Get Smart!

Early in his new book, Are You Smart Enough? How Colleges’ Obsession with Smartness Shortchanges Students, UCLA emeritus professor of Higher Education and Organizational Change Alexander Astin describes a parlor game he’s played with many people over the years: Ask them to write down the ten best colleges and universities in the country, then compare their answers. Inevitably, he writes, participants will name the same set of ten institutions, with minor variations.

The answers to these questions result from what Astin terms a folklore about colleges that ultimately leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy: The usual suspects come out on top, thereby attracting more and more students because they’re on top. The more selective they become, the more selective they can be, until they reach absurdly low (as in under 5%) acceptance rates and almost superhuman test scores and GPAs among their entering classes, reinforcing the public as well as institutional image that they’re the “best” colleges and universities in the country.

Astin eviscerates this notion with the delicacy of a surgeon, demonstrating that colleges and the public have come to rely on “inputs” (the GPAs and test scores) of admitted students as measures of an institution’s quality instead of “outputs,” which would include some measure of what students have learned while they’re in college. The basic question is, What does going to college, particularly a high status institution, add to a student’s “smartness”?

If you look at our higher education system from an educational perspective, this preoccupation with enrolling smart students makes little sense, because the emphasis seems to be more on acquiring smart students than on educating them well. As a consequence, institutions and the public define the excellence of a college or university in terms of who enrolls, rather than how well they are educated after they enroll. In the health care field, this would be the equivalent of judging a clinic or hospital on the basis of the condition of the patients it admits rather than the effectiveness of the care and treatment patients receive once they are admitted.

This perspective throws a bright light on college admission, rankings, the pressures high school students feel, and even how professors treat their students once they’re on campus. The emphasis on collecting “smart” students over educating students well harms everyone.

iu-3As an admission officer at Amherst College in the 90s, I recall being amazed at some of our applicants’ achievements and “smartness.” Their grades and scores, not to mention their other activities, sometimes seemed those of experienced adults, not high schoolers. We welcomed them enthusiastically; however, I also remember thinking that the Amherst faculty seemed to want graduate students, not undergraduates. Students I came to call “merely wonderful” were routinely overshadowed by so-called superstars.

During committee meetings, it was often difficult for me, an Amherst alumnus, not to think of my own admission statistics, which were nowhere near these students’. I came to believe that Amherst’s admission dean at the time saw that I was educable and wanted to be educated. He believed Amherst could provide the right environment for me because the College’s mission was to educate its students. I had plenty of classmates I thought were brilliant, but on the whole I think we were all learning, not simply polishing what we already had. (Not coincidentally, this was well before college rankings appeared.)

It’s not only this lack of information about outputs that troubles Astin. As students are sorted by the college admission system (B. Alden Thresher’s term is “the great sorting”) a clear line between the “smart” and the “not as smart” appears. The “smart” get accepted to the highest status institutions, while the rest are apportioned to schools of lesser status and, finally, to community colleges.

Here, Astin’s argument deepens and becomes concerned with educational equity, which he connects to “performance standards.” College presidents, faculty members, and trustees often argue that admitting a wider range of students would lower the institution’s academic standards. But Astin maintains that this argument is false. If the institution’s mission is to educate, it should be able to do so without stacking the deck at the beginning with students already “smart.” To return to the health care analogy, it’s easy to care for healthy people, more challenging to care for those who really need it.

“Equity” in this case means providing the appropriate level of teaching and resources for students who can use them well, not just for those with the numbers. Astin finds it ironic that students who need resources the most are usually those consigned to the least well-resourced institutions. From that perspective, high status colleges seem to be playing defense more than charging fully into the challenge of education. By selecting only the “smartest” students, colleges and their faculties have an easy time of it, relatively speaking, while benefiting from unearned status.

Astin is more concerned with the broader implications of colleges’ collecting “smart” students:

When we look at this discussion in light of the larger needs of the society, however, we confront a stark reality: The number of well-prepared smart students who attend college is limited; most of the students who end up in college are closer to average or even below average.

When high status colleges compete for students in terms of numbers, they’re actually creating a kind of gated community that severely limits access to the resources they provide. Doing so also preserves their own place in the folkloric hierarchy at the expense of focusing on educating a broad range of educable students. A significant corollary to Astin’s argument then appears: Underserved students with lower numbers accepted to these institutions become “exceptions” instead of genuine members of the community. “The presence of such students on campus is seen as threatening an institution’s ‘excellence,’ and elite institutions can avoid that threat altogether through selective admissions.”



In the chapter “Is There Any Way Out?” Astin suggests several approaches to broaden access to educational resources and encourage more students to consider higher education generally. One of those is to “Cease using norm-referenced tests [like the SAT and ACT], and encourage teachers and administrators in the lower schools to do the same.” Norm-referenced tests only tell students where they stand in relation to other students; using raw scores instead would help students check themselves against established performance standards instead of against their peers. Doing so would help them find specific ways to achieve those standards instead of simply worrying about how they stand relative to others.

He also suggests using narrative evaluations instead of grades in college. Like norm-referenced tests, grades merely indicate how a student stands in relation to other students, not how much he or she has improved over time.

Finally and most important, however, Astin asks that institutions see themselves as part of a system instead of as individual actors. This is probably the greatest challenge he poses to those colleges and universities who see their status as somehow inherent or inevitable. It also pertains directly to the increasing pressures high school students feel regarding college admission:

When institutions try to enhance their individual ‘excellence’ by pursuing selective admissions all at the same time, smart students become a highly prized commodity. Because there are only so many smart students to go around, however, about all these recruitment efforts can do is to redistribute this finite pool of smart students. A more subtle consequence of these simultaneous recruitment efforts is the creation of a system where the education of average or underprepared students is devalued.

As a college counselor, I am particularly sensitive to this situation. It touches directly on high school students’ problems  as they negotiate their way through school and the college admission process. The folkloric college and university hierarchy is imposed on them as they consider their educational options and confront the impossible selectivity coveted by so many institutions. Students become commodities, with their self-worth tied to where they apply and are accepted. (Parents are often chagrined if I don’t include a high status college on their child’s college list. They think that means their child is somehow not worthy.)

Are You Smart Enough? is an even-handed book disguising a polemical spirit. Astin strikes at the pride of most high status institutions by challenging their obsession with the “smartness” of their entering classes. His proposal for a way out of this condition is heartening, however. By embracing a systems perspective toward education, not to mention their responsibility to society at large, colleges and universities could bestow the benefits of education on a wide range of students instead of simply collecting a small proportion of them.

One could argue that these high status institutions have opened their doors wider to underserved and underprepared students in recent years. Many schools have in fact begun expanding their concepts of smartness in the admission process to include non-cognitive or “affective” elements, but institutional profiles still proudly list the statistics of the incoming, not the outgoing classes. This methodology particularly affects underserved students, since numbers often prevent them from being accepted at well-resourced schools even though they may be very bright and able to benefit most from them.

In asking colleges and universities to look beyond “smartness,” Astin pleads for them to consider more broadly society beyond their gates. He reminds us that

When we look at American education as a whole, continuing to focus so much attention on merely being smart and on identifying the smartest students is a losing proposition. Such a focus not only leaves the average and below-average students out in the cold, but also distracts our educational institutions from concentrating on their principal mission: to develop students’ smartness. By continuing to define smartness with such narrowly conceived measures as the SAT or ACT, we ignore the great diversity of human talents…that are so necessary to an effectively functioning society and world. Finally, by continuing to rely on normative measures simply because the simplify the task of identifying the smartest students, we artificially ration the amount of excellence that is possible in our educational system and continue to send negative and discouraging messages to most of the students who take these tests.

Of the many books about testing, college admission, and higher education that have come out in the last few years, Are You Smart Enough? is one of the most bracing and challenging. The questions it raises and the possible approaches it suggests deserve to be taken up and acted on by all those concerned with the education and well-being of students in our society.