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Is college losing the happy medium?

 The main quadrangle at Stanford University, an institution that Slate has dubbed “the Harvard of the 21st century.”

The main quadrangle at Stanford University, an institution that Slate has dubbed “the Harvard of the 21st century.”

At first, it appeared as if Frank Bruni was pulling our collective leg. And, it turns out, he was.

The New York Times columnist, a critique of the college admissions process, has contributed an offbeat, satirical piece sending up Stanford University’s snooty admissions standards – about only five percent of applicants get in – as well as those schools that might dumb down to meet students “where they live.” 

I had to laugh, because in both my debut novel “Water Music” and my forthcoming book “The Penalty for Holding” – part of my series “The Games Men Play” – two of the main characters attended Stanford. I thought it was a bit of a stretch at first since they’re athletes. But I figured it’s a school with a strong athletic as well as academic program and I needed my characters to be intellectual enough to express what are, after all, my observations on culture and yet still be believable as contemporary young American men.

So while it may be hard for students to get into Stanford, for my characters, not so much. Literature is so much easier than life.

But Bruni’s satire has a larger point: There should be a happy medium in admissions standards. By proudly admitted only a fraction of its applicants, a school might be ensuring its exclusivity at the expense of some wonderful students. That school might be denying itself a future Supreme Court Justice alum – and a big donor. Clearly, that’s a chance snobs are willing to take.

But by the same token, there’s no point in bending over backward to “meet students where they live,” because in the real world, few employers are going to do that. Students need to learn discipline, to find what they like in what they don’t.

They need to learn the rules – so they can one day transcend them.