Sunday, September 24, 2006

Top US Universities : Bastions of Privilege and Hypocrisy.

We all know that American universities are by and large the best in the world. As we posted on this blog last year, America boasts 17 of the world's top 20 universities, while Britain has two, Japan has one and France has none.

In fact, the state of French universities is not very good but what can you get for a public-funded university and for $250 tuition a year. This grim picture of the French university system is not complete - there are also very competitive schools (the Grandes Ecoles) but those schools do not emphasize research and only 4% of French students make it there, even if those competitive schools have some noticeable success.

It is undeniable that American universities are the most competitive ones in today’s world:

American universities currently employ 70% of the world's Nobel prize-winners, 30% of the world's output of articles on science and engineering, and 44% of the most frequently cited articles. Source to be found here.

One of the greatest failures of American universities these days though is that they have become bastions of privilege, and not engines of social justice.

That’s at least according to Daniel Golden, a Wall Street Journal reporter who was actually awarded the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for a series of stories exposing the privileges enjoyed by wealthy white students. Now, Mr Golden has published a book (“The Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges—and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates”) which [see Wash. Post review here) the Economist is praising this week in their article, properly called Poison Ivy.

There all sorts of ways to go through the backdoor if you can’t make it through the front door (if your SAT score is not so good).

One of the most well-known ways is to get legacy preference. A legacy student is a student who is admitted to a school primarily because one or both parents are alumni (= former graduates of the same school). A great way to perpetuate the "race":

Harvard admits 40% of legacy applicants compared with 11% of applicants overall. Amherst admits 50%. An average of 21-24% of students in each year at Notre Dame are the offspring of alumni.

However, all sorts of people benefit from the system, celebrities, politicians and even academics which is proabably why it is very unlikely things will change:

Academics not only escape tuition fees if they can get their children into the universities where they teach. They get huge preferences as well. Boston University accepted 91% of “faculty brats” in 2003, at a cost of about $9m. Notre Dame accepts about 70% of the children of university employees, compared with 19% of “unhooked” applicants, despite markedly lower average SAT scores.

Of course, in a country where in..

... the last presidential election both candidates—George Bush and John Kerry—were “C” students who would have had little chance of getting into Yale if they had not come from Yale families

And where....

Al Gore and Bill Frist both got their sons into their alma maters (Harvard and Princeton respectively), despite their average academic performances.

This should not come as a surprise. Beyond the moral problem of the lack of meritocracy, there is yet a greater danger - that American universities may have become too money-addicted and in the end, that they may lose some of their competitiveness by not admitting enough people on the basis of their intellectual ability. This is particularly bad “when social inequality is rising at a time when the escalators of social mobility are slowing (America has lower levels of social mobility than most European countries).” (The Economist)

Something between the French egalitarian system which does not take money (i.e. reality) into consideration and the American system which is obsessed with money, there might be a fine line. Competition is fine if it is based on merit and it seems to me that the private sector might be interested in investing in a system that will attract brains – real ones.


NOTE: Former Harvard University President Lawrence Summers had this to say on legacy, "Legacy admissions are integral to the kind of community that any private educational institution is.". Right.... and that justifies it, I guess.

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