• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Spontaneous Sociology

Merit and fairness in admissions.


January 19, 2018

The Boy’s girlfriend is a senior in high school, so she’s in the thick of college applications. She got some disappointing news from one school she really liked, and TB was upset on her behalf. He started muttering about “merit” and admissions, and the unfairness of it all.

I could see where this was going. It was time to intervene.

TB: It sucks that things count that shouldn’t count. They should just let you in if you deserve it.

Me: Well, it’s not entirely about deserving or not deserving. t’s kind of like casting a movie.

TB: What do you mean?

Me: If you’re casting a superhero movie, the second-best choice to be the hero probably isn’t the best choice to be the sidekick. You need one of each. The second-best choice to be the hero might be a better actor than the one who gets to be the sidekick, but that doesn’t really matter. If they’re casting for a sidekick, they’re looking for a sidekick type.

TB: I could see that for a movie. But colleges should be fair.

Me: Define “fair.”

TB: You know, rank the candidates by their qualifications and go down the list until it’s full.

Me: That doesn’t really work, though.

TB: Why not?

Me: I’ll give you an example. You’re in the IB program, which counts in your favor, right?

TB: Yeah.

Me: And that’s great. But only 16 high schools in New Jersey offer the IB.  If we lived in, say, Middletown instead of Freehold, you couldn’t have taken IB.  Would that make you less deserving?

TB: Hmm.

Me: Not everyone has the same opportunities, so they’re hard to compare.  

TB: But I can’t control that!

Me: That’s true. You have to remember it’s not all about you. Qualifications matter, but they aren’t everything.  

TB: They should be.

Me: Each college is trying to build a class. This year, one might have too few theater majors and too many business majors, and another might be the other way around, so your chances would vary based on that. You could never hope to control that.

TB: So what do I do?

Me: Apply to enough places that the random stuff cancels itself out. And don’t get too upset about other people. You’ve got a lot of advantages, and a lot of ways to build a great life.  f one school or another doesn’t see how you fit into its plans, who cares?  Go to another one and knock it out of the park.

TB: Yeah, I guess…

I don’t know how much of it sunk in, but I felt okay about it for a spur-of-the-moment conversation at the kitchen table. Spontaneous Sociology is part of parenting now.

Both TB and his girlfriend will be fine. They just don’t know it yet.


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