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Swanky California College Caught Redhanded in Big Lie

Tongues are wagging at at least one head is rolling at Claremont McKenna College, a small liberal arts school in Southern California, following news that a member of the admissions department had repeatedly lied about incoming students’ SAT scores to boost the school’s ranking in the (in)famous U.S. News & World Report survey.  Further investigation will determine whether the officer acted alone. Words like pathetic, disgraceful and disgusting come to mind.

Yet while this reflects poorly on the administration of Claremont McKenna, it also underlines a problem that plagues the entire field: There is no good way for parents (or employers) to determine how good a school really is. Current measures like the U.S News & World Report survey place a strong focus on the SAT scores and GPAs of accepted students, but this says more about the children coming in than it does about what they’ve learned by the time they get out.  And while Claremont McKenna is among the worst (known) cheaters, it’s an open secret that many schools game the system to improve their rankings.

Via Meadia’s proposal: entrance and exit exams for BA students, that would measure what they knew coming in and what they’ve learned going out. An examination along these lines would make it easier to assess colleges, and would be useful for parents, employers, and colleges alike. Parents would benefit from a more accurate ranking system, which would give them enough information to make a good decision for their kids; employers would likewise benefit by knowing where to focus their recruiting efforts as well as having some kind of comparable achievement standard for kids from all over the country.

Colleges, for their part, would be able to better assess how well they are educating their students, and could identify areas that need improvement. This would be especially beneficial for less selective schools that manage to turn out successful graduates—a school that turns middling applicants into stars would receive higher accolades than one that only accepts the cream of the crop.

And individual students who do well can stand or fall on their own, not living or dying by the reputation of the college they attended.

Many kids go to expensive prep schools and benefit from tutoring, fancy internships and all the grooming their parents’ money can buy.  This gets them into famous schools, but is no guarantee that they learn anything there.  America needs a fundamentally fairer system of higher education: one that lets every student take full credit for his or her achievements.

And parents and students both need better information about colleges that are asking them to pay huge sums and incur vast debts.

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  • vbounded

    A fly in the ointment is that it is illegal for employers to screen using tests unless they can prove the tests don’t have a disparate impact on racial minorities. Until Congress changes the rules, it is easier for employers to screen using college and grad school credentials than using tests.

  • Will

    A lot of colleges required comprehensive examinations in a major to graduate. I believe the University of the South, where I majored in history and philosophy during the 1980s, still has that requirement, but a lot of other selective colleges had dropped it by then. It’s inconceivable non-selective colleges and universities had such comprehensives, at least I have never heard of it. Perhaps this model provides a relatively straightforward way to do what Mead suggests? A side benefit is pushing students to review what they’ve learned in a major and put the pieces together in a coherent way.

  • Mrs. Davis

    How do you test for the benefit of sitting on a log with Mark Hopkins? Or is that no longer a part of a liberal education?

  • Karen Myers

    Decades ago I entered college as an advanced Math student and left 4 years later with a degree in the Classics (dead languages). No regrets. Regarding an exit exam, after 4 years of disuse I would have forgotten much of my advanced math. As Peggy Sue said about algebra class “don’t worry, you’ll never have to use it”.

    I think it’s a legitimate question: at what point is it OK to no longer be up to speed on all areas of study, since no adults actually are? Instead, they have been introduced to many fields of study and have learned (hopefully) a great deal about how to reason. They have also learned some permanent facts (e.g., history, literature).

    But how many adults have remained fully competent in their foreign languages, in their math skills if they are not working in related fields, in their unused sciences which have moved on without them? The humanities are relatively static, but the others are “use it or lose it”, and rightly so. Keep the tools and principles, of course, but that’s not going to be enough to pass the sort of exams under question.

    One learns a foreign language not to work in a consulate but in order to broaden one’s understanding of a foreign culture and of related languages including, typically, our own.

    There’s currently too strong a “let’s convert all universities to vocational schools” reaction. I once looked at a group of executives at a breakfast meeting in Silicon Valley who were discussing their children’s college majors and wanted them all or mostly to go into STEM subjects, esp. computers. When I asked which of them had majored in computer studies when they were in college, not a hand was raised. They failed to draw the obvious conclusion that no one predicts the future, and general preparation was more useful than specific.

  • Kris

    “Exit exams”? Only if you can guarantee absolutely that they will be open solely to university graduates! Otherwise, you can easily imagine the lamentable consequences. [/sarc]

    My “favorite” perverse result of gaming the system: As law schools want their incoming students to have as high a GPA as possible, they have an incentive to accept an A student in (insert your most despised unrigorous major here) over a B+ student in a truly challenging program. Students obviously respond to these incentives accordingly.

  • Walter Sobchak

    “Via Meadia’s proposal: entrance and exit exams for BA students, that would measure what they knew coming in and what they’ve learned going out.”

    Can you imagine parents who have paid $200,000 and their kids, who had a great time in college, flunk the exit exam.

    Me neither. It won’t happen in the current configuration of the universe.

  • Walter Grumpius

    One of my few boasts (and deservedly few) about my college academic career in the mid 80s was a bit of foresight: I tell my friends who weren’t there, that while all the hyper-ambitious Gov jocks were reading the ludicrous John Rawls, I was reading Confucius, Han Fei, Shang Yang and Chuang-tze. I’d already maxed out on Plato and Aristotle in high school.

    If I had it to do over again, seeing what I’ve seen now, I would have done a double-major in Computer Science and Philosophy. A little Searle and Dennett later in life will tend to put that extra crease in one’s noggin.

    As to exit exams, pffft. For pete’s sake, LIFE is an exit exam, innit.

  • raf

    This could work, as long as the exit exam properly emphasizes the role of race, class, and gender in understanding … well, anything and everything, really.

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