LES ETUDIANTS. Over at Open University, David Bell makes an argument about Harvard's decision to drop early admissions:
Two cheers for Harvard for getting rid of early admissions.... Yet if Harvard really wants to do something to make admissions fairer, it should consider doing away with the most inane and manipulable part of the present process: the application essay.
Bell goes on to explain how the emphasis on "character" demonstration through the personal essay and extracurricular resume is ineffectual at actually gauging character and presents an opportunity for the wealthy to give their children an unfair advantage in admissions. But here's the catch; as Bell acknowledges, all systems, even the most ostensibly meritocratic, like France's, where elite college admissions are determined entirely on knowledge-based test scores, will be gamed by people with the most resources. But, as Bell points out, at least a system like France's would mean our ambitious students would spend their time studying actual subjects on which they'll be tested rather than amassing an irrelevant checklist of athletic activities and studying for tests like the SATs.
This is all valid, but it's worth considering the difference between the college experience in France and that in the United States. In France most top universities are large schools in large cities. Students live off-campus, and many live with their parents. Student social-life does not revolve around campus to anywhere near the same extent that it does in most American universities. So schools in America are not merely looking for the best-educated student body. They also want students who will contribute to a lively environment outside of the classroom. Looking at extracurriculars, and using other soft measures of personality, make a certain amount of sense for schools with those considerations. Now, I think a lot of schools place far too much emphasis on athletics, at the expense of academic quality and other considerations. But the proper balance may lie somewhere between our current system and the French one.
Also, there is the question of what is best for the students. There is plenty of evidence that Bell is right to advocate for a more rigorous education for high school students. But many of the activities that college admissions officers currently prize have their own rewards, and, in some cases, like community service, they contribute to society as a whole. Having a reward structure in place that encourages high school students to put some of their time outside the classroom into productive non-academic endeavors, be they artistic, athletic, or volunteer, has intrinsic value. Again, I think Bell is right to encourage some shift in the other direction, but I'd say Europe's system is not entirely superior to ours when it comes to higher education.