According to today's Washington Post, universities are now looking for kids with 'a passion,' in other words eschewing the traditional 'well-rounded' education for a kid who has excelled in a particular field of study.
Of course it will be too late for kids who are seniors this year to suddenly shift gears and go in a radically different direction, but in fact I see it as a symptom of a far greater problem.
Colleges have become far too exclusionary. Note I did not say 'exclusive,' (though they are often that as well) but 'exclusionary.'
And I'm not just talking about Ivy league schools, or those which have traditionally been very exclusive. Even state universities are becoming very picky about which students they will take. And certainly ability to pay is a factor here as well-- recall the post I wrote last year about Paige Laurie, the Wal-Mart heiress who hired a student who had to leave the University of Southern California because she couldn't afford to stay, to write all her papers for her.
When combined with skyrocketing tuition costs and the cuts in financial aid made by the Bush administration, for a child (and a high school student is a child) to be able to get into most colleges, (s)he must excel academically, be able to afford it (this already excludes millions of kids) and now must in effect be already an adult. Already have decided what (s)he wants to do with life and then do it, and already be good at it before applying to college.
And that is unrealistic. When I was seventeen, I was sure I wanted to be a chemist. A lot of struggling and at least one major lab explosion later, I had changed my major (though I did in fact double-major and finish earning a degree in chemistry, mostly as a career back-up). However, even that is unusual-- most seventeen year olds aren't sure yet what they want to be. What this achieves is in effect either guaranteeing many students a lifetime of misery if they stick with their course of study in spite of the likelihood that their early decision will be the wrong one, or more likely that they will simply fail because they in the end don't have an interest in or aptitude for what they are supposed to be studying.
The root of the problem is actually quite simple. With an increasing population, combined with less and less state funding for higher education, there are simply less places for students.
Now, it is true that the students in question can take the first two years of their study at a community college. But then they may very well reach the end of the line--there is no guarantee of admission to a university even then (though Arizona is much ahead of the rest of the country due to the AGEC), and even if they do get in, scholarships and financial assistance for people not entering as freshmen may be very limited.
Further there are severe societal consequences that have resulted. The shortage of doctors (especially in rural communities and inner cities) is directly related to the limiting number of spaces in medical schools. Many high tech companies and other companies have justified moving their operations overseas, especially to countries like India because of a shortage of Americans who have the qualifications. Now, this may be only an excuse for something they are doing for economic reasons, but it is also true that this shortage does exist and certainly is a contributing factor (and of course when they move their operations, other employees of the company also lose their jobs.) As another measure, every year America produces about 100,000 new engineers. China produces eight times as many-- partly because they are opening new universities at about the rate of a 50,000 student university every two weeks.
We should not only fund universities fully, but we should greatly increase both student aid and the number of places for students. Community colleges can be a part of this, but we should do a better job then of helping community college students who want to go to a four year university get there.