Cyber Tech

How College Became a Competition Divorced From Learning

Educational hierarchies invite ruthless competition: Only one of us can get ahead, just as only one woman could land Mr. Darcy. So we scratch and claw to get places in the exclusive schools and colleges whose graduates fill the top jobs.

The most obvious pitfall of this competition is that only the privileged can reliably access the lifetime of schooling needed to win: Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale together typically enroll more students from households in the richest 1 percent than from the entire bottom half. But even for rich applicants, a 5 percent admissions rate makes the odds of winning the college lottery much longer than Elizabeth Bennet’s odds of marrying well. The pressure to beat these odds drives even the most well-resourced applicants and their families to immoral and self-destructive schemes. In the recent Varsity Blues scandal, sophisticated and otherwise sensible people with family wealth to spare paid bribes to arrange fraudulent athletic resumes and rigged test scores for their children. Setting moral principle aside, what besides an overwhelming fear of losing caste could lead parents to think that their children’s development is best served by giving them, behind their backs, false credentials? Is this any less foolish than Mrs. Bennet’s sending a daughter off to visit a possible suitor through a rain that makes her dangerously ill, in the hope that the bad weather will force him to take her in and fall in love?

At the same time, the pressure to get the best students leads schools astray. The glossy marketing materials that colleges use to attract students are sometimes ridiculous. (Yale’s current campaign somewhat obscurely invites applicants to “Embrace the spirit of And.”) More seriously, the need to lure the most-desired privileged students away from competitors leads colleges to replace need-based financial aid with “merit scholarships.”

The dominant role that rankings play in students’ decisions about where to enroll makes all but the most elite colleges perpetually insecure. Rankings, one dean has said, “are always in the back of [every administrator’s] head. With every issue that comes up, we have to ask, ‘How is this impacting our ranking?’” Schools hire rankings consultants to tell them how to improve. The responses don’t serve educational excellence, or really any educational purpose at all, and educators resent them. Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, once quipped that “the next thing they’ll do is rank churches. You know, ‘Where does God appear most frequently? How big are the pews?” But colleges still hire consultants and follow their advice. The imperatives created by education’s instrumental value are too powerful to resist.

Another pitfall of competitive education is that it distorts students’ choices of what skills to acquire. When schooling is the path to income and status, students study the subjects that yield the highest wages and the greatest prestige, inducing too many people to study finance and law and too few to study education, caregiving, or even engineering. But private wages are not the same thing as the public interest. Child-care workers, for example, give much more to society than they take from it, generating almost 10 times as great a social product as they capture in private wages. Bankers and lawyers, by contrast, capture private wages that exceed their social product—they take more than they give. The distortions reach beyond specific jobs. Art, culture, and community all make the world a much better place, but they are notoriously difficult to monetize in the market. Competitive schooling therefore drives students away from these fields. No surprise, then, that the rise of competitive education has been accompanied by a steep decline in student interest in the humanities.

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I am tech enthusiast and a keen learner, Currently pursuing Bachelors in Computer Science from University of Delhi

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