What with the AP courses and extracurricular activities and personal essays and tenths-of-point differences in grade point averages that feel like the distance between life and death, American high school students vying for entrance into elite colleges and universities probably think life is pretty tough. But as is increasingly the case in all walks of life, China is raising the stakes to a whole new level:
Despite what their PE teachers might have told them, for many of those who competed in a Chinese marathon earlier this month, it was not the taking part but the winning that counted. Almost a third of the runners who finished in the top 100 have since been disqualified for cheating in the race in the southern port city of Xiamen. Some of them hired imposters to compete in their place. Some competitors jumped into vehicles part way through the route, Chinese media reported, while others gave their time-recording microchips to faster runners. Numbers 8,892 and 8,897 both recorded good times – but only thanks to number 8,900, who carried their sensors across the finish line.
…There was more than just prestige at stake in the marathon. Competitors stood to gain a crucial advantage in China’s highly competitive university entrance exams. Those who finished in under two hours and 34 minutes could add extra points to their score in the gaokao, helping to explain why several of those disqualified came from a middle school in Shandong province. The exams are so crucial to the future of Chinese children that both students and their families will go to extraordinary lengths to guarantee success. Last year, eight parents and teachers were jailed on state secret charges after using communication devices – including scanners and wireless earpieces – to help pupils cheat.
Two hours and 34 minutes is really fast. The minimum qualifying time for women to run in the 2012 U.S. Olympic marathon trials is 2:46. Running a 2:34 marathon means averaging less than six minutes a mile over the course of 26 plus miles. Most of the people who apply to Ivy League colleges couldn’t run a six-minute mile once.
And while it’s easy enough to laugh at the ridiculousness of “hired imposters” and “jailed on state secret charges” and so forth, this is actually symptomatic of very serious underlying conflicts in higher education policy, both here and abroad.
Countries around the world are racing to compete in higher education. (Ben Wildasvky has written what promises to be an interesting book on this subject that will be published in a few months.) And they all want to compete in the same way: by building world-class research universities. Indeed, the Shanghai Jiao Tong University rankings of world universities, which are dominated by American institutions, were specifically created as a way to benchmark Chinese universities against the world’s best. World-class research universities only admit the best students. So if you’re China and you want to go from having zero top-ranked universities (Nanjing University, China’s highest-ranked, doesn’t crack the Top 200), to, say, five top-ranked universities, one of the obvious things to do is create a ruthless tournament-style admissions process that sifts through millions of students to find the cream of the crop. (That and bribe some Nobel prize winners to set up shop in Shanghai.)
But at the same time that national governments see world-class research universities as key elements of prestige competition, something else is going on: globalization, economic development and the information age are rapidly expanding the population of people worldwide who want and need a college education. Running them all through a ruthless tournament-style competition and branding the losers as failures is a lousy way to meet that need. It also implicitly and substantially underestimates the level of public resources required. In an otherwise very good article in the Atlantic, James Fallows cited the fact that American has 17 of the top 20 universities in the Shanghai Jaio Tong rankings as hopeful evidence that America is not poised for decline. But it’s really the quality of universities 500 through 1,500 that are going to make the difference in the 21st century. It’s easy (and cheap) enough to allow a handful of relatively small, extremely famous, and fabulously wealthy private universities to get richer and more famous still. Building a high-quality college and university system for the large majority of high school graduates is a lot tougher and more expensive—but that’s what the nation needs.
And while we haven’t yet reached the point of 2:34 marathons and clandestine spy equipment in this country, that’s arguably where we’re going. They’re not building any more Ivy League colleges and the existing ones feel little or no obligation to enroll more students. Harvard’s admission rate is down to 7 percent and dropping every year. Where does it end? And what happens to institutions that are unable or unwilling to meet the crushing weight of the world’s growing needs and expectations?