By Richard Vedder
The Chicago Tribune reports that the University of Illinois has been extremely active in admitting sons and daughters of well connected politicians, university trustees, and the like --in many cases, students that otherwise would be rejected. Illinois's defense: "everyone does it."
I suspect Illinois is both right and wrong. They are right in stating "everyone does it" (with a few meritorious exceptions, like Cal Tech). Anyone who has read Dan Golden's book The Price of Admissions knows that at both private and public schools, people are admitted on the basis of non-meritorious considerations. Eating lunch with Dan recently, he opined that it is not uncommon for some schools to admit as much as 40 percent of its freshman class on the basis of preferential treatment --affirmative action, athletes, children of alums and/or wealthy donors, offspring of celebrities or politically powerful people. President Joe White's promise to stop University interference in admissions rings a bit hollow, since apparently he is one of the offenders intervening in admissions.
But Illinois is wrong in that the whole thing is corrupt, especially for state universities founded on the concept of providing access to a wide spectrum of persons, unlike elite private schools. As a holder of two U of I degrees and someone who literally grew up in the shadows of the Urbana-Champaign campus, I am particularly saddened, although not surprised, by this announcement.
Is the solution to bar anyone but admissions officers from making admission decisions? While that might seem desirable, humans are imperfect, and that includes admissions and financial aid officers (as some recent scandals have revealed). I know of an admission officer who came close to tying a student's admission to the provision of sexual favors (he lost his job). I know of one case of overt bribes for admission to medical school (a dean lost his job). I am very nervous about attempts to replace objective criteria, such as the use of SAT scores, with admission officer discretion. Although not perfect, the least corrupt system probably would be to go to a system where admissions is strictly based on objective criteria, including some numerical measurement of the inevitably subjective letters of recommendations of teachers and counselors. Because of difficulties in measuring such things as "leadership", care must be taken in designing criteria for schools wanting a student body that consists of more than wonkish, nerdish scholars with no personality or sense of ability to lead or excel outside of the academic milieu. But it probably can be done.
On to Texas. I have long had mixed feelings about the Texas "10 percent rule," whereby students in the top 10 percent of the graduating class of any Texas high school can go to any public university in Texas. On the plus side, it is a far less offensive form of affirmative action than is usually displayed. It is based on objective, race-neutral criteria, and is consistent with the mission of state universities of serving students from all areas and walks of life --as long as they exhibit some potential. However, it is a deliberate attempt to achieve a more politically correct racial/ethnic distribution of students, which I find offensive, and it clearly lowers the academic quality of admittees.
UT Austin has a problem. A large percentage of top Texas students want to go there rather than the likes of Sam Houston State, the University of North Texas, or UT Pan American. This admission standard has crowded out admission of many good students from top quality high schools, kids in, say, the 15 percentile of their class. It has crowded out out-of-state and international admissions, both important if true diversity based on culture (rather than skin color) is a goal. As a consequence, Texas seems ready to change the 10 percent rule so that not more than 75 percent of the freshman class need be admitted on the 10 percent rule grounds. Governor Rick Perry will sign the bill.
My sympathies for UT Austin, however, in this matter are less than ardent, because I suspect the true reason for the rule change has more to do with intercollegiate athletics. UT was getting to the point that great football players below the 10th percentile of their high school class (that is to say, almost all of them) could not be admitted. In Texas, if there is a fight between achieving athletic superiority and affirmative action pureness, I suspect football would win, at least at UT Austin. I was kind of looking forward to a battle between flaming Texas liberal advocates of racial equity and bubbas wanting another national football championship, in order to test my working hypothesis that, when push comes to shove, athletics usually trumps academics at most big time sports universities.