Oops

The details of the scandal the Justice Department uncovered are notable not because rich people try to buy their way into higher education, but because these particular rich people went about it all wrong.

Libby Nelson, Vox

Or, as The New York Times wrote in their editorial on the subject:

But this case is not a defense of meritocracy in college admissions. What the government actually is defending is private property — the right of the colleges to make their own decisions about admissions, and collect the payments.

The key distinction here is not just the amount of money, but the recipient. A donation is made to a college, while a bribe is paid to an employee who, in effect, is stealing an admissions slot, hawking it and pocketing the proceeds. (To comply with tax laws, donors also cannot engage in an explicit quid pro quo with a college. The well-rehearsed pas de deux of donations and admissions must be made to appear as a voluntary exchange of gifts, not a binding deal.)

And Frank Bruni is as shocked as everyone else is to find gambling going on in Casablanca.

But let’s pretend for a moment that nobility, aristocracy, and meritocracy are not synonyms for plutocracy, and study for next month’s SAT.

I suddenly felt as though I’d failed a test I didn’t know I was taking. 

Rainesford Stauffer

Need-Blind

The ocean of the Internet tosses up interesting flotsam, and then it sinks below the surface again. I read some passing reference, perhaps by Niall Ferguson, to the British Empire needing a lot of clerks to do the computing, and thus schools to train them in the essentials of empire: completing and processing forms, and thus neat handwriting and arithmetic. (I’d like a citation.) We’ve since invented mechanical computers to tabulate and process the forms, and outsourced the completion of the forms themselves to the end-users.

In this otherwise excellent discussion of AT&T’s Workforce 2020 program, an employee training initiative intending to re-skill 100,000 employees in the next three years, Randall Stephenson makes a throwaway comment that, of course, the student has to learn the new skills on his own time. Because, we’ll help you help yourself, but only if you’re interested in keeping up with the changing world. (My experience of layoffs at AT&T has been that when jobs are eliminated, the people are generally given the opportunity to apply for any remaining jobs.) The coursework that Mr. Stephenson mentions is available at Udacity and Georgia Tech. It’s an exciting program. These are, for the most part, skills that didn’t exist less than a decade ago, using tools that were pooh-poohed by big companies like AT&T. But what about general purpose skills? What about the world beyond the virtual?

I spent today assisting with completing the FAFSA and TAP and PROFILE and now I’m tired and wondering what would be the harm in disregarding parental ability to pay and considering only the student’s assets, if those. Though I suppose then colleges, trade schools, and such might either lower their fees in order to attract students, turn elsewhere for funding, and go out of business. Is it really optimal for adolescents to guess what the labor market might demand in four years rather than for an employer to train an employee to do what needs being done now or in the relatively near future? It’s unreasonable to expect any student to take on debt based on the assumption of future earning potential. One, they’re not in any position to make an accurate assessment of their prospects; and, two, robots. In four years 9.5 million truckers will be looking for new work. Meanwhile there’s a shitload of clerical work that’s purely inefficiency — healthcare billing, for example — and doesn’t require a college education in order to complete, though one might consider lawyers essentially to be clerical help of a particularly specialized kind, not to mention the skilled trades. What’s wrong with apprenticeship? Besides, many adolescents are impatient: they are ready to go and do. They are done with waiting.

If college is to prepare one for a job, then why is the student paying for it instead of the employer? And if it’s not necessarily to prepare one for a job, but rather to work together to enhance our understanding of ourselves, of this world and the next, then why would we limit who can undertake that quest to those who’ve won the parental lottery? Or, to be frank, given the existential threat that robots pose to humanity, why would we limit learning at all, since increasing understanding is the only thing we will be for (maybe not even that)? Perhaps we need to ask, where else is there a community of scholars but at college?

Anyway, apply first and meet all the deadlines. You will have no idea what college will cost until three months after all the forms have been filled out.

In Living Memory

Number One Daughter got her first college acceptance today, from Wells College on the shore of beautiful Cayuga Lake. I need to get that FAFSA submitted. Some of its assumptions are annoying, but one is correct: She is heading to college directly from high school, at least for purposes of this form. However, Inside Higher Ed notes that almost half of college students are “non-traditional,” meaning that they don’t come along to college directly after high school and between the ages of 18 and 24. It almost makes one wonder if perhaps there’s some disconnect between what’s assumed to be normal and what is, or some lack of understanding of how traditions change over time — the traditional student may not be the normal student, nor even traditional.  We’ve been misled by the past fixed in our memory, pretending to be inflexible. But it makes sense that institutions which pride themselves on traditions might see everything from that perspective, though one might expect them to use a more accurate label, such as “young adult,” instead of “traditional.”

Today our families gather to be together and give thanks, on a holiday which is either a celebration of survival or of death, depending on whom one asks. Once a day of fasting and reflection, Thanksgiving has become almost a celebration of gluttony — though to my mind that’s tomorrow. Odd that until the coming of mass media, Thanksgiving was somber. But my experience of what other families do is entirely from stories told in the movies. Have I read a novel set at Thanksiving? Is there one?

some of the pies

What I recall is more recent than my childhood. Earlier both Thanksgiving and Christmas blend together: black walnuts, pumpkin pie, ham, green beans almondine, and congealed salad. I spent most of any party alone, reading. (Family holidays at my in-laws’ were a bit more explosive.) Today we had remembered receipts and conversations about family origins. Dad told the story of a young John Bell who ran away to western Virginia with his Cherokee wife instead of heading off on the Trail of Tears. It puts some context on the 23andMe results:

Traditions change with time. They aren’t fixed. Each iteration offers something new. But is it not a bit odd that gratitude for plenty becomes gorging to excess?

Our society appears to place great stock in buying, in consumption. They talk about it on the news a lot. The advertisements tell us there’s lots more to buy. But I’m not sure where the money to buy things comes from. (Actually, I am sure where it comes from, but it’s unevenly distributed.) Spend the time with your family. Buy nothing. Let the rich trickle down their purchases.

I Wish I Could Go Back to College

No. 1 Daughter is a junior in high school this year. My how time flies. Her next act on the world stage approaches. Last year, to be helpful, because she was really not interested, and didn’t take the PSAT, I signed her up for the mailing lists of a couple of colleges. Specifically, I signed her up for those which I was interested in when I was looking at schools.

That’s not wrong, right?

Not all of them, though. I didn’t put her on the mailing list for Deep Springs or Hamden-Sydney because she’s, ahem, female. Or for Stanford, since this isn’t about me: it’s about getting her interested in the possibilities.

Yeah. Right.

Maybe I could visit her far too many times if she chose Bard (or, better yet, Simon’s Rock) or Vassar or Fordham, or even just a few too many for a modicum amount of comfort if she chose Mary Baldwin or St. John’s College. Perhaps the better choice, beyond a semester at sea, is something far away, like Oxford.

A community college is right out. I’ll be there every day.