The Thin-Envelope Crisis

America's universities are rejecting the wrong kids--and undermining the idea of merit

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TIM KLEIN / Gallery Stock

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Test scores are only one measure of a student's achievement, and other qualities must be taken into account. But it's worth keeping in mind that the arguments for such subjective criteria are precisely those that were made in the 1930s to justify quotas for Jews. In fact, in his book The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale and Princeton, scholar Jerome Karabel exhaustively documented how nonobjective admissions criteria such as interviews and extracurriculars were put in place by Ivy League schools in large measure to keep Jewish admissions from rising.

Then there's the single largest deviation from merit in America's best colleges: their recruited-athletes programs. The problem has gotten dramatically worse in the past 20 years. Colleges now have to drop their standards much lower to build sports teams. These students, in turn, perform terribly in classrooms. A senior admissions officer at an Ivy League school told me, "I have to turn down hundreds of highly qualified applicants, including many truly talented amateur athletes, because we must take so many recruited athletes who are narrowly focused and less accomplished otherwise. They are gladiators, really." William Bowen, a former president of Princeton University, has documented the damage this system does to American higher education--and yet no college president has the courage to change it.

The most troubling trend in America in recent years has been the decline in economic mobility. The institutions that have been the best at opening access in the U.S. have been its colleges and universities. If they are not working to reward merit, America will lose the dynamism that has long made it so distinctive.

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