Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Diversity University: University First, Diversity Second

I was "introduced" to Michael Lopez when he was guest blogging over at Joanne Jacob's place. Among others, he wrote a post in response to this piece in the New York Times about admissions policies at Amherst College (and at other elite colleges). (This is a bit off topic, but after you read the NYT piece, read these letters to the editor in response.) Since he mentioned he had gone to Wesleyan, I shared my posts in reference to admissions policies there (here's the first and the second one). We chatted a bit and one thing led to another and next thing you know I asked him to write a guest post in response to mine. Michael's blog is "Highered Intelligence." I will soon respond to his post, but in the meantime, here's Michael:

This post is an outgrowth of a comment I left on Rachel's "Diversity University, No Longer" post. It covers much of the same ground, but also includes a few important ideas that I had neglected before. I will assume that the reader of this post has read her post in its entirety; there's quite a bit there, and it's not all obvious, but I think it boils down in the end to this paragraph:
"No matter how diverse racially and geographically the student body seems to be, in order to be truly committed to diversity, equality, and social justice, Wesleyan must change their admissions policies and must get out of the US News and World Report ratings game. Otherwise, no matter how much they're marketing themselves as part of the meritocracy, Wesleyan is still the same elitist animal."

Let me start out by saying that it's pretty clear that there's an uneasy social compact about what constitutes "academic merit". It's some ill-defined composite of test scores, grades, writing ability, accomplishments, school activities, and various types of service projects. The unifying theme of these constituents is that they are all things that the student does, not things that the student is. Whenever a school wanders outside these factors, it is engaging in what I think can fairly be called "affirmative action," insofar as the admissions office is taking an affirmative step to increase the likelihood that a candidate will be admitted on some other basis.

Now many of these semi-agreed-upon factors are the sorts of things that are tracked by US News and World Report. If there wasn't some degree of widespread agreement, the magazine wouldn't use these figures, because they wouldn't matter to the audience. I thus take it that Rachel is explicitly calling for "affirmative action" on the basis of a student's inferior position in our "increasingly stratified American class system". (I use "inferior" here in its technical, not qualitative sense.)

I've got no objection to this, as such. But I do think that I've got a different view than Rachel does, and that it's informed by a different perspective that I have on our shared alma mater, Wesleyan. See, I was one of the "low income" students that supposedly contributed to whatever diversity Wesleyan had back in the early/mid 1990's. I was also part of their ostensible racial diversity, but I'm not going to talk about race in this post other than to say that I'm not going to talk about race.

Now, from a certain perspective, Wesleyan was a tremendously diverse place. My closest circle of friends included students of five different races from four different parts of the country. Inter alia, we had 1.5 Mexicans, a West Virginian, a black guy from Brooklyn, a Caribbean/African American fellow from the Bronx, two white guys from the South, some half-Asian kids, and two Jews for good measure. Some were rich, some poor, and a few were in between. You might be asking what this group actually had in common, as any group of friends must have SOMETHING in common to stay together. The answer is simple: we were smart and we played D&D.

But I said "from a certain perspective" Wesleyan was diverse. Diversity really is a matter of perspective. If you've lived your entire life in the New York City or Boston upper middle class, or lower upper class, Wesleyan probably seems like it's a cornucopia of human variegation, even though a plurality of the students are actually pretty much just like you. If, on the other hand, you're a poor kid from California, it seems a little less diverse. How is that possible? Well, for the person in the former situation, there's all these new people who are so very different running around. For the person in the latter position--for me, that is--pretty much the entire school seems like rich folks from the East Coast. (And all y'all seemed rich to me, even those who protested about how you were thoroughly "middle class," but that's the perspective thing coming up again.)

While I had no expectations about the make-up of the student body coming in my freshman year, I pretty quickly figured out that despite being "Diversity University," Wesleyan was nonetheless primarily a bastion of a certain type of exercised, cultivated social privilege, and that I was a bit of a guest, free to take advantage of the facilities and treated like any other member of the society, but it was definitely not "my world." This was brought into graphic relief when I would go home. My father and my paternal grandparents, may they rest in peace, used to actually refer to it as "Mike's finishing school".

Now that's not to say I wasn't prepared to do the work--I was just as prepared or even more prepared than many of my classmates. (At least in this respect, I was a typical college student: it was motivation that caused me all my problems.) And while I don't want to go into boring detail, my application was what could probably best be called "inconstant." I had some very strong indicators (test scores and recs) and some very weak ones (GPA and certain curricular choices I made in high school). In short, it wasn't obvious that I was a shining candidate for admission.

I am thus exceedingly grateful to Wesleyan for taking a risk on me, and not least because it was the only school that accepted me. (And not the lowest ranked, either. My bona fides really were inconstant.) I know I was a risk--they could have just as easily taken one of their 4.2/1490 community service Manhattan-based demigods, the ones that they reject every year. That would have been a safer bet for them. They saw something they liked in my application, though, and off I went.

So I don't feel quite the same sense of outrage if the university decides to take fewer risks, if, as I heard some members of Rachel's class once remark, Wesleyan in the late 90's became "L.L. Bean-i-fied." If there are a few less borderline cases, a few less rolls of the admissions dice from an administration concerned with their national reputation, well, that's the way the cookie crumbles. From my vantage, extending their assistance and considerable financial generosity was something that they didn't have to do in the first place.

Frankly, I didn't go to Wesleyan to experience diversity. I didn't go to meet poor and rich students, Jewish and Episcopal students, or brown, black and yellow students. I went to meet really smart, engaging students who would push me, and with whom I could form an intellectual community. I don't know how many of you actually remember high school, but in many cases (not all, but many) it was a place where ideas and originality went to die. I wanted something different from Wesleyan, in fact, I recall writing in my hurried, last-minute application, the following sentence in response to the prompt, "How do you want to be remembered by your college community: "If college is anything like high school, I don't want to be remembered at all because I'd rather not have been there." I paraphrase only slightly and claim the pass of years as an excuse. Please don't think I hated high school completely--the good teachers I had were excellent, and thankfully, I had them often; the classes I enjoyed, I really enjoyed. But the classes I didn't enjoy were the worst sort of soul-crushing tedium, and the environment as a whole could fairly be called anti-intellectual.

I sometimes think that the "diversity" of a student body, in terms of race or money or accents or whatever, is the sort of luxury that you have to be middle- or upper-class to care about in the first place. And not being part of that club, I didn't care about diversity. In fact, what attracted me was the homogeneity of the student body: they were all wicked smart! My purpose was to get a first-class education, and a better future for myself. (To be fair, I didn't realize that "better future" included an extremely painful, emotionally taxing four-year crash-course on middle-class mores, but there it is.) And I believe that the prospect of a better future and a first rate education has to be the first and primary mission of the university.

That's not to say that a certain amount of risk-taking in admissions isn't a good thing. I'm a fan. As I've said elsewhere, I support SES-based affirmative action, up to a point. And I think that most of Rachel's suggestions--outreach, summer programs, etc.--are well-taken and, funds permitting, would be capital ideas. "Rolling the dice" on a student means taking a gamble, but the gamble I want Wesleyan taking is the gamble that the student they are admitting really are the sort of wicked smart, well-prepared student who will help grow the discourse of learning.

So I'm wary of pushing the thumb too hard against the scale. Rachel talks about students who are "capable" of doing the work (her emphasis). Based on the rest of her essay, she seems to be indicating that there's a certain amount of potential that should be recognized in college admissions; that a student might be good raw material, but just not quite as developed. And that's probably a good idea, to some extent. Nevertheless, as I wrote recently at Joanne Jacob's blog in response to the argument that a lower SAT score from the Bronx was "as impressive" as a higher score from a richer area:
"That, too, is a lovely sentiment. And it’s probably true if the 'merit' that you’re trying to measure is some sort of absolute potential. But the counterargument is a strong one, and runs thusly: college is a bit late to be relying on your potential. College, particularly college at any of the schools on the list above, is going to draw upon your actual preparation as a foundation for more advanced studies. If you don’t have that foundation, you’re going to fall behind because for all your magnificent potential, you just don’t read as well, or just don’t add as well, as the more prepared students with the higher test scores."
And if as admissions officers you degrade the average abilities of your student body too much, you'll also start to change the discourse of learning that goes on in your school. You'll start chipping away at the very reason that kids--especially the kids from the lower classes you ostensibly crave--want to be in your school in the first place, assuming it's not merely rank careerism.

So, just by way of bringing this back to Rachel's post, I'm not so sure about more radical steps like lifting the four-year cap that Wesleyan has; I think that's a good thing: a firm floor to ability. If you don't have the ability to graduate in four years, given the lax graduation requirements and how ridiculously easy it is to get classes at Wes, then I can't imagine that you have any business attending a school like that. There's stretching the standards and then there's simply abandoning them.


  1. One not need worry too much. Time and demographics are on the side of more diversity. As the pool of college-bound students necessarily decreases, schools will have to be less-selective in order to fill classes. I think many colleges are in a race to climb the US News ladder before the glut passes through their ranks.

    Having lots of "wicked-smart" people around can lead to great discussion, but it can also lead to a lot of ego and an experience that is more about grades than it is a well-rounded educational experience (you may or may not think that important).

    I like the idea of an over-sized freshmen classes. Let the students filter themselves by their success or failure - hold standards high and if people fail or drop out because things are difficult, so be it -- at least people had the opportunity to try. This, of course, is non-exclusive, and as such demeans the brand of the schools, so is not likely to happen.

    As for real risk-taking, schools admit so that they can continue the brand. Right now food conglomerates have jumped on the organic bandwagon (despite any real evidence that organic food is any better for you than non-organic) because that's what their customers want. Similarly, schools create a "diverse" student body because it's real constituency (rich parents of students) currently has a desire for such. Times will change, diversity will give way to some other measure of goodness and schools will follow along. The institution as such is more important than any educational quality or purpose that a school may undertake.

  2. I would acknowledge that you want a college environment where people are motivated to be there, and able to do the work.
    But I take issue with your first two paragraphs (after the quote).
    You say "[Academic merit is] some ill-defined composite of test scores, grades, writing ability, accomplishments, school activities, and various types of service projects." and follow that up with a defense of US News and World Report using these "semi-agreed upon" metrics.
    The problem is that there are particular metrics that are emphasized for the wrong reasons. Things that can be easily standardized and quantified are weighted more highly than other metrics of merit. By which I mean everything after test scores on your list.
    I just went to a symposia on predicting college achievement, and recent work has found that "non-ability" individual differences, such as conscientiousness, or discipline are also quite predictive of college success, in addition to test scores. In other words, there are other predictive factors besides SAT scores. The US News and World report does not use these. US News rankings are also unduly influenced by "peer ratings": asking other college presidents how good their peer institutions are.
    I think part of what places like Wesleyan could do is simply weight high school grades higher, which could allow them to have a more (race/class, etc) diverse population. This would not mean a lowering of standards, but merely a rethinking of the priorities. In other words, there are a lot of kinds of "wicked smart" and moving away from the kind of smarts reflected on the SAT and AP tests and towards another kind that would not tend to be as class or race biased does not have to result in lowering the bar.

  3. As the pool of college-bound students necessarily decreases,

    "Necessarily" is a really, really strong word. What leads you to use it?

  4. I think he/she is referring to demographic trends. There will be fewer 18 year old Americans in the next few years than there were in the past few years. These trends vary by region, and by ethnicity, and I think she is referring to the race/ethnicity changes as well.
    Here is the college board on some of those demographic changes. Or the full set of graphs and trends

  5. Perhaps I should have said (and perhaps what I meant was):

    "As the pool of college-bound students decreases, schools will necessarily have to be less-selective in order to fill classes."

    My alma mater is very concerned that there will be fewer students going to college in the coming years and actually was wanting to to raise tuition while they could attract students so as to fill the coffers before a demographic fall-off. This may be a more local phenomenon, but my school does attract students nationally.

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