Future of Learning Top Reads for week of Mar 18 2019

The College Admissions “Scandal” Edition, Part 2


”There Is No Way to Prevent the Next Cheating Scandal,” by Jeff Selingo, in The Atlantic

“All this has left admissions officers wondering if the overall application—test scores, grades, recommendations, extracurricular activities, and essays—remains an accurate portrayal of the student who is applying. ‘The concern I have is not fraud, but the overall fidelity of the correspondence they send us,’ says one admission dean at a prominent university, who asked to remain anonymous to talk freely about the scandal. ‘Grades are inflated, activities are embellished, recommendations lack negative comments, and the standard now is test prep and multiple editors for essays.’”

Why does this matter to the future of learning?

As I noted last week, Selingo is one of the most lucid, well-researched voices about higher education, and especially admissions, which is the focus of his forthcoming book.

In this article, he goes on to say that “some admissions deans want to ask for different evidence of an applicant’s potential beyond the usual polished checklist.”

Until that happens, college admissions will suffer from the distortions identified in Goodhart’s Law.


“The Moral Wages of the College Admissions Mania,” by Frank Bruni, in the New York Times

“I once asked a longtime guidance counselor about her least favorite part of the college admissions season, when students learn if they’ve been accepted by the schools of their dreams. […]

“ ‘I did all of this for nothing,’ they’ll say, meaning the homework, the sports, the other extracurricular activities. […]

”Getting an A in biology—and being awakened, in the process, to the wonders of the natural world—doesn’t matter if a committee of strangers at Stanford isn’t sufficiently impressed?”

Why does this matter to the future of learning?

Bruni’s conclusion says it all:

“Winners and losers are often sorted not by merit but by privilege (or subterfuge). And even the winners lose. Actually, all of us do, because through this overwrought culling, we’re teaching a generation of children values that stink. There are moral wages to the admissions mania, and we need to wrestle with those.”

This issue starts and ends with one simple question: What is school for?

Schools of the Future will be explicit about their answer to that question and be committed to living up to it.


“Why meritocracy is a myth in college admissions,” by Morgan Polikoff, Jerome A Lucido, and Julie Renee Posselt in The Conversation

“At one end of the continuum are the kind of parenting practices that are ethically sound, like enrichment activities for children, which affluent parents are spending more for as of late.

“Meanwhile, spending on lower-income kids has barely budged. This practice by middle-upper class parents gives their children tangible advantages, such as stronger resumes. It also gives them unseen advantages, such as self-confidence and comfort in dealing with authority figures like coaches, doctors and professors.

“Research by sociologist Annette Lareau shows that children of working-class parents often are not raised to unlock these kinds of hidden advantages.”

Why does this matter to the future of learning?

The authors propose this list of “ethically questionable” “practices worth questioning”:

  • Test prep

  • Backdoors

  • Spring admits

  • Donations

  • Breaking laws

It’s easy to reject the last item, but how many people see the first item—test prep—as an obvious strategy? It’s legal, but ethically questionable, because it amplifies the effects of Goodhart’s Law for everyone in the system (see entry #1 above).

From this point of view, the college admissions “scandal” is less about a few bad apples and more about a system that is designed to produce inequitable results.


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Christian Talbot