College Craziness, Diversity of the Affluent

Sky-high test scores, straight A's in honors classes and extracurriculars don't guarantee a spot at elite colleges, says Jay Mathews in the Washington Post. Even high school stars are being turned away, as increasing numbers of students apply to the same list of colleges.

David Weinstein, a senior at Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville, is an academic star by any definition. His grade-point average is 4.68. His SAT score is 1500. He has served as student body president and co-editor of his school newspaper, all while struggling with the challenges of Tourette's syndrome.

Ten years ago, he would almost certainly have been ensured a place at one of the Ivy League colleges. But within two hours on April 1, as he checked the admissions messages on his computer, Harvard, Yale, Brown and Pennsylvania all slapped him with wait-list or rejection notices. Princeton delivered the bad news two days later.

Weinstein did get into Northwestern, Johns Hopkins and Emory.

Once he gets to college, he'll be told to relax, go slow and enjoy learning for its own sake.

Colleges are offering a range of services for stressed students, says the New York Times.

There are now free massages and dogs to cuddle in exam seasons, biofeedback workshops and therapists available to help students work through their first C.

At Harvard, the training given to graduate students who live in the undergraduate houses has in recent years expanded to include ways to help students fight perfectionism -- a theme on many campuses -- as well as negotiate matters involving race, class and sexual identity.

...Washington University in St. Louis has established stress-free zones during finals, where students can get chair massages and listen to New Age music.

On a student blog, Social Justice Friends, Libertaria blames the college admissions mania.

Some pressure is healthy, but sites like are just ridiculous. They charge $8,995 for a "Standard Consultation" and $18,000 for a "Complete Strategy." Absurd.

There were no free massages in my day, I can tell you that. We had to pay for our own marijuana!

Downgrading Princeton

Princeton is considering a plan to limit the percentage of "A" grades to 35 percent. That’s about the percentage earned by undergrads from 1987 to 1992. Like other elite universities, Princeton has been trying to limit grade inflation. In 1971, the average Princetonian had a 2.99 grade point average; that rose to 3.36 in 2000.

Diversity of the Affluent

Race-based affirmative action lets us ignore economic inequality, writes Walter Benn Michaels in the New York Times Magazine. He's an English professor at University of Illinois-Chicago, a non-elite college that serves students from low- and middle-income families. Elite universities serve the children of affluence, Michaels writes.

(At Harvard) 90 percent of the undergraduates come from families earning more than $42,000 a year (the median household income in the U.S.) -- and some 77 percent come from families with incomes of more than $80,000, although only about 20 percent of American households have incomes that high...The fact (and it is a fact) that it doesn't help to be white to get into Harvard replaces the much more fundamental fact that it does help to be rich and that it's virtually essential not to be poor.

...When student and faculty activists struggle for cultural diversity, they are in large part battling over what skin color the rich kids should have.

I'd say it helps to be very well-educated, and it's a lot easier for the children of the affluent to get the schooling they need to qualify. But he's right about the lack of economic and class diversity at highly competitive colleges.

Holes in the K-16 Pipeline

If you talk to a class of ninth graders, nearly all will say they want to go to college. But nationwide, only 18 percent will earn a two-year college degree within three years of leaving high school, or a four-year degree within six years. Only 68 percent of students who start high school earn a diploma, says a study of K-16 success rates by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. About 59 percent of graduates -- 40 percent of the original ninth grade class -- go directly from high school to college. By sophomore year, one third have dropped out, leaving 27 percent of the original ninth graders still enrolled.

Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Iowa have the highest K-16 graduation rates at 28 to 29 percent, while Nevada and New Mexico rank at the bottom with a 10 percent college completion rate.

Of course, the assumption of all this is that the ideal is to send every student straight from high school to college to a degree. That's not the best path for everyone. And the National Center doesn't consider that if everyone gets a college diploma, the value of a diploma will decline even more than it already has.

However, I think we need to look seriously at the huge gap between students' ambitions and reality. In New York, 43 percent of students who start high school leave without a diploma. What's a realistic path for these kids? And let's explain to students that there's no point going to college if you don't have the skills or the drive to pass classes once you get there.


Kristina Hamilton writes:

I am a former math teacher with 10 years of teaching under my belt. The reason I stopped teaching was summed up in a letter in the last two paragraphs of your Fox article:

"The real problem is that there are too many kids per classroom, and the children are more unruly then ever. Parents do not teach their children how to behave in a classroom setting. Parents do not teach their children to respect adults. Parents do not spend enough time helping their children with homework. Parents do not spend enough time with their children in general.”

I resigned because of parents, plain and simple. Additionally, I decided that in order to raise a productive member of society, I needed to homeschool my then six-year-old son. I did not want him exposed to other children who are being raised as you described above. That was two years ago, and it was the best decision I have ever made.

My philosophy on my decision: Why should I raise other people's children while letting someone else raise mine?

George Bednekoff of Plano, Texas writes:

Unfortunately, I suspect that the nerd stigma associated with achieving math and science skills is a significant factor in the low performance of American high school students. I remember an old "Far Side" cartoon with two mathematician/scientist guys on a beach and the one with bigger formulas on his blackboard has attracted all the girls. I wonder if people in India or China would get the joke?

The sad fact is that in the United States, getting thrown into the nerd category hurts one's chances of scoring with the opposite sex, and essential math skills are taught at an age when hormones start kicking in.

Michael Williams of Hinckley, Minn., writes:

I used to work for a very large software company. We had trouble recruiting people with computer science and math skills from U.S. colleges. Poor high school preparation in math was the problem. Even if you do not use the math on the job, the fact that you can grasp the concepts used in the math gives you an analytical skill that can be used in many different areas. I spoke to high school students about a career in computer science and most 11th and 12th graders did not know what binary math was, much less understand how it is used in a computer.

One-third of my staff I hired from India because they learned computer science the old fashioned way -- from the keyboard. They did not have some code-fat programming package, just hand-typed code with manual software builds. This took fundamental math skills that most computer science grads are not even exposed to anymore. In fact, what used to be called a MIS or IS degree is now what people pass off for a computer science degree.

Many say there is a glut of talent, but my experience is that 98 percent of it is not world-class talent that is needed in cutting- edge technologies. My fear is that we have lots of folks from countries that do have this talent and they are not friendly to us, but are studying computer science and engineering in our schools and going back home to use it against us.

Ken MacDonald of Baltimore, Md., writes:

In general, I think Americans are better educated than Indians, but if we want salaries 10 times what our competitors make, we need to be 10 times as productive. So it's a combination of education and work ethic.

Alison Raborn of Gainesville, Florida writes:

As a learning disabled, I see some numbers backwards. I was told I would never make it in college. I hated high school. However, I found some wonderful mentors in a community college. It took me five years to pass college algebra with a B (83) and I went on to a university and graduated with a 3.39 GPA. Yes I worked my ass off and I did not take "fluff" courses either.

Larry Fagel writes:

I'm 72 now and long retired. My experience was different from what you state in “If you do poorly in high school, you’ll do poorly in college and on the job.”

I did poorly in high school and graduated in the bottom 10 percent of my class, mostly because I had a bad attitude while in high school and had grown up in a family in which my two siblings dropped out of high school. But when I started college, six years later, I applied myself to the task and graduated from engineering school four years later in the top four percent of the class. I then went on to get a master’s degree, and had a reasonably successful  40-year career at Bell Laboratories. Your theme seems to be that what I did can't be done. 

Fifty years ago when I was trying to get my life on track, I ran into a lot of pig-headed individuals who ridiculed my efforts to start on a course they believed would be impossible. I'm glad that I didn't listen to them.

Joanne Jacobs writes about education and other issues at She’s writing a book, Ride the Carrot Salad, about a start-up charter high school in San Jose.

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