- The Washington Times - Monday, April 18, 2005

Every year about this time, high school students get letters of admission — or rejection — from colleges around the country. The saddest part is not the rejections but the assumption on the part of some students they were rejected because they just didn’t measure up to the high standards of Ivy U. or their flagship state university.

The cold fact is that objective admissions standards are seldom decisive at most colleges. The admissions process is so shot through with fads and unsubstantiated assumptions it is more like voodoo than anything else.

A student who was not admitted to Ivy U. may be a better student than some — or even most — of those who did. Admissions officials love to believe they can spot all sorts of intangibles that outweigh test scores and grade-point averages.

Such notions are hardly surprising in people who pay no price for being wrong. All sorts of self-indulgences are possible when people are unaccountable, whether they are college admissions officials, parole boards, planning commissions or copy editors.

What is amazing is nobody puts the notions and fetishes of college admissions offices to a test. Nothing would be easier than to admit half of a college’s entering class on the basis of objective standards, such as test scores, and the other half according to the voodoo of the admissions office. Then, four years later, you could compare how the two groups did. But apparently this would not be politic.

Among the many reasons given for rejecting objective admissions standards is that they are “unfair.” It is stressed that high test scores are correlated with high family income.

Very little is made of the statistical principle that correlation is not causation. Practically nothing is made of the fact that, however a student got to where he is academically, that is in fact where he is — and that is usually a better predictor of where he is going than admissions committees’ psychobabble.

The denigration of objective standards allows admissions committees to play little tin gods, who think their job is to reward sociologically deserving students, rather than select students who can produce the most bang for the buck from the money contributed by donors and taxpayers to turn out the best graduates possible.

Typical of the mindset that rejects selecting students by objective performances was a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that said colleges should “select randomly” from a pool of applicants who are “good enough.” Nowhere in the real world, where people must face the consequences of their decisions, would such a principle be taken seriously.

Lots of pitchers are “good enough” to be in the major leagues but would you just as soon send one of those pitchers to the mound to pitch the deciding game of the World Series as you would send Randy Johnson or Roger Clemens, with the world championship on the line?

Many military officers were considered “good enough” to be generals in World War II. But troops who served under Gen. Douglas MacArthur or Gen. George Patton had more victories and fewer casualties. How many more lives would you be prepared to sacrifice as the price of selecting randomly among generals considered to be “good enough”?

If you or your child had to have a major operation for a life-threatening condition, would you be just as content to have the surgery done by anyone who was “good enough,” instead of a top surgeon in the relevant specialty?

The difference between first- and second-rate people is enormous in many fields. In a college classroom, marginally qualified students can affect the whole atmosphere and hold back the whole class.

In some professions, a large part of the time of first-rate people is spent countering the half-baked ideas of second-rate people and trying to salvage something from the disasters they create. “Good enough” is seldom good enough.

Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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