WHY IT MATTERS.  Louis Menand reflects on a career that includes stops at an Ivy and a regional comprehensive.
Society needs a mechanism for sorting out its more intelligent members from its less intelligent ones, just as a track team needs a mechanism (such as a stopwatch) for sorting out the faster athletes from the slower ones. Society wants to identify intelligent people early on so that it can funnel them into careers that maximize their talents. It wants to get the most out of its human resources. College is a process that is sufficiently multifaceted and fine-grained to do this.

College is, essentially, a four-year intelligence test. Students have to demonstrate intellectual ability over time and across a range of subjects. If they’re sloppy or inflexible or obnoxious—no matter how smart they might be in the I.Q. sense—those negatives will get picked up in their grades. As an added service, college also sorts people according to aptitude. It separates the math types from the poetry types. At the end of the process, graduates get a score, the G.P.A., that professional schools and employers can trust as a measure of intellectual capacity and productive potential. It’s important, therefore, that everyone is taking more or less the same test.
The article is a review of Academically Adrift (which is awaiting review, pending a check of some of the supporting working papers) and In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, reviewed here.  His analysis of Higher Education's confused mission is more instructive than his review.  The confusion is a variation on the signalling argument (his "first theory") or the human capital argument ("second theory") as reason for higher education.
If you like the first theory, then it doesn’t matter which courses students take, or even what is taught in them, as long as they’re rigorous enough for the sorting mechanism to do its work. All that matters is the grades. If you prefer the second theory, then you might consider grades a useful instrument of positive or negative reinforcement, but the only thing that matters is what students actually learn. There is stuff that every adult ought to know, and college is the best delivery system for getting that stuff into people’s heads.

A lot of confusion is caused by the fact that since 1945 American higher education has been committed to both theories. The system is designed to be both meritocratic (Theory 1) and democratic (Theory 2). Professional schools and employers depend on colleges to sort out each cohort as it passes into the workforce, and elected officials talk about the importance of college for everyone. We want higher education to be available to all Americans, but we also want people to deserve the grades they receive.
The problem, however, is that higher education has mutated in such a way that the value of a signal, or the expected return on a human capital investment, has diverged among institutions.
Almost all the élite colleges saw a jump in applications this year, partly because they now recruit much more aggressively internationally, and acceptance rates were correspondingly lower. Columbia, Yale, and Stanford admitted less than eight per cent of their applicants. This degree of selectivity is radical. To put it in some perspective: the acceptance rate at Cambridge is twenty-one per cent, and at Oxford eighteen per cent.

But, as private colleges became more selective, public colleges became more accommodating. Proportionally, the growth in higher education since 1945 has been overwhelmingly in the public sector. In 1950, there were about 1.14 million students in public colleges and universities and about the same number in private ones. Today, public colleges enroll almost fifteen million students, private colleges fewer than six million.

There is now a seat for virtually anyone with a high-school diploma who wants to attend college. The City University of New York (my old employer) has two hundred and twenty-eight thousand undergraduates—more than four times as many as the entire Ivy League. The big enchilada of public higher education, the State of California, has ten university campuses, twenty-three state-college campuses, a hundred and twelve community-college campuses, and more than 3.3 million students. Six per cent of the American population is currently enrolled in college or graduate school. In Great Britain and France, the figure is about three per cent.
The maintained hypothesis at Cold Spring Shops is excess demand for perceived quality, excess capacity in access-assessment-remediation-retention. Nice to see a New Yorker reviewer corroborating that.
If you are a Theory 1 person, you worry that, with so many Americans going to college, the bachelor’s degree is losing its meaning, and soon it will no longer operate as a reliable marker of productive potential. Increasing public investment in higher education with the goal of college for everyone—in effect, taxpayer-subsidized social promotion—is thwarting the operation of the sorting mechanism. Education is about selection, not inclusion.
There's a subtler dynamic at work. The public investment often takes place with a mindset of we're-not-as-good-as-Harvard-[or Madison]-and-that's-not-necessarily-bad.  Thus might a university president fret about becoming too selective, or chastise the legislature for breaking the social compact by reducing appropriations, never mind his deans' and faculty's complicity in degrading the curriculum and calling it inclusion.  Thus does the place-bound or budget-constrained striver get shortchanged.
If you are friendly toward Theory 2, on the other hand, you worry that the competition for slots in top-tier colleges is warping educational priorities. You see academic tulip mania: students and their parents are overvaluing a commodity for which there are cheap and plentiful substitutes. The sticker price at Princeton or Stanford, including room and board, is upward of fifty thousand dollars a year. Public colleges are much less expensive—the average tuition is $7,605—and there are also many less selective private colleges where you can get a good education, and a lot more faculty face time, without having to spend every minute of high school sucking up to your teachers and reformatting your résumé. Education is about personal and intellectual growth, not about winning some race to the top.
Perhaps it is a tulip mania, but perhaps it is a flight to perceived quality.  Professor Menand concludes by recognizing precisely that the place-bound and budget-constrained are being shortchanged.
College was a gate through which, once, only the favored could pass. Suddenly, the door was open: to vets; to children of Depression-era parents who could not afford college; to women, who had been excluded from many of the top schools; to nonwhites, who had been segregated or under-represented; to the children of people who came to the United States precisely so that their children could go to college. For these groups, college was central to the experience of making it—not only financially but socially and personally. They were finally getting a bite at the apple. College was supposed to be hard. Its difficulty was a token of its transformational powers.
Read and understand.

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