As a naïve high schooler, I was steadfastly against the high level of influence that sports held over colleges. I believed that college should be all about scholarship, and that sports served as a resource drain and distraction for colleges and their students. So naturally, I chose to attend Duke.
My feelings about college sports then got complicated. Expecting to never attend a basketball game, I went to the very first one my freshman year (and most of the ones after). Prioritizing my classes over all else, I tented two out of my four years (tenting is living in a tent for six weeks to gain admission into the Duke-UNC game. That’s right, ONE game). Valuing academics over the other facets of college life, my best college memories are from basketball games.
Since graduating, I’ve accepted that my views towards college sports lie somewhere in the middle of against and ra-ra go team. College sports help instill a sense of kinship and college pride that brings a richness to the college experience treasured by students and alumni all across the US. This richness can be so strong that it clings for decades after graduating, with those having the same alma mater more easily able to trust, network, and develop friendships. My college experience would not have been the same without college sports, and I would not want to change anything about my experience.
I often think about whether students in the U.S. should specialize earlier. With knowledge multiplying at an unprecedented rate since our age of computers, we need to learn more in order to reach a level of competence. Fortunately technology also accelerates our rate of learning, but it might not make up for how much we need to learn. This is especially the case in scientific research and technology-related fields, where being innovative and making discoveries requires one to be at the apex of current knowledge. Since these fields are also very competitive, the U.S. might be losing a competitive advantage by having their students wait longer than those of other countries to hone in on their career field. By reaching a competitive level of understanding at a later age, Americans might be at a disadvantage for a few reasons. First, peak brain processing power occurs at the early age of 18 . Also, Americans consequently spend fewer working years at a competitive level. Finally, the age at which we gain expert level knowledge is now butting up against when most Americans start a family, which is especially destructive to women’s careers.
I believe that the U.S. has a tradition of waiting longer in part because of its emphasis on freedom – freedom of movement, freedom of thought, freedom to change. American universities also tend to emphasize the holistic person, which entails being well versed in both the sciences and humanities. In fact, many if not most universities have graduation requirements that curtail students’ abilities to limit their education to one field, for example by setting course requirements like literature, languages, science, math, culture, and more. While some diversity of thought and creativity may be gained in pursuing this diverse curriculum, I don’t believe that it makes up for the disadvantage in waiting. Most students know whether they’re better at the sciences or the humanities, for example, early in their gradeschool years. Allowing children to focus in on their best subjects should not be viewed as limiting their academic pursuits, but rather as expanding their potential.
Continuing my discussion of admissions in higher ed, I think the best change schools could make if they’re looking to improve their admissions process is to evaluate according to their definition of success. Based on how they admit people, it appears that colleges care most about their students’ GPAs. And schools are in fact quite good at selecting who will get a high GPA at the end of their first year. However, is a successful student one that gets good first-year grades? Based on their mottos and mission statements, the schools themselves would disagree.
School mission statements tend to revolve around a few key themes, especially: innovation, scholarship, outreach, and diversity. See my first blog post for examples of two mission statements, both of which feature these tenets. Of these, only scholarship is related to grades. Innovation, outreach, and diversity can easily be achieved with a sub-par GPA, and are probably easier to accomplish at the expense of the GPA. By touting these themes in their mission statements, schools are proclaiming them as having value. If schools are to tout these themes in their mission statements, then they should recruit a student body that exemplifies these characteristics.
If schools were to redefine their view of student success based on their values, then they would have to modify how they evaluate applicants accordingly. Empirical studies would need to be done to properly determine which factors best predict this new set of success outcomes, but high school GPA which receives a lot if not the most attention now might no longer be the best predictor. Instead, application components like the personal essay, service record, and extracurricular activities might need more weighting in admissions decisions. The application might need to change, too, to collect more appropriate information about the applicants. Schools and students would face many challenges in redoing this process, but the results could justify the required effort. Society might even benefit from these changes if students are consequently encouraged to engage in their communities and aid more.
Grading in the U.S. is very inflated. In many schools, an A – the top 10% of the 0-100 grading distribution – is what is needed to be considered “good”. However, being in the top 10% should be considered stellar, not adequate. Even the more traditional “good” being set at a B – the top 15% of the grading distribution – seems misguided. And yet a B average is what most American professors set when utilizing a bell curve. A B average is almost an oxymoron, as the average should be at the midpoint of a distribution, so at 50. By artificially creating range restriction in our grading system, our grading system is not accurately depicting the capabilities of our students. The true top 15% achievers are being lumped in with often the top half or more. As a result, error plays a larger role in defining the top of the class. For a concrete example, a silly mistake will knock down a student’s ranking more with only a few percentage points separating the entire top half of the class. Additionally, the true top achievers fail to shine. Not being able to identify true top achievers compromises the purpose of a grading system – enabling organizations and schools to recognize and recruit talent. On the other side, the true bottom 15% (or even the bottom 50%) suffer more because unlike the top half, they do not benefit from being lumped in with the higher performers. In other words, they do stand out clearly from the rest. One could argue that the middling group also suffers from this system because they have less incentive to try harder. Therefore, they miss out on the learning opportunities that accompany putting in maximal motivation and effort.
Making this change will be wildly difficult, though, because it will need to be a sweeping, nationwide change. The change will need to be made across all age levels and across all types of institutions. If it is not made by everyone, then there will be many problems. First, only the students in schools who shift their average to the actual middle (i.e., 50) will suffer as their grades will appear lower than those of students following the current system. Second, recruiters and those needing to evaluate students will have a less accurate gauge on student performance due to using multiple measurement schemes. Third, student will likely be confused if they switch from one grading system to another and will similarly suffer from not having a clear gauge on what “good performance” is. There would need to be a nationwide cultural shift to make this process run smoothly and effectively.