This article is adapted from remarks that were delivered at the 2016 Annual Weissbourd Conference “Does Liberal Education Need Saving?” which took place at the University of Chicago on May 19th and 20th. Organized by Aviva Rothman and Aaron Tugendhaft of the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts, the conference brought together historians, theorists, administrators and educators to discuss the meaning of liberal education, the roles it has played through history, and its purposes and prospects for the future.
Ted O’Neill was Dean of College Admissions at the University of Chicago for twenty years. He stepped down in 2009 to teach full time.
You may think, especially if your thinking is more or less confined to the colleges and universities like the ones represented at this conference, that the whole business of college admissions—of recruiting, selecting, assembling a class—is, unlike many liberal arts colleges and liberal arts education itself, in fine shape. We enjoy embarrassingly large surpluses of applications and receive frequent public attention from the major news media (not always approving) and obsessive attention from many middle/upper middle-class families (if not enough from low-income families). The young people of the world want to attend our colleges, even if the costs are so very high, and even if they sometimes have to borrow so much to do so. Prestigious colleges are, at least in terms of admissions, doing fine.
The colleges we don’t always think much about are the colleges without the highest prestige, frequently small liberal arts colleges. They struggle, and the struggle dates back a long way, at least to the early 1980s, when we realized that the baby boom was over and that the number of eighteen-year-olds would soon decline precipitously. The prediction was that 10 percent of America’s colleges would close for lack of students. That didn’t happen, but, as we were told by David Breneman in 1990, many liberal arts colleges had already become something else.1 Breneman found that only 212 American colleges actually awarded more than 50 percent of their degrees in liberal arts subjects. That study, updated in an American Association of Colleges and Universities report in 2012, found that the 212 had become 130. Can we assume that the pressure on colleges to seek and please students played some role in that change? Surely yes. The remaining truly liberal arts colleges, with the exception of a lucky few, still struggle to enroll their classes, and they do everything they can, sometimes embarrassing things, to appeal to applicants, including discounting their tuitions in what seems to be, in the not-so-long run, a suicidal attempt to survive. And, no doubt, they have changed, and will change, the focus of what they teach.
But the prestigious colleges thrive. We have so many applications that—I believe this is the literal truth—we don’t know what to do with them. This results in what is now invariably called by the press “admissions frenzy.” Admissions officers love the frenzy, as long as they keep up with the hunger of presidents, trustees and even faculty, and thereby retain their jobs. (Many don’t.) Why work so hard and spend so much money to get a superfluity of applications? Thirty thousand aren’t enough, especially if Harvard gets 35,000. A 9 percent admissions rate doesn’t make us proud while Stanford is bragging about an under 5 percent admissions rate. It can’t be that this is all for the sake of improving what happens in the classroom. Once college admissions became a measure of both popularity and, somehow, quality, it took on a strange life of its own.
Along the way, applicants are used. They are told over and over that it couldn’t hurt to apply, when many have next to no chance to be admitted. They are told that they will be judged strictly on their merits, but they aren’t told of the preferences for legacies, or athletes, or development cases, or whomever else the college values that particular year; nor are they told that they will be admitted in part based on the likelihood that they will enroll (if they commit themselves without seeing other options by applying early, or if they don’t appear to be so good that they are likely to choose a college higher on the pecking order, or if they meet the unannounced preference for applicants who express, in our jargon, “demonstrated interest,” e.g. who visit, visit the website, spend time on the website, send us texts, etc.). Nor is it made clear that they may be judged in part on their ability to pay; nor do they expect that at some colleges—not a few—their financial aid will be determined by an as-if monopolist setting a rate that is carefully gauged (this is called “financial aid leveraging”) to be the maximum any family will be willing and able to pay.
Why should those of us who promote and revere the liberal arts behave this way? How does our commitment to values lead to this deplorable situation? For a partial answer, we probably should consider the influence of the U.S. News and World Report college rankings. U.S. News evaluates colleges, with a pretense to scientific precision, based on certain numbers. None of what they rate has to do with learning, or teaching, or the education of good people and good citizens. Some of their evaluation of so-called quality has to do with the number of applications a college receives, the number refused admission, the yield of students accepting offers of admission and the standardized test scores of the entering class. In addition to offering an inducement to lie, or to count strangely (since issues like “what is an application?” are never really settled), the ratings lead to other questionable behaviors. Ratings go up if more students of whatever quality and character are induced to apply. Then, if more weight is given to high test scores, and then if we admit with a preference for those you are most likely to “yield,” we find we have done ourselves a ratings favor. (Of course, this in a world in which everyone is doing the same thing, so the favors can be negligible.) If you think liberal arts colleges, including the highest rated of the national private universities, don’t care about these rankings, despite their protests, you haven’t been paying attention. Who doesn’t cooperate with the U.S. News survey? Almost no one. Who uses rankings to encourage alumni to give, or in order to recruit yet more students? More than you may care to admit.
We used to encourage appropriate students to apply by making what we thought were positive presentations of what the college thought about why it existed and how people learned there. Once, and I remember the day, to try to keep up, we hired consultants to help with our “marketing,” a word that had embarrassed us just years before. Their first bit of advice was that it was mistaken to tell applicants anything until we absolutely had to. If we told them something, then they would have some reason not to like us, and therefore not to apply. The idea was to tease, to speak in generalities, to show pretty pictures, and at each stage of this courtship to “fulfill” the students: that is, to give them something. We thought, naively or rebelliously, that we should fulfill them with arguments, and words. Now Chicago, even Chicago, has sent inquirers and applicants sunglasses, t-shirts, pizza cutters and beach towels, all to ensure they are fulfilled. The complicated arguments for the liberal arts have largely been abandoned and have been replaced by questions about what they, the students, want: what major, what activities, etc. We sell what they think they want, or what they are told they want—“choice,” “hands-on learning,” preparation for careers, internships, study abroad—but not what we think would be best for them, or what is the best we can do for them. That kind of boldness and presumption would make them feel less welcome, which we can’t have.
Who are they, then, when they get to us? Have they been prepared to be liberal arts students? We used to think that applying to college was the beginning of the liberal arts education, and we designed our application accordingly. In response to the Common Application (an instrument designed and promoted by liberal arts colleges in order to make applying to college easier, now used by more than six hundred colleges and universities), at Chicago we developed our own “Uncommon Application.” We tried our best to embed in the application an explanation of the Chicago education, and of how we selected students and why, then we asked applicants to write essays in response to questions we thought were actually interesting. Many, confused or too busy or wanting something else, never did apply. Some blessed few did, and the entering classes always improved. Then a time came when in the interest of getting more students to apply, not in our interests as we saw it in our office, or even in the interests of the applicants, we were persuaded to abandon the Uncommon and accept the Common Application in what proved to be my last year doing admissions.
How should liberal arts students be selected? These days, so attest the high school counselors, the people with the best overview of what actually happens in admissions, colleges rely much more, and much too much, on standardized test scores. They are easy to use, and seem to promise an accurate measure of something, though no one really can define what that something is. They impress U.S. News (and presidents and, sadly, faculties). They don’t seem to have anything to do with the likelihood that anyone is going to be able or want to devote time and serious thought to whatever we think the liberal arts are. They are coachable, and like so much else in the process, offer families with more money for coaching yet another advantage.
Formulaic applications, and the formulaic essays that they so frequently call forth, make it more difficult to hear an authentic voice, or to see someone thinking before your eyes. Colleges rarely have time to interview anymore, or they speak of interviews as only the exchange of information, not the exchange of ideas. Shouldn’t we think that the capacity to talk about important things would be of use to liberal arts students? We count the number of AP courses taken, as if that were a measure of an applicant’s curiosity, or evidence of the best teaching, and not, at base, about tests and the sale of tests. We once had the time, and inclination, to sit around a committee table and talk about what we were doing and who we thought the applicants were. How would they behave around the common core humanities seminar table, or in the dorms, or in the labs? I fear that the time for those kinds of conversations is over.
This has not been very cheerful. What is saving is the fact that, whatever the students have been led to expect, however they have been selected, they will be there in front of us, with all their talents and energy. This year for the first time I have would-be engineers in my class (Chicago has never had engineers before), would-be engineers with University of Chicago pizza cutters and sunglasses, who applied by way of the Common Application, and can, and seem to want to, talk about Homer and Plato and Aristotle and Kant. They do understand what is expected of them once they live in this place. I am very happy to acknowledge that admissions is not the be all and end all of a college education.
We could, however, do a more honest and thoughtful job than we sometimes do, or are asked to do. Students are naturally alive to their own important questions and are not sheep. They do respond if we give them an opportunity to think as liberal arts students.