4.14.2007

GPA and SAT Imply False Precision and Authority

I was very amused to hear that my favorite alma mater is thinking about discontinuing its cooperation with well known college rankings magazines. Of course the decision is based only on the highest principles. Of course….[cough]

So in light of this brave stand I hope they are willing to reciprocate the trust the absence of impartial data demands of prospective students. Why I think the following would only be fair:

Dear Admissions Committee:

Thank you for your inquiry about my high school and SAT transcripts. It is no mistake that you have not yet received them. I have decided not to recognize the false precision and authority of these artificial measures. Your admissions selection process is too important to be based on data from an outside, synthetic measure that is so fundamentally flawed and incomplete. Does a weather report convey all that is beautiful about a sunny fall afternoon in Vermont? Of course not! A four digit number is just as insufficient to describe all the character, culture and beauty contained in all the welcoming hallways and anterooms that dwell within my mind. Look over there past my shrine to Donald DeFreeze. There is a tire swing hanging from rafters reclaimed from an old barn with multi-hued bears frolicking with much merriment. Why even my whimsy exudes acceptance and tolerance! Oh if only some day I could have friends of such diversity in which to share my gaiety. But I digress…the SAT is nothing more than a construct of the corporate machine which seeks to grade our wonderful, unique, free-thinking minds like cuts of beef. Like a blast of poisonous carbon monoxide thousands of for-profit corporations like Kaplan and Princeton Review seek to extract payment with the promise that we can outperform our peers. How is it moral to take money to make someone else a loser? I suppose others can receive absolution from that pagan creed of Capitalism but I know as Friends we’re simply too good for that. It’s a pity others can’t be as concerned about social-justice as we are. There are just so many greed-battered souls that litter this Caligula’s wasteland of Amerikkka it shouldn’t be a surprise that I had so many as my high school teachers. So oppressed were they by this controlling, paternalistic society and so deprived of the sensitive, worldly and engaging re-education within your walls are they that they seek to damn all free spirits in their charge to their sad fate. As my llama power animal has often told me, hurt people hurt people. In consideration of this truth I proudly view my grade point average with the same regard as a tattoo marking the forearm of a Survivor; a mark of unspeakable oppression.

Absent of my brands of conformity I’m sure you’d like to have some information about me in which to base your consideration. I descend from principled, non-conformist, English stock who were among the first to lead the fight against slavery. Through determination and hard work they left my parents with a legacy of world renown. My parents did their best to build on what their progenitors left them and pushed forward with an agenda of non-violent, compassionate progressivism. As they were somewhat less industrious than their forbearers their accomplishments were rather modest but their passion was just as strong! My upbringing in this environment has influenced me greatly. I value peace in this world more than anything. So much so that I sold all the land my grandparents left me to allow my family and I to tour the country converting the ignorant to our culture of peace in our new bio-diesel bus and help fund a yearly trip to Palestine to help me understand peace even better. Included with this letter is a tastefully designed view book constructed of paper I made myself filled with autumn pictures of me trying to impose peace on others through high decibel wisdom and colorful signage. I also included a video of me helping my Palestinian peace friend Khaled build the beautiful, traditional “Katyusha” firework for a peace festival in his basement.

Some lesser institutions of learning might receive the enclosed with some skepticism. "How can any of this information be verified? Even if it is true, how does this demonstrate that you've received a legitimate education? ", they may ask. To which I'll respond with righteous outrage, "Did you not read my essay on my impressive values? Did you not see the pictures of me with friends of many colors and creeds...smiling....in the fall!? Are you so obtuse as to not see that my quality is self evident?!" I know you will let me tell you the story of me using my tongue of tolerance rather than the imposed language of greed to which other institutions will only listen.

Thank you for your consideration,
Earl M. Coolege


Update: I wonder if this is the type of student they're now shooting for? They seem to approve....

4 comments:

Ben said...

So, I read the article and while Doug's quote is a bit wishy-washy (keep in mind, it's a partial quote plunked into a parenthetical statement), I'm not brought remotely close to the same conclusion. It's rather clear that the concern for the colleges in question is not "impartial data" gathered by US News and World Report. Rather, "At issue is the magazine's peer assessment surveys, which were mailed to colleges in late March. This year's survey for liberal arts colleges asks respondents to rate more than 250 schools on a scale of 1 to 5. The results account for 25% of the best colleges rankings." Wouldn't a survey amount to the direct opposite of impartial?

Your mock letter on the other hand is excellently done and damn funny. Plus to these biased eyes, it works better by itself, outside the context of the attempted Earlham bash. Well done.

Andrew said...

I think any well conducted survey with appropriate sampling, selection size and distribution can be considered "impartial". I've read about this issue and heard 2 NPR stories on this in the past and I still haven't really heard an argument that goes beyond the whining use of the pejorative "gamesmanship" by college presidents without ever citing specific examples. However flawed these surveys may be the 25% of peer generated data is certainly more "impartial" than the vacuum that would replace it and the other 75% Earlham has yet to make an issue of but is considering disposing of anyway. I’m sure their PR department will oblige with another heaping portion of marketing hyperbole made all the more odious with the school’s incessant sanctimony.

I like rankings and was like one of the 25% percent of high school kids that now pay attention to mags like US News. In 1995 Earlham was ranked in the mid 40’s for liberal arts colleges and it’s teaching of the life sciences actually briefly cracked the top 10. This fact was omnipresent in the literature I received from them and oft repeated by me as justification for going to such an obscure place. Now their overall ranking is in the mid 60’s and it’s not like Liberal Arts colleges are popping up like Starbucks.

So really what it comes down to is that these schools are not happy with the rankings they are getting (and the ratings they expect to get in the future) from these magazines and they are taking their balls and going home. Fine. But my point is that this cuts both ways. I’m still obviously resentful over the fact the school didn’t exactly turn out the way it was pitched to me and that was with outside resources like US News. With even more latitude to spin themselves how many more college careers are going to be unfairly detoured? With their size and modest endowment they can’t be everything to all people.

Joe said...

Wow, Andrew. I think you really found your artistic medium of choice...satiric letter writing. Very well done.

I agree with Andrew that Earlham wouldn't be complaining so loudly if it were on the top of those rankings, but I also think that Doug has some good points. I'm pretty skeptical of U.S. New's use of endowment size as a criterion, for example. I think that Doug has advocated alternative ranking systems by different groups that use different criteria. So, I think that he (at least in the past) has recognized the value of having some objective assesment of the quality of colleges and universities.

I used rankings to help pick out a grad school, and it's now obvious to me why those surveys are such bad indicators. My program is ranked third in the country for public affairs, and first in the country for nonprofit management and a few other sub-areas, like public finance. It is obvious to me that our superior rank is due to the presence of a few high-profile faculty members at my school. The only text book for public finance was written by one of the professors here. Anyway, their prominence will be based on their publications, paper presentations, etc, but will have nothing to do with their ability to teach. Moreover, one or two faculty members cannot teach all of the classes...a particular department's high rank may be overly based on the prominence of a few faculty members, when in fact the department as a whole sucks.

I've never been to any other school of public affairs, so it's hard for me to say if my program's reputation is deserved or not. I can say for sure, though, that there are more than a few terrible teachers and worthless classes here.

Andrew said...

Thank you, but in all fairness where satire is concerned Earlham is an absurdly easy target. The problem with telling everyone that you’re brimming with goodness is that it brings any weaknesses into greater contrast. While all schools portray their administrators, professors, and students as intelligent and capable Earlham takes it a step farther by routinely apprising us of their goody-good-goodness. It’s governing and vision documentation doesn’t stop at describing how substantive and engaging its curriculum is. It frequently goes on to describe the subject matter’s inherent virtuousness. Rather than acknowledging legitimate self interest in taking actions necessary for preserving the school’s well-being they clumsily try to spin their motives as being entirely based on the school’s lofty principles.

The reality is that like most things Earlham also exists in a marketplace where it competes against peers offering similar services. They are acutely aware of this and have focused their limited resources on their most distinguishing characteristic; specifically their unique founding faith’s pacifism – which they’ve re-branded as “peace”. It appears that under this banner Earlham wishes to enhance its existing competency in humanities and the soft-social sciences. While this may position it perfectly for an underserved market niche the products of this strategy are unlikely to impress US News; which is why it’s probably a heady decision on Doug’s part to stop participating.

In 40 years Earlham could evolve into the Roja Rojito’s West Point and more power to them. I embrace the free market and all it’s products. However at this point they better not still be trying to snag kids that want an open intellectual environment (like me in 1995).