13.2.18

SHUT UP ABOUT HARVARD.

Ben Casselman: "A focus on elite schools ignores the issues most college students face."

That's long been my theme.  Mr Casselman's post is full of links, including links by way of endnotes (!) and he recognizes that for most collegians, the community colleges, regional comprehensives, and mid-majors are the relevant universe.  (I hope the footnotes work properly.  If not, read Mr Casselman's article.  I'm a railroad mechanic, not a coder!)
According to data from the Department of Education,1 more than three-quarters of U.S. undergraduates 2 attend colleges that accept at least half their applicants; just 4 percent attend schools that accept 25 percent or less, and hardly any — well under 1 percent — attend schools like Harvard and Yale that accept less than 10 percent.
Alas, the community colleges, the land grants, and the mid-majors don't provide a pipeline to the chattering classes.  Thus, perhaps, the Ivy obsession among the coastal readers.
Of course, the readerships of the Atlantic and Washington Post probably don’t mirror the U.S. as a whole. Many readers probably did attend selective institutions or have children they are hoping will. It’s understandable that media outlets would want to cater to their readers, particularly in stories that aim to give advice to students or their parents.

But it’s hard not to suspect that there is also another reason for reporters’ focus on elite colleges: At least in major national media outlets, that’s where most of them went. There’s no definitive data on where reporters went to school, but the newsrooms of influential media outlets in New York and Washington, D.C., are full of graduates from Ivy League or similarly selective colleges. Those who attended public colleges often went to a handful of top research universities such as the University of Michigan or the University of California, Berkeley. FiveThirtyEight is just as bad: The vast majority of our editorial staff, including me, went to elite, selective colleges. (I went to Columbia.)

“Ninety-five percent of the newsroom probably went to private institutions, they went to four-year institutions, and they went to elite institutions,” said Jeff Selingo, a longtime higher-education journalist who has a new book focused on giving advice to a broader group of students. “It is exactly the opposite of the experience for the bulk of American students.”
Fine, 538 can credibly commit itself to caring about life outside the bubble by recruiting at a Northern Illinois job fair, or signing an intern from Luther College or Creighton.

Unfortunately, Mr Casselman goes from a lament about how the focus on the same hundred aspirants to the top twenty slots in the U.S. News rankings to indirectly calling attention to why there is a U.S. News problem in the first place.
What few journalists seem to understand, [sociologist Sarah] Goldrick-Rab said, is how tenuous a grasp many students have on college. They are working while in school, often juggling multiple jobs that don’t readily align with class schedules. They are attending part time, which makes it take longer to graduate and reduces the chances of finishing at all. They are raising children, supporting parents and racking up debt trying to pay for it all.

“One little thing goes awry and it just falls apart,” Goldrick-Rab said. “And the consequences of it falling apart when they’re taking on all this debt are just so severe.”

Students keep taking that risk for a reason: A college degree remains the most likely path to a decent-paying job. They aren’t studying literary theory or philosophy; the most popular undergraduate majors in recent years have been business and health-related fields such as nursing.
Working backwards: a lot of higher education is vocational (that may be just as true in the Ivies, where the whole point is to do well enough to screen for Yale Law or Harvard Med or hire out on Wall Street later to qualify for Kellogg or Booth) and matriculants at the Ivies might be neither more nor less instrumental than their counterparts elsewhere.

On the other hand, the first two paragraphs lay out the tradeoffs between offering second chances and maintaining standards in such a way that matriculants arrive with better life-management skills.  Yes, at the margin, "one little thing goes awry," and yet, there's an accumulation of small disadvantages leading there.  How, then, dear reader, might a professor or an advisor come up with strategies for keeping students focused without appearing to enable dysfunctional behavior?  "Thus the importance of the mid-majors. Don't we owe our best students the same intellectual challenges the alleged name-brand universities are supposed to present?"  The challenge, dear colleagues, is to be able to make reasonable accommodations to genuine hardships without appearing to excuse irresponsibility.

Until the regional comprehensives and mid-majors tackle that challenge, U.S. News will continue to sell those rankings, and application season will continue to resemble the Hunger Games.

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