It’s a Quandary: How higher ed is lowering our standards.

The other day I was driving back to Lexington after coaching an Admission Director at one of my favorite independent schools in South Carolina. A long drive home through the twisting mountain interstate led me to Malcolm Gladwell‘s “Revisionist History” podcast “Food Fight” where he describes what increasingly has become a social justice issue in higher ed, the closing of college to poor kids. You should listen to it; he takes food service at two colleges to frame the contrasting choices of the parallel schools, Bowdoin College in Maine and Vassar College in upstate New York. Bowdoin has the Michelin-rated chef and Vassar has wilted lettuce and bad guacamole. But Vassar has made a choice to steadily increase the number of Pell Grant students, the poorest kids, because philosophically they believe students must learn in an environment of social differences and that Vassar has an obligation to open itself to smart kids who otherwise can’t attend. This choice means Vassar doesn’t get the chef. But here’s the quandary: Vassar needs 1,000 full-pay kids to enroll so they can meet budget given that their financial aid costs them 60 million a year. We know there are plenty of rich kids in America who want to go to a top tier school, so what’s the problem? The problem is Bowdoin. Bowdoin has five-star food, five-star dorms, all the bells and whistles, and Vassar is falling behind on these luxuries and conveniences because they have chosen social justice.  But here’s the reality according to Gladwell: if you are a college-bound rich kid in the U.S., you are most likely used to a certain lifestyle. Food and accommodations matter; they make a difference. Social justice? For some yes. For many, not so much. They’d rather have the escarole and sausage soup with white truffle and endive. Bowdoin wins and while Vassar scrambles.

We Prides have finally finished the first of the college admission marathons. My daughter has chosen, she’s going, and she is ready, or at least she thinks she is. Meanwhile, I’m recovering from post traumatic stress disorder. The college admission game is not for wusses. The Gladwell podcast reminded me of the visit to Vanderbilt in Nashville, TN. I was somewhere in Indiana on what used to be a corn field sitting in a folding chair from Dick’s watching my son play soccer while Dan and Eliza walked along in the admission tour group at Vandy. Randomly, Dan texted me a picture of a sushi bar. I asked if that’s where they went for dinner, and he replied, “No. That’s in the freshman dorm. A sushi bar in the dorm.”

That was the first of many college visits wowed by state of the art fitness centers, cafeterias, football stadiums, and intramural fields. And at almost every school we saw a clear statement of growth and improvement, “this is where the new student center is going up…those will be new awesome dorms…” Each school we visited had its modern-day zoo, wire fenced enclosures protecting front end loaders, cranes, scaffolding. These costly improvements are clearly essential in this ironic game of competitive college admissions. Sushi bars, dorms, and fitness centers are the new “value added” in the race for more and better students.

Build it and they will come. If they get in. If they can afford it. That’s the next paragraph in the quandary that is college admission. It’s a complicated game of chess, and the rules shift every year. Where I’m headed next is back to high school where the college admission quandary has even greater consequences.

“If she wants money, she has to keep the 4.0.” That’s what our daughter’s college advisor told us from the start. Makes sense right? There’s more. She has to take the toughest courses too regardless of whether or not she’s right for them. Math isn’t her strongsuit? Doesn’t matter. Take A.P. Calculus and get the A. And while you’re at it, do 138 hours of service, sing for the choir, and take up the javelin. You need something that makes you stand out. College admission is competitive enough. If you need money, you better take it up a notch.

It’s a pressure cooker. Here are the unintended consequences of sushi bars, new lush dorm suites and fitness centers. John Smith is a white male at a private high school in Kentucky. His parents make a combined $125,000 a year, enough that they won’t qualify for financial aid at a state school, and even if they get half aid at a private college, they still can’t afford $25,000 in tuition. John needs to get some merit money. He has to take honors and A.P. classes and he needs the As. Problem is, John is an average student. College prep yes, but A.P. level, not quite. His prerequisite teacher did not recommend him for A.P., but his parents insisted anyway and signed a waiver stating they would take responsibility if he didn’t do well in the class. John is not alone; about 30% of his A.P. class are kids with waivers. On the first test of the semester, John made a C. Within a week, the A.P. teacher gets an email from the guidance department asking her to provide extra credit opportunities, maybe a chance to retake the test, something to help the kid be successful. Subtext: John needs the A to get the money for college. More subtext this time from the marketing department: we need to publish that big scholarship number again this year. That’s how we get better kids in our own school. Extra credit, extra chances, take and retake tests, easier assignments, drip, drip, drop.

The expense of higher ed is watering down high schools all over this country, lowering standards so kids can get into college and get the money. Georgia started the Hope Scholarship in 1993. Student residents of Georgia with a 3.0 grade point average in high school can qualify for full grant of tuition and books at state university and colleges. Many states have followed Georgia’s lead. South Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky tout similar merit-based programs. The good news is, attendance to state schools has increased. Selectivity at flagship universities has increased. The bad news is, if you talk to high school teachers in these states, they will tell you that their academic standards have decreased to deal with the pressure of assuring the 3.0 or higher for their students. It’s called grade inflation, and it is a big part of the college admission game.

Strong admissions is making for weaker students. And like Vassar and Bowdoin’s “food fighting,” high schools have to make a choice too. If we stand our ground on rigor, say “no” to waivers and retakes and extra credit, if we teach real AP courses with real AP rigor, then we lose those kids in the middle to the school next door who will placate and inflate them. We lose that extra college scholarship and those other stats that allow us to say we are winning the college game too. So who goes first? Vassar is standing its ground for now with wilted lettuce and bad guacamole but for how much longer? Which high school will do the same, stand its ground and make an A a real A even if it means John gets the B he deserves in AP US History rather than the inflated one that will help his transcript?

The school in South Carolina is standing its ground; its A.P. classes are the real deal, and the kids who complete them score well on A.P. exams, even if they don’t have an A in the class. But each year this private/independent high school that relies on tuition to keep its high standards in business loses kids to a public competitor high school where kids can take A.P. courses that are easier to manage, where As in all classes are more available. It doesn’t matter to them if they score a 1 or 2 on the A.P. exams; they just need the A in A.P. so they can get into college and get the money.

The QUANDARY is not a simple one. It starts at the top with big dorms, big amenities, big tuitions that lead to big competition for admission with grants and scholarships and ultimately a downgrading of the rigor that is meant to make these kids ready for college in the first place.



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