Toward A More Perfect University

A Columbia University Faculty of Arts and Sciences Interview with University Professor and sociologist Jonathan R. Cole. Read the full interview here, on the College of Arts and Sciences page.

Magical Thinking

In the early 20th century, the distinguished philosopher Alfred North Whitehead observed: “The task of the university is the creation of the future…” Harvard”s current president, Drew Gilpin Faust, noted that this creative work is done “by educat[ing] those to whom the future belongs, and by generating the ideas and discoveries that can transform the present and build a better world.”

This is the mission of great universities and the United States has been preeminent in the world at translating these goals into the reality that has improved our lives. Yet, perhaps paradoxically, our international leadership in higher education is under threat from nations that apparently understand better than we do that investment in human capital and knowledge creation hold the key to economic well-being in the future. Asian and south Asia societies, like China and India, are investing roughly 3 percent or more of their GDP in higher education; the United States is investing about 2.7 percent of its GDP in its universities and research related activities. The trend line in America is down; in Asia it is up. Too many Americans apparently prefer believing in magic rather than what has worked over the past 100 years to improve America”s welfare and competitiveness. What accounts for this paradox?

Americans say they strongly believe in exceptional educational systems. They want their kids to attend college and to get good, well-paying, prestigious jobs. In surveys a significant majority say they are willing to pay higher taxes to support medical research (largely conducted at our best universities) that is designed to cure or treat diseases, like cancer or Alzheimer”s. Yet, it seems quite clear that these same people have very little idea about the mechanisms that must be put in place for the preeminence of our greatest universities to continue. Their revealed preferences don”t match their aspirations for their children. They seem lost and rely on what can only be described as “magical thinking.” If they wish the University of California to remain great, it will somehow materialize without investments — perhaps out of the ether. If they want Arizona State University to help create a new type of American university that emphasizes innovation, new combinations of disciplines, and access for the needy, it will simply happen regardless of what they do to affect these outcomes and certainly without raising public money to pay for it. This magical thinking is also present when Americans consider how to repair broken K-12 educational systems that feed institutions of higher learning.

Those who see investments in education and research as critical to our future, including liberal Congressional leaders and President Obama, have been remarkably inept at producing crisp narratives about why education and innovation hold the key to our future. Not so on the far political right, where politicians and their consultants have become experts at producing narratives, regardless of their truth value, that resonate with too many Americans. Consequently, all reasonable initiatives to solve our K through 12 schooling and public university problems are stalled at the state level. And, at the federal level, this ineffective leadership has led us to the brink of decline of our great universities. It is no wonder that only nine percent of the American people today have any trust in the ability of Congress to pass meaningful legislation.

These educational challenges, which are interrelated, occur at the elementary and secondary school level and at the level of higher learning. They are interrelated because without a well-functioning lower school system in the United States, we don”t have the talent that we need entering universities — a paucity of trained youngsters who eventually take up positions that produce the scientific and technical discoveries, as well as medical cures for disease, that propel our society forward. In the absence of this “feeder” system, we must rely on recruiting talent from abroad. We become as dependent on a brain drain from abroad as we do on foreign oil. It is a national imperative to create an internal flow of extraordinary talent to these seats of learning.

And at the feeder level (K-12) we are doing increasingly poorly compared with small countries like Finland and large ones like China. The United States could be proud of their educational system during much of the 20th century. It was the most egalitarian and truly offered those without great means opportunities for upward social mobility — and the chance to become significant innovators. Now, one only hopes that high schools don”t sap the creativity out of their students in the process of “educating” them. The occupation of teacher used to attract exceptionally able women (in part because they were discriminated against by gatekeepers of the highly prestigious professions) and very able men — many with Ph.D.s in their subject. That has all changed. In the United States, and most other western countries that have had declining scores, the prestige of school teacher has fallen in recent decades, and those with real talent and desire to aid youngsters in schools (such as those in programs like Teach for America), tend to leave the system after only a few years — dispirited by what they have experienced. 1

In cross-national testing of mathematical and science achievement Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS), the U.S. fared poorly in 2007 among fourth and eighth grade students. Asian countries dominated the top scores; the United States was in the middle of the pack of industrialized nations. In a 2009 examination of skills of 15-year-olds on the latest PISA tests, conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) nations, Shanghai students scored highest in science with a 575 PISA score while their U.S. counterparts ranked 23rd out of the 33 participating nations with a score of 502.2 The average score was 500. What can one expect when in the United States only about 15% of the teachers of physics and the other sciences actually hold certificates and degrees in these fields.

Finland, however, finished second behind Shanghai with a score of 554. The same pattern of results obtained for reading scores (the United States scored 500 and was in the middle of the pack) and it fared even worse for math scores, with the United States students scoring 487 or tied for last, compared with 600 for the Shanghai, Chinese students. Why would a country like Finland, which once was among the lowest ranking nations on these tests, shoot to the top? Because it adopted a conscious policy of paying teachers much the same salaries that doctors, lawyers, and other professionals earn, and, perhaps more importantly, by consciously trying to raise the prestige of the profession. In China, where rote learning is used to excess, there is nonetheless, a quintessential value placed on educational achievement and its practical consequences for Chinese society — even to the point where grandparents are willing to forgo needed surgery to save money for their grandchildren in the hope that their grandchildren will pass the extraordinarily demanding examinations that leads to college admissions.

So what needs to be done?

First, we must abandon our magical thinking that we can get something for nothing or that quality will simply materialize out of the ether, and figure out ways, including increasing the marginal tax rates on substantial incomes, so that those who have benefited most from our nation”s prosperity carry their fair share of sacrifice in producing both access and educational opportunity for talented young people. We currently have one of the lowest marginal tax rates in the industrial world. This is a small part of the inequalities that the Occupy Wall Street movement is bringing to the consciousness of Americans. The “haves” go to outstanding private or public schools, and their families have the resources to see that they are on the track to high prestige universities and well-paying jobs; the “have-nots” are stuck in a quagmire of mediocrity that is not receiving the resources and effort needed to provide a foothold to begin the process of social online casinos mobility. The second group represents the vast majority of our youngsters and their families.

Second, we must alter the mentality of the wealthier members in the United States, who resent “paying” for other children to go to school. It won”t be easy, but they must come to understand and believe that contributing in a small way to the education of young people from poor and middle-class backgrounds actually helps them and all of the community by the increased prosperity that comes from a better-educated population. In short, we have got to raise revenues and not be embarrassed to invest in our children and in our schools.

Third, we need political leaders who are willing to risk their jobs by adhering to decent values and principles — one of which is being committed to investing in K-12 and higher education.

Fourth, the people must become active agents in demanding resources — transferred from the very rich (


There But for Fortune: What the One Percent Fail to Understand

The one percent still doesn”t get it. This tiny but distinct minority, who control over 40 percent of this nation”s wealth and consequently its political decision-making power, believe that it is their individual endowments, their distinctiveness and talents that have determined their wealth — that they are, in fact, “superior” individuals.

The reactions to the inspirational OWS movement — and parallel movements elsewhere in the nation and abroad — among the super rich suggest that few understand the basic concepts of culture, social systems, and opportunity structure. Moreover, they have little idea of the consequences of social structure on social outcomes. Being the beneficiaries of a culture and social system that has favored them throughout their lives, they would like us to believe that their affluence and power is a direct result of their hard work, their innovative skills, and their intelligence. Theirs are beliefs of total individualism divorced from any societal facilitators or constraints. Moreover, they wish to create the illusion that they embody the American Dream — that anyone, regardless of where they are born, their color, their gender, their socioeconomic status at birth, can achieve their level of wealth through hard work and talent — despite this being patently false.

What basic understanding is lacking among these new gilded few? Social and behavioral scientists have studied social stratification for over 100 years. Since the 1960s there is a large and growing body of literature that attempts to predict quantitatively who will and who won”t succeed in American society. What are the most important factors that determine success? In many ways the results are unsurprising, yet under-appreciated by those who are the “winners.” Let”s put to one side the arrogance of those who have inherited their wealth and look only at those who supposedly begin the race at the same starting line. The facts of social life betray this idea that there is a single starting line.

First, family background makes a huge difference. The educational achievements of your father and mother have a very significant effect on a child”s achievement, independent of other factors. If you happen to be born into a family that lives in the Hollywood Hills and go to the Harvard-Westlake school, your life chances, from birth, are vastly greater than if you are born into a poor, poverty level family in Kansas City and go to one of the local public schools — even if these two children who were born into different worlds actually have equal ability. Both of these youngsters are born into a culture and subcultures — into positions in an existing social system — that are constraining. These subcultures have different values, norms, obligations, and attached to them are opportunities. The luck of birth gives these two children highly different chances of ultimately becoming part of the 1 percent. The simple fact is that the kid born into the home of a welfare mom in Kansas City is running life”s race with a different weight on his back — a kid who is apt to go to a subpar or failing school compared with the kid whose parents have his future mapped out from the elite preschool to the Harvard-Westlake school to an Ivy League institution — and has the money to pay for it all, as well as to contribute millions to the school”s fundraising efforts. Simply put, the educational achievement of parents is transferred from one generation to the next through the educational opportunities given their children, with all of the attending advantages that they gain in the process.

Second, the quality and prestige and income of the jobs held by parents are also very good predictors of the success of their offspring. Many of these factors are correlated with each other. They work in concert to differentiate the life chances of children from different backgrounds. And of course, being a woman, being a member of a minority group, being from an impoverished uneducated family, determine life chances that are vastly inferior to those of the sons and daughters of Wall Street bankers whose children attend the best private and public schools from age 3 to 30. They are the ones who are tutored in any subject that they seem to be doing poorly at so that they will have a crack at Ivy League schools or their equivalents. They have the funds to take SAT tutorial or tutorials of any kind in order to give them a leg up on those who can”t afford such questionable practices. And this is all planned out from the time these kids are weaned.

Third, because of where they are located in the social system, these privileged youngsters of the 1 percent have further cumulating advantages in the people that they meet and the social networks they form. If you go to Harvard, Yale, or Columbia, you establish friendships with people who provide you with opportunities through their connections. It is, as the Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter has put it: “The strength of weak ties.” Friendship patterns, which are often the result of a family being well placed in the social system and an individual”s attending elite schools, influence the ability of an individual to get a foot in the door of the major corporations, banks, industries, and academia, and alter the probability of them obtaining jobs at the top rungs in the stratification ladder – giving them still greater cumulating advantages compared with others with equal or more talent.

Finally, let”s not forget the element of “luck” in the process that leads to success. While social scientists rarely study “luck” as a concrete phenomena, we know from personal story after story that many of those who have achieved great success speak of having been lucky by being in “the right place at the right time.” There but for fortune go I.

So who are those among the 1 percent — these new captains of industry? Many of them are extremely talented and have worked very hard to achieve their current positions. They believe that a What is a credit report agencies Score? credit report agencies scores are important, but what is a credit score? A credit score is a number that says something about you and your borrowing history. market system unencumbered by a government that acts to distribute wealth more equitably is antithetical to national welfare. They believe that thanks to their achievements a significant portion of the nation”s wealth will trickle down to the 99 percent – despite their being no evidence to support this theory. Even the wealth that the 1 percent has garnered would not be so objectionable if they were willing to share it with those less fortunate than they are – and support their larger contributions through higher marginal tax rates – to help the general welfare of the society. As Elizabeth Warren, who does understand the idea of social structure, suggested recently in a stump speech, this 1 percent doesn”t seem to recognize that the roads that they drive to work on or the workers who are skilled enough to get jobs in their businesses are products of the 99 percent”s tax dollars and are the products of government programs. The resistance of the 1 percent to a higher marginal tax rate or other forms of economic redistribution is testimony to the erosion over the past 30 or 40 years of the ideas of contributions to “the common” and of civic virtue. It would not be a bad idea if they came to define greater equality of income and wealth as part of their civic responsibility. After all, most of them have had opportunities to achieve, independently of their IQ, or their other intelligences, that few others in American society have had.

There is a continuing motif among the critics of the OWS movement that the protesters are against a market economy. While some may be, it is a mistake to characterize them this way. The OWS is not opposed to market principles, but like the vast majority of our most prominent economists, they do not believe in uncontrolled laissez-faire market mechanisms. There is a role and responsibility of government to intervene when it comes to determining that there is more economic justice in our society. That greater economic equality — that basic sense of justice — is what OWS wants and is protesting for. Let markets work to produce certain efficiencies, but let us all support the idea that while some people can earn great sums of money, some of that money and wealth ought to be returned to the rest of society to improve social and economic condition of the 99 percent. The inequalities cannot be sustained.

Remarkably, many among the 99 percent, including large numbers of Tea Party supporters, match the lack of understanding among the one percent of these key aspects of our society. A remarkable feature of the United States today is that a high percentage of the less fortunate, whose income has not changed much for 20 years, who have lost their jobs and who have been forced to foreclose on their homes, suffer from false consciousness, believing that they actually have a chance of becoming part of the one percent if the government would just get off their backs. How little they understand, unfortunately, about the realities of opportunity structure.

The super-rich, one percent, needs to acknowledge to themselves that the social system of American society has enabled them to use their talents and the talents of others in ways that payoff. Now it is time for them to recognize that a more just society includes a wider distribution of wealth and power. Until the 1970s, this was the working assumption of those who made millions. Now that value of civic virtue has been lost. The OWS movement is trying to bring those older civic virtues back to the consciousness of the American people.

Occupy Wall Street as the Conscience of America

The social movement known as Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is growing and too few of our government and corporate leaders are willing to examine closely what this movement is about. Instead, the political right resorts to mudslinging and labeling, claiming that those who participate in the rallies and marches are un-American (we have a long history in this country of placing this tag on legitimate dissent), or are moving towards “class warfare.” Some critics, and so-called Sunday morning television pundits, claim that the group lacks clearly stated goals and policy objectives. In fact, this movement of dissent has exceedingly clear goals and objectives that our national leaders and corporate America ought to take seriously.

Here are a few of the goals and objectives of OWS, at least as seen by me and many of my colleagues at Columbia University, where more than 300 faculty members have just signed a statement in support of the group”s goals. Much of the protest focuses on inequalities in social and economic outcomes and on the sharp differentials in power between the super-rich in our society (the fraction of one percent of the population in corporate America with the power and resources to shape policies that disproportionately favor themselves), and the rest who feel totally incapable of effecting meaningful social and economic change. In 2011, one percent of the nation”s population controlled roughly 40 percent of our society”s wealth. Not since the gilded age at the end of the 19th century, when the robber barons were making their fortunes, has wealth inequality in America been so great. As one might suspect, the corresponding percentage of the population who are living in poverty is growing — it is now greater than it has been in about 20 years. Median incomes for Americans have actually declined since the recession of 2008. The incomes of middle-class America have been stagnant for over 20 years.

The aspirations of talented young people who are born by chance into families of the 99 percent and who lack the kind of wealth that we find on Wall Street and among the leaders of large hedge funds, private equity companies, and banks, will never be realized. Their educational opportunities are limited — not by their ability, but by their inability to afford college educations that are commensurate with their talent. Meanwhile, the millionaires and billionaires, and large multinational corporations, receive tax breaks that result in them paying taxes at a lower rate than their secretaries. Their children compete on anything but a level playing field. We have one of the lowest marginal tax rates in the Western world; we have grossly unequal access to educational opportunities for minorities and the poor; we still have tens of millions of our citizens who lack any health care coverage. OWS wants to put back some modicum of ”You can read the full response to the petition titled Deport back to Canada and revoke his green card” here. equality of opportunity in America.

The OWS is asking for some form of accountability for those people responsible for the housing bubble and the economic tsunami that has hit this country. Few of the super-rich complain about the millions of families who have abandoned their homes because their value had been outstripped by their mortgage debt. All we hear from them are warnings of “moral hazards” if the banks and the nation were to buy down some percentage of each mortgage so that families could have a reason to hold onto their homes. The banks are not willing to refinance these loans at lower levels, but are willing to ask for bailout money from these same taxpayers.

The leaders of the banks, insurance companies, hedge funds, and private equity firms fail to realize that their wealth is not only a result of their individual talent and hard work. They are the beneficiaries of a system that has provided them disproportionate opportunities and great tax advantages from the time they began their careers. Are they really going to have us believe in Herbert Spenser”s 19th century, worn out idea of the “survival of the fittest” — with them cast, of course, as the fittest? While official unemployment exceeds 9 percent, and the actual proportion of the population without work (including discouraged workers) exceeds 15 percent. Meanwhile, Republican leaders in Congress, supported by the beneficiaries of the current system, refuse to create a meaningful jobs program that would put people back to work on jobs that have real social value — work, for example, on a crumbling American infrastructure, and jobs in new industries that pay decent wages. We cannot even build a high-speed rail system of the sort one finds all around the world in countries that don”t have half of our wealth. Instead, these leaders on the right call for even greater surgery on the 99 percent — for cuts in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, while they rant against any increase in the marginal tax rates on the super wealthy. Has there been no criminal or civil liability associated with the mortgage catastrophe that the banks and associated insurance companies led us into? There surely has been no serious accountability for the group of financiers who got us into this mess. OWS would like to see just a little bit of accountability for those who drove us into our current economic mess.

The OWS is also asking whether or not this nation has its economic and social priorities straight and whether our moral compass is broken. Should we be spending trillions of dollars on misguided wars that last over a decade to no clear result? OWS is asking whether we have not ignored our own best instincts and our treasured national values in using our resources in out-dated forms of warfare in places that pose little or no threat to our nation. The liberties granted to the people — those that are set forth in the Bill of Rights of our Constitution — are being eroded because of our national obsession with terrorism. Should we be spying on each other? Should we be able to search people”s homes without probable cause or even search warrants? Should we be killing our own citizens without any trial? Should we be spending resources on things that have no productive social value when we could be building a better society at home? Are we going to crumble from within before we crumble from the action of external threats? OWS is suggesting, as did Walt Kelly”s famous cartoon character, Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

OWS also asks: Are our leaders adhering to our constitution at all, or are they committed to secret tortures, renditions, violations of basic civil liberties, which are only disclosed after the fact and never publicly debated. All that we are allowed to see may well be epiphenomenal — the real running of the country is done in secret and often in violation of fundamental constitutional principles, couched behind the banner of national security. OWS wants debate and more transparency and wants a government that acts for the people and adheres to our Constitution and its interpretation by the Supreme Court.

Finally, OWS is a peaceful, non-violent form of protest against government policies that produce still greater inequalities in our society. They are the conscience of America, not its enemy. For this we should be thankful and should join in their cause.

Accountability for Members of Congress

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minnesota), who gave the Tea Party response to President Barack Obama’s recent State of the Union address, seems to have difficulty with American history. She must have taken history in school somewhere in her scholarly travels, but clearly if she did, she didn’t take the course very seriously, had a very poor teacher, or little aptitude for the subject. In an Iowa speech not long before her national address, she said that the founding fathers “worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States.” Apparently, she had not known that slavery continued in the United States and only ended with the Civil War. In fact, it was written into our Constitution by our founding fathers. For purposes of apportioning representatives to the House, each slave was explicitly counted as three-fifths of a person.1 And those early founders owned slaves: George Washington owned 316 when he died; Thomas Jefferson owned as many as 187 slaves, and James Madison owned 106. Many observers of Rep. Bachmann’s performance in Iowa have pointed out her ignorance of this history, but her lack of knowledge raises some serious questions about what we ought to require of our congressional representatives.

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Gay Rights and University ROTC Policy

In lauding the legislation that ended the “don’t ask, don’t tell” [DADT] policy that will allow gay and lesbians to serve openly in the American military, President Barack Obama in his second State of the Union address called “on all our college campuses to open their doors to our military recruiters and ROTC. It is time to leave behind the divisive battles of the past. It is time to move forward as one nation.” While the legislation that ended the hypocritical DADT policy was surely welcome and a step forward, and although legislation already existed (the 1994 Solomon Act) that forced universities to open their campuses to military recruiters, the president made a mistake in equating (even implicitly) an end to an opprobrious military policy with basic equal civil rights for gay and lesbian Americans.

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Is Miss Jean Brody Still Alive & Well?

In his second State of the Union address on January 25, 2011, President Barack Obama placed the need for excellent education and superb teachers at the center of his speech to Congress and the nation. Innovation and American welfare depended upon building human capital and that could only be accomplished by parents dedicated to the education of their children, and by creating excellent schools that housed and honored exceptional teachers. “We need to teach our kids,” the President said, “that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair.” In comparing the way we, as a nation, treat teachers he noted: “In South Korea, teachers are known as ‘nation builders.’ Here in America, it’s time we treated the people who educate our children with the same level of respect.”

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Waiting for Superman or Godot?

It’s not news to say that our educational system is at risk. The problem is that things are getting worse rather than better. The precariousness of the system is exacerbated by the reluctance at all levels of government to recognize the magnitude and consequences of this disease, to determine its causes, and to do the serious work needed to cure it. The paradox in the American educational system is that at its apex — at the great American research universities — we are the very best in the world, while we simultaneously are suffering, along with most of the Western post-industrial societies, from a deteriorating K-12 system that simply is not functioning in a way that will fulfill our society’s needs in the 21st century.

Education nourishes the health of every institution in our country, and its quality will have much to do with the longer-term health of those other institutions. If over half the nation’s children are incapable of solving simple mathematical problems; are incapable of using our language appropriately; are incapable of understanding how to solve problems; are incapable of learning enough to make considered choices during elections that reflect their interests; are incapable of critical reasoning skills; then family, business, politics, and the health of individuals suffer — and the society begins to deteriorate.

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A Question of Fairness: College and University Admissions, Part II

I want to pose a problem of fairness to you that I pose to my own students. It is related to how colleges and universities that are fortunate enough to be highly selective admit their students. As I noted in my prior posting, Ivy League universities and other similarly high quality seats of higher learning, like MIT, Cal Tech, the University of Chicago, as well as the distinguished state universities, like those in California, Michigan, Wisconsin, receive far more applicants than they can possibly accept. The Ivy League turns down, you will recall, about 90 percent of its applicants. Remember as well that those who apply are highly “self-selected,” meaning that academically weaker students don”t even consider applying. The same is true for the great liberal arts colleges. As I suggested in my last posting, this tends to eliminate from the pool those extraordinarily talented and interesting, if a bit quirky or lopsided students who may go on to make the most innovative and lasting contributions to our society after they”ve finished college.

This number of applicants and their quality presents a dilemma. Who should be admitted and on what basis? Again, in the previous posting I outlined some of the factors that go into the decisions using the current system. However, is that the fairest way to admit students to these schools? Let me pose an alternative and ask you to decide which one you would choose and why.

The first is easy. We would admit students in exactly the same way as they are now and assume that we live in, as Dr. Pangloss says in Voltaire”s Candide, “the best of all possible worlds.”1 But the status quo perpetuates the belief that there are real, meaningful differences among hundreds, if not thousands, of these applicants. It also assumes that whether or not an individual is admitted is not a result of the “luck of the reviewer draw,” that is which two admissions officers happen to read your application, and what they particularly value – to say nothing about whether they had an upset stomach at the time they were reading your application. That is a difficult set of assumptions to accept, I believe.

Let”s consider the university I know best, Columbia and its undergraduate college, Columbia College. We know that Columbia now receives more than 20,000 applicants for a total of perhaps 1,200 positions in the freshman class. In order for admissions officers to fill out the class, they have to accept about 1,700 students, because some who they admit will choose to go to another school that has also admitted them. So, roughly 92 percent of the applicants are going to receive disappointing letters when the time for decision is at hand.

Suppose I offer you an alternative to the current way of doing things. Say, we assume that we had no early decisions at Columbia and all students typically found out their fate in early April. Further suppose, that Columbia faces the fact that there really are at least 5,000 of these 20,000 students who are truly extraordinary in almost any way. They are surely smart enough to benefit from the The health care law stops companies from canceling your coverage just because you made a mistake on your application. Columbia education; they could contribute mightily to the broader educational environment of the University by displaying their multiple talents; and they would make the University proud of them as graduates. The pool of 5,000 plus are made up of every racial, ethnic, and religious group; they have already begun interesting “careers” with their work in the sciences, arts, public service, and humanities. They have worked seriously for the public good even while having to deal with the awful constraints of high school. It is, in short, a spectacular group of 5,000. Suppose, then, that in January of the senior year, Columbia wrote a letter to each of these 5,000 students and its content went something like this:

“Dear Lydia,Congratulations! You have demonstrated in your years prior to college and in your application and achievements a remarkable set of abilities and talents. You are fully qualified for admission to Columbia College. We write to tell you so and to tell you that we believe that you are a truly remarkable person with a great future ahead of you. There is no doubt in our mind that you are fully capable of handling the rigorous Columbia College curriculum.

Unfortunately, you are one of 5,000 out of 20,000 applicants who are roughly equally qualified and we have accommodations for only 1,200 students as freshman at Columbia next year. Therefore, we have decided that the fairest way to admit students into the class this coming fall is to do so through a lottery system. Your name, along with the other roughly 5,000 highly qualified applicants, will be part of that lottery. The class will be selected through a highly developed scheme of random selection. We are sorry that we must choose the class this way, but frankly there are so many more extraordinary students than we have room for, that we can see no fairer way of selection. In fact, it would be essentially impossible (and misleading) to rank order each of you among this highly qualified group.

In early April you will hear from us about the results of the random selection process. We wish you good luck and we know that if you are not selected through this method, you will continue your education at another exceptionally fine school.

Dean of Admissions
Columbia College”

Which of the two systems of admissions do you find “fairer” for the applicants? Would the lottery system be better than the one currently in use, which creates the illusion that there is an “in the sight of God” ranking of applicants from 1 to 20,000 plus? Would it be better for the university or college? Which one would you endorse and what are the reasons for your choice?

1Although this phrase is most often associated with Dr. Pangloss in Candide, the extraordinary philosopher Gottfried Leibniz coined it in 1710.



Originally published on Huffington Post

"A Little Secret: Athletics at the Most Selective Colleges and Universities in the Nation": College and University Admissions, Part III

I”m going to state a fact that most of you who follow admissions at highly selective colleges probably don”t know. Roughly 20 percent, or one-fifth, of the entering class at the Ivy League universities and the leading small liberal arts colleges are recruited athletes. They are not “walk-ons”; they are actively recruited and there is a great deal of competition within and beyond the Ivy League for the best of those athletes in order to produce winning sports teams. In contrast, about 5 percent of the students at athletic powerhouses like the University of Michigan, Notre Dame, and the Pac 10 schools are recruited scholarship athletes. What is going on here? The Ivy League and their smaller liberal arts companions are not really contending for almost all national athletic titles, and they claim to admit “student-athletes?” All of what follows, I confess, comes from a former jock, since many years ago I competed in both baseball and basketball for Columbia, and I remain an avid, if not addicted sports fan.

This plethora of recruited athletes is not a secret known only to a handful of people. In fact, James L. Shulman and William G. Bowen (the former president of Princeton and later the president of the Andrew G. Mellon Foundation) revealed these facts and many more in an important book, The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values, published almost a decade ago. Bowen also co-authored a second policy oriented book on athletics at top tier colleges and universities.1 Bowen and his collaborators have studied this matter in detail by collecting a tremendous amount of data and subjecting them to detailed analysis – testing all manner of hypotheses about the athletes and how they do in college and beyond. He followed several different graduating classes at these schools – one from 1976, another from 1989 and a final group that graduated in 1999. In full disclosure, when I was provost at Columbia, I joined Bowen around the time of his book”s publication in a failed attempt to change policies towards recruiting athletes to the Ivy League. Despite the facts and the initial efforts at change, the situation at these universities and their recruited athletes today is much the same as it was in 2000.2

How did the number of recruited athletes reach today”s proportions at these elite schools? First, the Ivy League supports more athletic teams than any other conference in the nation. Harvard has 39 intercollegiate teams; Cornell, Yale and Columbia have over 30. Correlatively, the University of Michigan has 25; Notre Dame has 24, and UCLA, 22. Second, Title IX, which has made the world of positive difference for women athletes, requires that schools attempt to reach gender parity in their athletic programs – in terms of proportional numbers and meeting the needs of women wanting to participate in organized team sports. The number of women”s teams has expanded over time, which has had, of course, a large effect on the number of recruited athletes. Third, since the Ivy League adheres to a “need blind admissions” and “full need financial aid” policy, no student is given an athletic scholarship to attend these schools, and it follows that students don”t lose their financial aid if they decide after being admitted, or after the first year of their participation in a sport”s team, to quit the team and devote themselves to other things. Fourth, recruited athletes, for the high profile sports of football, basketball, and hockey (not all Ivy schools have a formal hockey team) receive a very substantial edge or advantage in the admissions process. Some are what are known as “coaches picks” and at least for the big time sports their SAT scores are over 100 points lower than the class average3 – yet they have about a 30 percent advantage in getting admitted compared to non-athletes in the applicant pool. These athletes” SAT scores are well above the national average, but far lower than most other students who are admitted into these distinguished schools.4 Fifth, recruited athletes tend to finish their college careers in the lower third of their graduating class; many of them dropped off their teams long before their graduation. Each year, Ivy League schools, allowing for significant attrition in numbers, recruit more football players than the national champions. Sixth, Bowen found, to the surprise of many, no evidence that former athletes donated more to their alma mater than non-athlete graduates. Finally, on the brighter side, Ivy League athletes graduate at almost the same rate as other students in their class (more than 90 percent) and they do very well after college graduation, both economically and in terms of their involvement in and service to their communities.

The policy issue is not, of course, whether there should be athletic teams at these great universities and colleges. No one has advocated their elimination. There are many ways in which individuals and universities and colleges benefit from student participation in intercollegiate and club athletics. Athletes learn important life lessons, such as the need for hard work, personal discipline, and working as part of a team – all elements that prove useful later on for achieving success at almost any task. Of course, athletics is not the only way of learning these lessons or acquiring these traits. Moreover, from the institutional point-of-view, rooting for the home team (especially if they are winners, like Duke”s basketball team) tends to increase the level of social cohesion and integration on campuses that are often divided and in conflict on a wide set of political and social issues.

Given the extraordinary number of exceptionally qualified and superior candidates with diverse interests and talents who apply to the Ivy League schools, over 90 percent of whom are going to be disappointed by the outcome, why in the world are the schools using up 20 percent of their slots on recruited athletes? To But Democrats don’t want to do away with the . be very concrete, if Columbia has a freshman class of 1,200, that means about 240 slots are allocated to recruited athletes. The Ivy League was, in fact, formed as a football conference, but it was also intended to exemplify the values of the student-athlete, that is, the student who participated in athletic competition rather than say reporting for the campus newspaper, but was essentially indistinguishable from the rest of the class in terms of academic ability and career goals. The objective never was to win national championships; it was to provide opportunities for extremely bright youngsters to participate in athletic competition and I daresay, to live up to that old cliché of having a sound mind and a sound body. If national championships were won, and they were occasionally in lower profile sports, such as fencing and lacrosse, that was unexpected icing on the cake. But the gradual growth in the number of recruited athletes and the creation of the illusion that these schools are truly competing at the national championship level – in all but the low profile sports, has begun to undermine the central mission and values of these elite schools. The mission is not to produce athletic powerhouses (something that is impossible without athletic scholarships and lower standards than the Ivy League will permit), but to advance the work of brilliant youngsters with extraordinary talent who are apt to make very important contributions to society in a variety of institutional spheres, the least likely of which will be professional athletics. The idea of the “scholar-athlete” has been largely lost at the Ivy League. Too many students who would otherwise be admitted who are apt to become exceptionally talented artists, dancers, physicists, neuroscientists, and sociologists – and maybe even “walk-on” athletes – are losing their opportunities to the recruited athletes, many of whom will never even go out for teams once accepted. For too many, athletics has become a back-door ticket into some of the nation”s leading universities and colleges and it ought to be stopped.

What then is to be done? First, the Ivy presidents and provosts who recognize the current state of affairs should commit themselves to rolling back the percentage of recruited athletes over a period of the next decade or so. Second, they could leave perhaps two high profile sports – perhaps football and men and women”s basketball – for recruited athletes (and perhaps select one more high profile woman”s sport to move toward compliance with Title IX parity requirements). Over a period of years, the number of football players on a team would be cut from over 100 to perhaps 60. All other sports would gradually become non-recruiting sports – students could join teams, but coaches in these sports would not formally recruit athletes to participate in these sports teams. They also would play other teams that also do not recruit athletes in those sports – so that there would be competitive parity, even if at a lower level than one sees at the powerhouse athletic schools. In short, almost all sports would move to the Division III level, but would stay within the NCAA. My personal preference would be for the Ivy League to withdraw from the NCAA. They get little from that association while having to comply with many bureaucratic and compliance regulations that really don”t apply to the Ivy League. The Ivies could easily collaborate with like-minded schools to construct their own competitive schedules. Third, a number of sports would be eliminated. Ivy athletics cost the universities money. They are not a source of positive revenue. The idea is to recreate the real world of student athletes and to reduce the numbers of recruited athletes so that other applicants with exceptional talents could be admitted to these Ivy Schools and great liberal arts colleges. Over the next decade these elite schools should strive to reduce the percentage of recruited athletes by half.

This will be a very difficult change to effect at these universities. For one, former athletes represent a powerful and highly vocal interest group among alumni. There also would be resistance from those in Departments of Intercollegiate Athletics and even from faculty and students who would argue against a different style of athletic competition at these universities. There is apt to be leadership inertia. Presidents of these universities are apt to be unwilling to spend the time and personal “capital” fighting the fight needed to slowly redress this problem. It would be, to say the least, time consuming without any guarantee of success. I”ve known university presidents who quit their jobs (or were forced out) because they simply advocated changing the “mascot” for the university”s teams from an offensive to a benign symbol. Think of how much harder it would be to come to grips with these kinds of gradual pullbacks. Finally, individual schools will have a difficult time making these changes unilaterally. It will take agreement among the league presidents to produce such change. Change won”t be easy, but I think necessary if we are to strive for still greater fairness in admissions and a more interesting student body at these elite educational institutions.

1William G. Bowen and Sarah A. Levin, Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational Values (Princeton University Press, 2003)
2The Ivy League situation differs from the patterns at Division III schools in the NCAA that do not actively recruit athletes, but do field competitive athletic programs. Schools such as MIT and the University of Chicago fall into this category. We can also contrast the Ivy practice with those of places like Stanford University (which over the past 16 years has won the Director”s Cup as the most successful overall athletic program in the nation) and Duke University that offer a limited number of athletic scholarships to flesh out their athletic teams.
3This is not true in all sports. For example, golf, crew, and fencing team members scored about as well as the average SAT score in the class. But in the class of 1989 that Shulman and Bowen followed at these schools, football players had scores that were about 120 points lower than the average; and hockey plays even a bit lower.
4It may surprise you that despite the vociferous and often expressed discontent about minority students getting an edge in admissions (“affirmative action”), the differences between minorities and the average class score are roughly the same as the difference among athletes and the average for the entire class. I can”t say that I”ve heard the same level of public outrage against the lower scores of athletes as I have against “preferential admissions treatment” for minorities.


Originally published at Huffington Post

© Copyright Jonathan R. Cole