Are universities too obsessed with smartness?

Alexander W Astin has something to say – a lot to say, really – about smartness. He knows some people won’t want to hear it, especially if they happen to teach college students for a living.

[This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.]

Astin, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles, believes that too many faculty members "have come to value merely being smart more than developing smartness". That line comes from his new book, Are You Smart Enough? How colleges’ obsession with smartness shortchanges students.

In the short yet provocative text, Astin peers into the faculty lounge as well as the admissions office. There he finds more concern with "acquiring" smart students, as defined by conventional metrics, than with helping students improve after they enrol.

"When the entire system of higher education gives favoured status to the smartest students, even average students are denied equal opportunities," he writes. "If colleges were instead to be judged on what they added to each student’s talents and capacities, then applicants at every level of academic preparation might be equally valued."

Astin, founding director of UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, has written extensively about these issues before. In an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, he discussed his new book. Following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Q. What’s your sense of the prevailing definition of smartness at selective colleges, and what’s so wrong with it?

A. Because of the culture they find themselves immersed in, faculty members tend to be preoccupied with smartness. It’s largely unconscious, I think. We’re often trying to show off our smartness to each other, or avoid being judged as not smart enough. The problem is the consequence of that emphasis.

We concentrate far too much on our smartest students. Smartest in the traditional sense, kids who get the highest grades and test scores. We put tremendous emphasis on these students to the detriment of everybody else – the average student, the underprepared student.

We have created an institutional structure that reflects this bias. Teaching an average student doesn’t get any value in academia. And a side effect of all this is we define smartness in a very narrow sense.

Q. In the book you describe a belief system, or 'folklore', that underpins our understanding of which colleges are best, which students are smartest. How did this evolve?

A. I use the term 'folklore' because it’s something that’s passed along by word of mouth, from generation to generation, from person to person, and it isn’t necessarily true or valid. It’s the belief that, wow, Harvard, Yale, Prince­ton, and so forth – these are the best colleges. Their names conjure up quality. There are certain qualities you can ascribe to these elite institutions, like their huge endowments, their selective admissions processes. And our belief system is that they’re the best because the smartest kids choose them.

Q. And we think of those students as 'the smartest' because of measures that you just described as narrow. You have some gripes about standardised tests.

A. I’m a psychologist, trained in statistics. The people who make these tests are like me, kind of mesmerised by the normal curve and the elegance of the stats that underlie the normal curve. We unthinkingly come up with scores that inevitably rank students. But there’s not much information in an ACT or SAT score. Students don’t repeat those tests in college. This adds up to a practice that prevents our system from realising its potential to benefit society.

Q. Specifically, you believe this notion of smartness relates to questions about equity, such as how to provide more opportunities to underrepresented-minority groups and those from low-income backgrounds.

A. These very narrow measures of standardised tests and grades, when they’re used competitively to sort and select rather than to educate well our students, they put large segments of society at a tremendous competitive disadvantage.

Q. To be fair, admissions officers would say they take these disadvantages into account on a case-by-case basis. Even though they also rely on quantitative assessments to preserve the efficiency of an admissions process deluged with tons of applicants.

A. The fact is, virtually every private college pre-screens applicants based on their test scores. So they might talk about how they value creativity and all these things.

Q. "Your application will be reviewed holistically only after you’ve passed through this quantitative hoop…"

A. You got it. We’re wedded to this test-score mentality. We think we have to have a number we can refer to when picking people. There’s a cost associated with that. The people who get screwed over are the ones who don’t have high-enough numbers, which is why I think the admissions process should be more qualitative than it is now.

I recall a medical school applicant [at UCLA] who had awful test scores, but the student had created a charitable organisation and run it for years in a big city. That takes originality, entrepreneurship and leadership.

Q. What about your own experience as an educator? Did your views of your obligations to help less-prepared students evolve over time?

A. My experience with underprepared students has been primarily with the doctoral students I teach. We’ve admitted a lot of underprepared doctoral students, consciously. The challenge of helping those students get up to snuff was incredible. That experience has helped shape some of my viewpoints about this. There were a couple of students we didn’t succeed with. The majority of them did succeed.

Q. In the book you describe research on different aspects of smartness, various facets of intelligence. What have you seen that tells you students can be ‘smart’ in very different ways?

A. In the domains of creativity, especially artistic creativity, there’s very little overlap with traditional smartness. Leadership is another fascinating area. So many college mission statements talk about leadership, and it has very little relationship to SAT smartness. Then there’s what we might call character – honesty, trustworthiness, authenticity.

Q. What would you say to faculty members who really do care about those qualities, or who might share some of the concerns about the academic culture that you’ve raised in your book?

A. The first challenge is to become more conscious of the culture, of how the focus on smartness has kind of overwhelmed us in some ways. They might say, "Astin is full of it", and, you know, that’s a good start, because there will be people who will agree with some of what I’m saying.

Q. OK, so I have this daydream that one day a big-name university shocks the world by announcing that it plans to fill half of its first-year class with students who have mediocre grades and test scores, but who show promise in some other way. In a kind of grand social experiment, this super-prestigious university would essentially set out to prove that its faculty really is as great as it’s cracked up to be, so great that it can take less-than-spectacular students and make them better. Does that strike you as cuckoo?

A. It’s a grand idea. If you’re going to experiment like this, it would be a lot easier for an elite institution to do it. Today, the fact is, most of the wonderful outcomes at elite institutions are a result of the inputs.

Eric Hoover writes about admissions trends, enrolment-management challenges, and the meaning of Animal House, among other issues. He’s on Twitter @erichoov, and his email address is eric.hoover@chronicle.com.