Open Admissions at Parkside

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Mr. Reeves taught history at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside for over thirty years and is the author of A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy.

Open admissions, the policy of permitting students to enroll in a college or university without regard to academic qualifications, grew largely out of the turmoil of the period 1965-75 that coincided with America's intense involvement in the Vietnam War. This era featured a sharp turn to the left by elites, especially among the intellectuals and in the media, who decried special privilege and employed such emotionally satisfying but vaguely defined slogans as "Power to the People."

In the name of democracy, and as a part of the civil rights revolution, activists demanded, threatened, and employed violence to open the doors of many of the nation's leading institutions of higher education. A college degree, it had long been known, was the major pathway to upward economic and social mobility, and anyone who wanted one, said the activists, should have access to the institution of his or her choice. If applicants lacked adequate pre-college academic preparation, then it was up to the professors to make the necessary adjustments and see that student life was happy and successful.

Open admissions advocates assumed, as is common on the left, that people are largely, if not wholly, products of their environment, and that the human mind, freed from an assortment of oppressions, can assimilate anything. A psychology professor on my campus told me, with much earnestness, that everyone was capable of obtaining a Ph.D. in any subject. Poor teaching, inadequate school funding, racism, and an assortment of other reasons were given to account for the failing student. Failure was never thought by activists to be the student's fault; the flunkee was a victim, in this as in all other areas of life in an allegedly cruel, greedy, and insensitive America.

While the echoes of the Vietnam War years are still powerful in this new century, several of the assumptions of what has been called the Dreadful Decade have undergone considerable reevaluation, including open admissions. The City College of New York drew much attention as a model of the perils of the policy. Often called the Harvard of the Proletariat, CCNY opened its doors wide in 1970. It altered the policy somewhat in 1976 and at the end of the century, as the City University of New York, it reversed the course entirely, sharply increasing admission standards and telling unqualified aspirants to go to community colleges to gain adequate preparation. Studies showed that under open admissions the system had suffered massive attrition rates, lowered academic expectations, and a drop in faculty morale. Only 8 percent of CUNY students in the senior colleges were graduating after four years; in six years the figure rose to 32 percent. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani had labeled the senior CUNY colleges "really sad."

In 1996, the State of Kansas ended an open admissions policy for its six Regent institutions. The University of Kansas was losing 25 percent of its freshmen; Wichita State University was losing 39 percent. Lawmakers thought open admissions costly and wasteful. In an informal survey of 50 faculty, 46 said they favored a move toward admission standards. Linda Davis, a biology instructor at Kansas State, said that open admissions "gives students a false sense of hope. We can't assume that anyone can start college."

Race played a role in the story of open admissions from the beginning. In the mid-1960s, some top-ranked campuses began to give preferential treatment to blacks in the admission process, arguing for the necessity, both moral and educational, of racial diversity. Cases of reverse discrimination, the admission of lesser qualified blacks at the expense of better prepared whites, prompted much controversy and legal action. In 1996, California voters passed Proposition 209, which banned the use of race in university admissions. California and Texas linked college admissions to high-school rank in order to keep the selection process free of racial bias.

This approach failed to please many African-American leaders, who continued to seek racial preferences. Some white critics pointed to a bias against those who attended demanding high schools and found it harder to achieve a high class standing than those in weaker schools.

For most of the 4,064 degree-granting institutions of higher education in America the issue of affirmative action, while of course relevant ("diversity" is in the very air educators breathe, and federal officials are always on the alert for the slightest whiff of racism), is not a top agenda item. This is because only a handful of the nation's campuses, perhaps no more than 150, have admission standards that are highly competitive. Most colleges and universities, state and private, have open admissions or near open admissions and work actively to recruit people of all colors and races in order to keep their campuses in business.

One of the distinctions between top-ranked institutions and others is the percentage of applicants admitted. The 2001 U.S. News and World Report evaluation of colleges and universities reveals high numbers across the board. Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin, for example, a highly-ranked Lutheran institution, admits 91 percent of its applicants. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which grants doctorates in several fields, admits 82 percent. Surprisingly, schools within the so-called "Top 50" also reveal considerable generosity: number 22 Vanderbilt admits 66 percent; 35th ranked University of Wisconsin-Madison admits 74 percent; number 45 University of Washington accepts 77 percent, and equally ranked Tulane admits 78 percent of all applicants. As the rankings drop into what U.S. News and World Report calls the second, third, and fourth tiers, the reality of open admissions, or something close to it, looms large.

This article was first published by Academic Questions (Spring 2001), vol. 14, 65-71. Reprinted by permission of Transaction Publishers. © 2001 Transaction Publishers.

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Patrick McGuire - 10/10/2002

As a fellow Roman Catholic, I say to thomas Reeves, "Let it go. Let it go."