree is so valuable.


Blogger Kyle McCullough said...

Phillip Greenspun, a professor at MIT and author of "Travels with Samantha" www.photo.net/samantha, has argued that the university should stop charging admission. It gets much more from donations than from students, and alumni would be more likely to give to a school that hadn't bleed them dry when they were younger.

Unfortunately, he's missing the main point of high tuitions--which is not to generate revenue, but to keep the riff-raf out. Aptitude and achievement standards do the same. The universities figure that a young John Kerry or George Bush is more likely to be a future big donor than a Glenn Reynolds or Duncan Black, because they had/have more money. And they figure that a high-achiever is more likely to make something of himself (or herself) than a poor or even average student.

12:14 PM  
Blogger Avedon said...

It depends on whether you regard universities as also serving the community, which is reasonable when you consider how many of them are subsidized by taxes.

But that doesn't necessarily mean that pure, blind "merit" is always a reasonable criterion. If, for example, we find that patients get better treatment from doctors who are of their own racial/ethnic group, you want doctors from all those groups, even if the standard of applicants in one such group isn't quite as high as it might be in some other groups. As long as you have a reasonable minimum standard that must be met, they should still be able to serve the community.

8:06 PM  

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