11/08/2010 11:08 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Higher Ed Bragging Rights

By Nicolaus Mills

If anyone doubts the impact that the ratings game is having on higher education, all he needs to do is look at the way colleges are seeking to increase their applicant pool. As Eric Hoover points out in a recent New York Times essay, "Application Inflation," 30,000 to 50,000 applicants have become the new norm for many of the nation's best schools.
Like exclusive restaurants that become more popular by turning down reservations, colleges have become convinced that saying "no" adds to their prestige. Chalk up another victory for U.S. News and World Report's college ratings issue.
But what is even more destructive for students is that once in college, they continue to be treated as applicants. Paralleling Hoover's essay is a Times report on the difficulty students face in getting into popular college courses. This is not to deny that a lower-level course, especially in the sciences, is often needed for a student to do well in a higher-level course. What does not, however, make sense is when students are excluded from a course because they come to it without all the skills of their peers.
In justifying excluding students from her writing course at Princeton, novelist Joyce Carol Oates told the Times, "We don't teach people to write---they are already writers." Ms. Oates's message to students was unmistakable. No amateurs need apply. "These are not composition classes for students to learn to write," she went on to say but "for people who know how to write."
Really? To me, that sounds more like a description of graduate school. To be sure, many students enter college with polished writing styles. But just as many excellent students enter college with great ideas and writing styles that have suffered from four years of mediocre high school teaching. As someone who has taught students who, while undergraduates, have published in papers ranging from the Village Voice to the Los Angeles Times, I have learned that just as important as outward polish is inner desire and a strong work ethic. In this regard I find that interviewing prospective students can often tell me as much about the work they will do as their writing samples.
Of course, if all we want as teachers are students who will shed glory on us, Joyce Carol Oates's has taken the right approach to the standards she uses for admitting students to her class. If, on the other hand, we believe that college students ought to be given a chance to experiment, it's a different story. I am delighted when students leave my class determined to be writers. But I also think I have been a success when students leaves my class convinced they are better off with another calling
Nicolaus Mills, who teaches at Sarah Lawrence College, is author of Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America's Coming of Age as a Superpower.