A Life-Raft Year for Higher Education

By Mark Clayton writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, December 26, 2001 | Go to article overview
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A Life-Raft Year for Higher Education

Mark Clayton writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor

For college-bound senior Allison Clifford and her parents, John and Barbara, their fast-paced college search slowed dramatically after Sept. 11 to a careful pondering of whether to attend far away or close to home. If it's up to her father, it may be someplace nearby.

For Elisabeth Colabraro, a junior theater major at Emerson College in Boston, marching for peace suddenly replaced all other issues as the centerpiece of her fledgling activism.

And for Andrew Bergstein, an instructor in marketing at Penn State's Smeal School of Business, it has been a time of putting aside business instruction at various points in his regular classes to discuss US relations with Afghanistan - or whatever is on students' minds. "It's important to be sensitive to students' needs right now," he says.

Like the rest of America, higher education was shaken to its roots in September. Even so, the terrorist attacks slammed into a year that was already quite full of important developments and intriguing footnotes.

In many ways, 2001 now seems a sort of life-raft year for higher education. Torn steel and tears lash together a flotsam of events and issues - from affirmative action to skyrocketing tuition, from an Ivy League changing of the guard to a college historian's fibbing and the SATs slipping.

Revenge of the nerds?

The year began with yet another in a long line of breast-beating commissions denouncing the misplaced priorities of college sports and the scandalous failure to graduate more "student athletes."

Graduation rates are about 42 percent for Division I men's basketball and 48 percent for football. Among a spate of books on the subject this year and last, one pointed out that even small elite colleges are caught in the trap: giving athletes a leg up in admissions at the expense of maintaining academic quality.

But a few schools are adopting a New Year's resolution to do something about it.

Earlier this month, a core group of elite liberal arts colleges in the New England Small College Athletic Conference - Williams, Amherst, Bowdoin, and Middlebury among them - decided that grade- point averages really should beat touchdowns scored when weighing students for admission. About half the conference members agreed to cut by about 10 percent the number of "recruited" athletes admitted each year.

"There was a strong consensus around the table that we want to be true to our ideals," Tom Gerety, Amherst's president, told the Chronicle of Higher Education. "In order to uphold our ideals, we need to do good institutional research and share it with each other."

Will it make a dent in the $4 billion college-sports machine? Not much, perhaps. But it is a start, he and others say.

Affirmative action

Sports wasn't the only area where higher education's values were on display this year. The contentious debate over affirmative- action policies in admissions heated up as a long series of court battles began to culminate.

The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati heard arguments this month in two lawsuits. Plaintiffs' attorneys argued that the University of Michigan and its law school illegally discriminated against two white women - selecting for admission less- well-qualified minorities instead. The university argued that the government has a legal "compelling interest" in maintaining diversity on campus - requiring such admissions preferences.

These cases will likely be the first tests for affirmative action in higher education to reach the US Supreme Court - probably next year - since the 1978 case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. After a decade of split decisions by federal courts, these cases could heavily influence minorities' access to selective schools.

Bricks vs. clicks

While lawyers knocked heads over affirmative action, deep- pocketed schools were themselves banging into the blunt reality of supply-and-demand economics.

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