If you’re not the coach of a minor sport at an elite college, or if you’ve been living under a rock or otherwise insensate, you’ll be heartened to hear it’s college admissions season. The University of Pennsylvania requires no such notice, as demonstrated by its March 29 admissions announcement that led with how many applicants they were forced to turn away: “Last night, from a pool of 44,960 applicants, 3,345 learned of their acceptance to Penn.” In an era of outrage at elitist exclusion, Penn’s tone-deaf and insecure tweet brought to mind a recent satire from McSweeney’s: “A Statement from the University of Pennsylvania Regarding the College Admissions Bribery Scandal.”
When we learned that at least 50 people participated in a massive college admissions scam, deploying fraudulent means to get their children into our nation’s elite universities, we were appalled, disgusted, and outraged that not a single one of them was using these deviant tactics to get into the University of Pennsylvania. It is just despicable that these privileged, wealthy families, who already enjoy every advantage, would be so deceitful and unethical in their efforts to secure a coveted spot at Yale, Stanford, or Georgetown, but not at Penn, which — friendly reminder! — is an Ivy League school.
Even if you are insensate, you probably realize it’s harder than ever to get into America’s most famous universities. Many announced record low admission rates. Harvard is now at 4.5% – turning away more than 19 out of 20 applicants. Columbia is at 5.1%. Dartmouth sunk to 7.9%. Schools involved in the admissions scandal were no exception: Yale at 5.9%, USC at 11%. Even Penn joined the party: 7.4%. The New York Times correctly characterized the process as “cutthroat.”
How have we arrived at a place where famous schools (and famous families committing felonies for their future freshmen) are fodder for funnymen? Last year, the Common Application celebrated its 20th anniversary. For nearly a generation, students have been able to apply to up to 20 colleges with a few clicks. According to a 2018 report from the National Association for College Admission Counseling, students applying to more than three schools rose from 61% in 1995 to 82% in 2016. In its review of the 2019 record low admission rates, the New York Times quoted a mother whose son applied to 20 colleges.
Many blame rankings as well. After all, all the schools with sub-10% admission rates appear at the top of the rankings that people seem to talk about. But rankings are merely a symptom of a more fundamental problem: that higher education is – and should be – one monolithic thing. The belief that the institutions that stand between high school and the workforce should be the same genus and species – what I call the monoculture of King College – is not only the foundation of the rankings racket, but has grown to pervade all aspects of postsecondary education, from college and university mission statements, to organizational structures, to accreditation standards, to their approach to employers and employment, and most obviously to the products they offer.
It wasn’t always this way. Our teacher’s colleges and technical colleges used to be different. So did junior and community colleges that weren’t initially focused on degrees (let alone offering bachelor’s degrees). But in time, as these institutions selected new leaders, those who were seemingly most qualified hadn’t attended these institutions themselves, but rather our most famous universities. They knew what educational excellence looked like because they experienced it themselves. And slowly but surely, differences dissipated. King College became a single thing. The launch of U.S. News’ college rankings in 1983 accelerated the regression. But it wasn’t the original or ultimate cause.
Back when I was a consumer of King College, my roommates and I enjoyed debating dumb things. One evergreen was “Who is more famous?” “Who is more famous?” rarely came to blows when the subjects were the same genus and species e.g., Mel Gibson or Bruce Willis? It got much dicier when we crossed species, both figuratively (George Bush or Michael Jordan?) and literally (Michael Jordan or Mickey Mouse?). They can’t be easily compared because they’re playing different games. Unlike in higher education, you won’t see Michael Jordan’s insecurity over Mickey Mouse’s popularity produce a tweet or satiric prose.
Likewise, when we graduated from King College, we all didn’t pile into the same jobs. Sure, there was a concentration in the consulting and banking firms that took the initiative to come to campus, but there was no clear hierarchy. Although today – as with college – it’s easier than ever to apply to jobs, any hierarchy is murkier than it once was. How does a 100-year-old consumer packaged goods company match up against a fintech startup that no one’s heard of (yet)? The monoculture and hierarchy present at age 18 dissipates by age 23. As a result, entry-level jobs don’t generate nearly the same amount of attention – or, perhaps, cheating.
Until very recently, many of the four million Americans employed at the institutions of the monoculture reaped relatively rich harvests. Over the past several years, it has become clear that our colleges and universities are experiencing simultaneous crises of affordability, completion, and employability, and students are voting with their feet, initially away from small, rural, private non-famous colleges that are already closing with alarming frequency. But a more existential threat looms for King College.
I recently watched an HBO film about the current psychodrama in the land of kings and queens. Brexit stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Dominic Cummings, the evil genius campaign director of the official Brexit-supporting group. Ever since the 2016 vote, I’ve been fascinated by the Brexit train wreck. It’s a cautionary tale about how an artificial binary choice can lead to a spectacularly awful outcome. In Brexit, Cumberbatch’s character successfully frames “Remain” as the monolithic status quo, thereby positioning “Leave” as the change option. The story of Brexit is the story of this strategy, and how voters’ many frustrations with the status quo lead them to Leave.
In continuing assent to the monoculture – tacit or worse – colleges and universities are at risk of being pigeonholed by some future American Cumberbatch as a monolithic status quo that is failing to serve the people. The barbarians may already be at the gate – on both sides. New ideas on the left seek to upend the status quo in the name of equality. Proposals on the right seek to do so in the name of accountability and – depending on your point of view – either freedom of speech or ideology. On both sides, opinions of college have declined. Add to this picture a growing legion of proud college dropouts, flaunting their decisions with backpacks and sweatshirts with DROPOUT written in black letters, and increasingly angry Millennial media outlets like Vice and BuzzFeed cheering them on. At this point, it seems more likely that America will seek to “leave” behind college as we’ve known it than that colleges will be left alone.
Binary choices tend to be bad for the incumbent, and any referendum on King College is likely to turn out poorly. While there won’t be a single Brexit-like vote, dozens of consequential funding and policy decisions at the federal and state levels over the next few years could direct resources away from King College, towards an “other” that could serve as a repository of education and economic opportunity frustrations. Monocultures have a tendency to spawn anticultures.
What should colleges do? If I had my druthers, they’d get busy differentiating – in terms of mission, organizational structure, approach to employment, and the products they offer. They should start playing different games. A few have begun this important work (WGU, ASU, and BYU-Idaho come to mind), but apparently no famous schools worthy of criminal acts. How amazing would it be to see a brand-name university announce it no longer plans to offer four-year degrees, but rather faster + cheaper programs and pathways that are aligned to great jobs? So amazing, it will never happen.
Assuming pressures continue to mount, I think we can expect two responses from colleges and universities – one marginally positive, one less so. The former is to refrain from further participation in any ranking that is institution-wide. Programmatic rankings are acceptable. But any publication that seeks to rank order entire schools has no productive role to play. While this treats the symptom rather than the disease, it’s not nothing. Even in its monolithic form, and even at famous schools, different degree programs lead to different outcomes.
The second is to paint the opposition better than the Remainers did in 2016. As news from London is making abundantly clear, “Leave” was never one thing, but rather a plethora of options. As pressure mounts, colleges will get busy framing the “other” – not as an ethereal, idyllic pathway from 18 to first job, but rather as number of discrete alternatives with their own drawbacks i.e., apprenticeships won’t work for everyone. By doing so, college can ensure it remains – at a minimum – primus inter pares. That may be cold comfort for institutions that have grown fat on $500 billion in annual spending on colleges and universities. But it may keep King College from following the path of Brexit.
McSweeney’s concludes its Penn statement with: “Our only consolation… is that these criminals… will be brought to justice, and that none of them bothered to scam their way into Cornell.” It’s nice to see the college monoculture sprouting comedy alongside tragedy. And although I didn’t major in agriculture, I know enough to know that monocultures aren’t sustainable. By continuing to till depleted soil, colleges are playing a high risk game. And understanding that doesn’t require going to one of America’s most famous colleges (even Penn).