3.7.13

DIMINISHED, RATHER THAN ENHANCED.

Peter Wood and Herbert London, writing for the National Association of Scholars, note the fatal flaw with class-based admission preferences.
The difference is that class-based affirmative action would treat students in the designated class as deserving of not just financial aid but also the dubious benefit of admission according to lower standards.  Being admitted on the basis of lower standards we now know as a matter of fact produces a “mismatch” problem, i.e. students find themselves in over their heads in an academic community in which most students are far better suited to the level of academic demands.  In a different setting better matched to their abilities, they could thrive.  We ought not to ring yet another variation on this unhappy history of pretending that we do a favor to students by putting them in an academic context in which their chances for success are diminished rather than enhanced.
The mismatch problem begins somewhat earlier than when the thick envelope arrives.  Have I really been doing battle for ten years?
Forgive me the impertinence, but apart from the pre-school component, the effectiveness of which is not yet settled, isn't this what the common schools used to do? And wouldn't that involve a sea change in the coreless curriculum of the universities, and an end to the remedial and therapeutic regime that consumes mass quantities of university resources. Go here and here and here and here and here and here to get a sense of how many resources could be released for college-level instruction; go here for a dissenting view on the consequences, here for a defense of offering such courses in college, here for the opportunity costs, and here for a position paper by and for university administrators.
Once upon a time, the state universities recognized that upward mobility was desirable.  It also required work.  Here's Salon's Joan Walsh, one of the last passengers on that train.
States competed to expand their public university systems – and many were free, or close to it. The stellar University of California system was tuition free (though there were fees) until Ronald Reagan became governor in 1967; so was the City University of New York system for a long time. CUNY was from the start an “experiment,” in the words of co-founder Horace Webster, in “whether the children of the people, the children of the whole people, can be educated.” It was a contentious experiment, with its admission and tuition policies shifting back and forth over many years, but the egalitarianism at its heart, and through much of its history, can’t be denied. And that was true of most public university systems. Late in the game, when I graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1980, I was still paying less than $400 a semester. Now it’s amost 15 times that, at $5,500 a semester; the annual cost to an in-state student (including room, board, books and other fees) is $24,000.
Yes, legislatures might have become more stingy. Higher education's behavior, however, didn't discourage stratification.
The universities, including Northern Illinois, have broken the social contract themselves. At one time, the purpose of state aid to higher education was to identify poor but determined young people and aid their transition to a more rewarding existence, whether financially or intellectually. When just over half of those freshmen finish within six years, something's broken. The university's response: expanded diversity efforts.
It seems that I have to repeat this lesson every year.  Here's Ms Walsh, also confronting the lost opportunities for current students.
I got angry about this all over again having dinner with a friend who’s a little older than me. He finished at the very bottom of his high school class – and wound up at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which as late as the ’60s had “open enrollment,” and cost $80 a semester. College unlocked something high school didn’t; he thrived and transferred to Columbia University and eventually got a Ph.D. That isn’t happening for anyone today, unless their wealthy parents can buy them into a private university.
Is that because the top Ph.D. programs no longer consider applications from Milwaukee, or because Milwaukee is no longer a bargain, or because Milwaukee has drunk the retention Kool-Aid?
The University of Wisconsin had its main campus at Madison, a branch in Milwaukee, and some up and coming centers, at the time limited to the first two years, elsewhere in the state, and the Wisconsin State University System operated a number of converted teachers' colleges-cum-party schools in the hinterlands.  The state's policy at the time was to ensure a space in a state-supported university for anyone who finished in the top half of his or her high school class.  The thick envelope from Madison, however, corroborated one's brainiac status; the social set could evaluate Whitewater or Oshkosh on the merits of its parties.  Milwaukee Hamilton's National Merit finalists, however, grasped the caste system; in those days a finalist could request information from any three universities, and the joke ran "Princeton, Harvard, UWM."
Milwaukee, and the regional comprehensives and land-grants and mid-majors more generally, will better serve the current version of Ms Walsh's old friend by maintaining the proper focus.  "What matters, though, to the citizens of Wisconsin is that Milwaukee, despite having neither high-visibility football nor royalties from rat poison, now has more Wisconsin residents enrolled than Madison, and Milwaukee's part of the social contract is to make sure that its brainiacs and strivers get the intellectual challenge they might have hoped to get at Madison, had Madison provided a slot for them."

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