Every year about this time, high school students get letters of admission -- or rejection -- from colleges around the country. The saddest part of this process is not their rejections but the assumption by some students that they were rejected because they just didn't measure up to the high standards of Ivy U. or their flagship state university.
The cold fact is that objective admissions standards are seldom decisive at most colleges. The admissions process is so shot through with fads and unsubstantiated assumptions that it is more like voodoo than anything else.
A student who did not get admitted to Ivy U. may be a better student than some -- or even most -- of those who did. Admissions officials love to believe that they can spot all sorts of intangibles that outweigh test scores and grade-point averages.
Such notions are hardly surprising in people who pay no price for being wrong. All sorts of self-indulgences are possible when people are unaccountable, whether they be college admissions officials, parole boards, planning commissions or copy-editors.
What is amazing is that nobody puts the notions and fetishes of college admissions offices to a test. Nothing would be easier than to admit half of a college's entering class on the basis of objective standards, such as test scores, and the other half according to the voodoo of the admissions office. Then, four years later, you could compare how the two halves of the class did.
But apparently this would not be politic.
Among the many reasons given for rejecting objective admissions standards is that they are "unfair." Much is made of the fact that high test scores are correlated with high family income.
Very little is made of the statistical principle that correlation is not causation. Practically nothing is made of the fact that, however a student got to where he is academically, that is in fact where he is -- and that is usually a better predictor of where he is going to go than is the psychobabble of admissions committees.
The denigration of objective standards allows admissions committees to play little tin gods, who think that their job is to reward students who are deserving, sociologically speaking, rather than to select students who can produce the most bang for the buck from the money contributed by donors and taxpayers for the purpose of turning out the best quality graduates possible.
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