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The Old College Buy

Although the start of the fall semester is months away, obsessed seniors are already hard at work polishing their applications in the belief that the admissions process is a meritocracy. What they don't understand or don't want to accept is that it is a marketplace in which every opening is up for bids. The number of slots that have been set aside for legacies (children of alumni) and development admits (children who wouldn't be accepted but for wealthy parents who might donate large sums to the school) serves as an example.

This tilted playing field is nothing new. In The Chosen (Houghton Mifflin, 2005), Jerome Karabel debunks the myth that college has always been strictly about learning. By 1904, for example, Princeton had already developed a well deserved reputation as a country club. When a Princeton administrator was once asked how many students were on campus, he quipped: "About 10 percent."

What has changed today is the emphasis on careerism. When a four-year degree puts most students into deep debt, they understandably want to see an immediate payoff for their investment. That's why students are demanding more accountability from majors in the form of their relevance to what comes right after graduation. It helps explains why business has been the most popular major for the past 15 years, and why the humanities are in decline.

It also explains grade inflation. If a degree is a commodity, then students who are paying steep tuition view high grades - whether earned or not - as an entitlement. The most recent example of this disturbing trend was a front-page story in the New York Times on June 22 regarding law schools ("In Law Schools. Grades Go Up, Just Like That"). At least 10 law schools in the past two years have retroactively added .333 to every grade recorded in order to make their students seem more desirable in a highly competitive job market.

Undergraduate grading, of course, has been plagued by inflation for many years because students and their parents demanded it as a rightful return on their investment. The once accepted gentlemanly C grade is anathema today. By the early 1990s, for example, 9 out of 10 Harvard graduates received honors at commencement, and nearly half of all undergraduate grades were A or A-minus, according to Excellence Without a Soul (Perseus Books, 2006) by Harry R. Lewis, a former dean. A similar trend was seen at state universities.

The same grade inflation is taking place in high schools, where teachers are under enormous pressure to avoid undermining their students' chances of being admitted to highly selective colleges. One indication is the number of valedictorians. Some suburban high schools have more than a half dozen, based on their A-plus averages, according to a front-page story in the New York Times on June 27 ("How Many Graduates Does It Take to Be No. 1?").

I don't know exactly where this trend is headed. But I suspect it will be a variation of Gresham's Law. However, instead of cheap money driving dear money out of circulation, only degrees from marquee-name colleges will hold their value. Degrees from other colleges will be viewed with disdain. That's not good for students or for the country.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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