A Social Vision for College Ships

The idea of college ships as an incremental pathway to seasteading was explored in a previous post. While the idea of pursuing higher education, formally or informally, at sea, roaming between ports in a built-in study-abroad program, is compelling enough, there are more distinctive visions that a college ship, seastead, other sort of vehicular community, or even a land-based college, may aspire to realize. If a college ship or similar institution embarked upon a bold, counter-cultural course that satisfied some of the unmet longings of (at least some) young people in modern society it would prove a compelling attraction, sustaining the community well into the future and perhaps setting a positive example for others.

College Admissions: a broken System

One of the most obvious ways a college could set out to be distinct is admissions practices. Admissions practices in the United States are curiously and depressingly uniform: less-selective colleges generally admit anyone with a certain high school GPA and SAT or ACT test score, while more-selective colleges admit “holistically”, using a combination of letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities, SAT or ACT test scores, demonstrated interests and accomplishments, and anything else admissions officers deem relevant. Holistic admissions might sound like a good idea, but by its very nature it introduces greater subjectivity, and thus privileges applications and applicants that the sort of people who become admissions officers at elite colleges like, which in practice amounts to social elites and those who have demonstrated willingness to jump through hoops to do social elites’ bidding.

That is not sinister in and of itself; after all, social elites should have the opportunity to pursue education and fellowship among their own kind just like any other group in society. There are two major problems with current admissions practices. First, the very selectivity and subjectivity of admissions creates an environment where one cannot be reasonably assured of admission unless one is among the most outstanding applicants. This is the root cause of the extreme competitiveness that characterizes and menaces the life of upper-middle class people in their teenage years today; much of the work they put into looking good enough to be admitted to a selective college is probably not even necessary, but this is an arms-race-style environment where the first to disarm stands to lose the most.

This first problem works to the detriment of the social elites themselves. The second problem is that this system which privileges social elites at the expense of other kinds of smart people is practiced by almost every highly-selective college in the United States; since not only the best social and economic opportunities but also the best educational programs and faculty are the province of the more-selective colleges, people intellectually able to work on the most challenging problems and study under the best faculty but not able to jump through the hoops of holistic admissions are in all but a few instances denied the opportunities to do so.

In response to these problems, reformers have proposed various solutions. The simplest would be to make the criteria for admission more transparent; while this would probably allay some anxiety, it would do little to decrease the rewards for devoting one’s entire being to looking good to admissions officers. Another reform often proposed would be to admit those with the highest SAT or ACT test scores and disregard any other criteria; while far from perfect, this would expand opportunities beyond the social elites, as less-conformist but very bright people are much more likely to ace a test than have a whole personality and life story that appeals to an admissions officer.

The major disadvantage of the highest-test-score concept is that it merely shifts the competition from holistic appeal to getting the highest scores on tests. While perhaps less invasive than grooming one’s entire life story, devoting one’s teenage years to preparing for a test is far from a complete solution. In particular this process would privilege those who are both smart and most committed to getting the highest test scores; those who are smart enough to get the highest score but are less willing to jump through hoops will once again be disadvantaged, much like under the status quo. More radical concepts tend to fall under adopting less selective or more open admissions, effectively abandoning the whole idea of having a selective college.

Admissions Lotteries as Counterculture

A much better approach, and one that is by now often proposed, would be an “admissions lottery”. In the version I favor, all applicants would take an SAT-like test; if they score above the level indicating they have the knowledge required to benefit from the college’s educational offerings, they are placed into a random drawing, where the winners are admitted. This may be everyone who cleared the bar or a small fraction, depending on the slots to applications ratio, but the key is once you make the grade you have the same chance as everyone else. Thus the incentive to prepare for the test is limited, but still strong enough to exclude non-meritorious applicants.

As far as I know no college in the United States employs this approach, even though it is apparently used by medical schools in the Netherlands. If a college that has world-class educational offerings, such as our college ship or even an existing selective university, adopted such an approach it would instantly make it unique and very attractive to those who are intellectually bright but either have trouble passing holistic review or would rather skip the process. This lottery process may not select those most likely to succeed in mainstream society, but it would demonstrate a commitment to pure intellectual endeavor that, as evidenced by the ubiquity of holistic review over intellectual criteria, seems almost completely absent from the most prestigious and highest-quality universities. Giving bright people who don’t quite fit within the usual box access to the best faculty and abundant resources will greatly aid their success in mainstream society, and if nothing else will lead to intellectual accomplishments; intellectual feats almost inevitably lead to respect by the mainstream, however grudgingly granted.

This would be one excellent way for a college ship or other vehicular community acting as a higher education institution, to gain status and prestige while challenging the mainstream education system and pioneering seasteading and vehicular-community-building techniques. An extreme case of the sort of process I have in mind is the Thiel Fellowship, where Peter Thiel pays a small number of hand-picked young people not to go to college and to instead work on their dreams directly. When first announced in 2010 it caused immense controversy and condemnation in higher education circles but by now the fellowship and the whole concept is if not embraced at least tolerated to a far greater degree than it was at inception. Of course if the same sort of revolutionary types that advocate seasteading were to run this sort of institution, acceptance by mainstream society may actually detract from the goal; nevertheless building acceptance and prestige within a counter-culture relies on the same fundamentals.

Lotteries: not just for Radicals

Lotteries, in addition to being useful for counter-cultural higher education to gain a compelling hook to draw in students, may be used in almost any context. A pure “clear the bar and admit randomly” policy need not be followed. The most obvious exception would be for those applicants who score the highest but lose the lottery; excluding the very smartest or hardest-working applicants certainly seems unfair, and reserving a certain number of seats, for example 10% of the total, to the highest scorers rectifies this situation. While this does introduce more incentive to prepare for the test, you could still simply try to be admitted through the lottery. A certain number of seats could also be reserved for those who are at the top of academic fields other than the admissions test, such as Math Olympiad winners. Seats may also be reserved for those who demonstrate athletic achievement, though I am sympathetic to the argument that athletics and universities are better off separate.

A certain number of seats may even be reserved for those who don’t win the lottery but do look good in the holistic review process, if the college were interested in that sort of thing. Lotteries could be used with the existing holistic review process; a set of criteria demonstrating minimum holistic merit could be employed, and those applicants clearing that subjective bar could then be placed in a lottery, rather than selecting the very best among those applicants. This would serve to disincentivize excessive competitiveness in the same way applying lotteries to test scores would, albeit less effectively due to the subjective criteria.

Affirmative action is also compatible with lotteries, via the simple expedient of putting disadvantaged groups in separate lotteries for a number of seats reserved to each of them. This wouldn’t even require lowering the bar for admission assuming there was a high volume of applicants relative to slots, as the odds of random selection would simply increase for each disadvantaged group. This would be an explicit quota system, but quotas are implicit in any affirmative action or “diversity” program, including the racial balance Ivy League schools seek today. Racial quotas are the most infamous, but (implicit) quotas by class and geography would be easy to arrange, and indeed are practiced by some colleges today. Interestingly, the College Board’s infamous Adversity Score proposal would have similar effects on a hypothetical college that used only SAT scores for admission as affirmative action quotas would have on a test-only lottery school. Another type of quota that is sometimes mentioned is quotas by sex, which while originally intended to advance women would today tend to advantage men, as they have worse school grades (but not worse test scores) and apply to colleges at a much lower rate.

Colleges today tend to be majority female; why this is is a very interesting question, but one effect a sex imbalance has is a drastic diminution of a student’s chances of coupling with a member of the opposite sex. Since meeting people suitable for marriage is one of the primary reasons people go to college, sex quotas may be among the most defensible of all diversity programs. For the college ship concept, it is interesting that while at sea it is isolated, making sex balance more important, but while at port it is very close to potential dates, making sex balance less important.

Nurturing young Love

Of course these dates in the cities the students visit may over time blossom into genuine love and romance, and the ship should be prepared to accommodate that most basic of human desires. Cabins and facilities aboard ideally should encourage the formation of loving bonds between men and women, by building in enough room for each student to live and work with his or her beloved. One of the primary social problems of the college-going population is that any sweetheart gained from before college (usually in high school) will almost certainly be lost later, as it is very unlikely both members of the couple will be going to the same college; marriage before college is one solution to this, but people in Western culture are not apt to marry before they have had a financial start in life. Some may believe disrupting relationships during the college transition is no big deal, but without this disruption many would enjoy at least four more years of being happily married than they do today; robbing young people of this opportunity is a rather large imposition.

A very effective solution, and one that would further distinguish the college ship, is to include what one might call a “sweetheart quota”. If an applicant is in love with someone, the couple may apply together; if both of them clear the bar for admission, both are admitted automatically if either one is a winner of the lottery. This would ensure that relationships from before college are not broken up by the transition, and would facilitate the blossoming of romance into marriage to a much greater degree than existing colleges. The prospect of couples remaining together would be another draw for students.

Of course, if both members of the couple don’t clear the bar, that reintroduces the possibility of disruption; this could be mitigated by allowing the beloved to live with the applicant that is admitted but not enroll as a student. The college may even eliminate the bar for lovers altogether and automatically admit them regardless of scores, though it would compromise the quality of the student body. The presence of lower-level educational offerings aboard may solve this problem, but it would require a more extensive (and expensive) facility.

The couples may live together in the same cabin; if their love blossoms even more, marriage may be encouraged, with weddings being facilitated on the ship or ashore. This may include shotgun marriage as well if a child is on the way, which would very easily happen over the course of a four year program. Accommodations for young growing families should be provided for on board, much like on today’s cruise ships but on a permanent basis. Whether this is as little as enough space in the cabin for a family or as much as a nanny and governess for each child depends on how luxurious and expensive the college ship’s offerings are. New mothers should not be discouraged in any way from breastfeeding and caring for their children, even if it is at the cost of attending classes. A more informal and personalized program based on competence, as opposed to rigid group classes based on attendance, would help substantially, as a more rigid program would be unable to meet the needs of a new mother.

Cosmopolitan Romance

One of the best qualities of a college ship would be the social mixing of many different nationalities over the course of the degree program, as ports around the world would be visited. This represents an ideal opportunity for students without a sweetheart to find love through the process of going on dates with local boys and girls. The ship should have full social facilities such as ballrooms much like modern cruise ships, with a busy social calendar providing opportunities to meet new people at least daily. If a student’s relationship with a local grows into love, the local should be provided with the opportunity to enroll mid-term on the same basis as the original student lovers.

This process has many salutary effects, including the building of affectionate bonds (both friendship and marriage) between peoples and nations across the world. Many people who have a hard time dating in their own country do much better abroad, and there are people who simply like foreigners more; this possibility is built into the whole concept, and may prove another draw to students. Another severely underrated aspect of this process is that students from New World countries may have the chance to maintain or rekindle connections with people in their ancestors’ countries in the Old World; procuring a spouse or even friend from the old country gives one a greater sense of national identity, reconnects with one’s ethnic heritage, helps one to learn a new language, and builds cross-border solidarity all at the same time. Indeed, appealing to connecting with co-ethnics and one’s own national heritage across countries is such low-hanging fruit to get the masses personally invested in open borders and global solidarity it’s amazing it’s employed as seldomly as it actually is.

Early Admission: the ultimate Draw to a College Ship?

With regard to avoiding the breakup of romantic relationships before college, since the vast majority of such relationships occur in the high school age bracket (age fourteen to eighteen), there is a very simple solution: admit students to college starting at the age of fourteen instead of eighteen. This might seem crazy to most, but there is actually an entire college, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, that exclusively admits students in this age bracket, apparently with great success. Many other colleges admit students under the age of eighteen on a much more selective basis. There is also the Early College High School initiative in the United States, by now somewhat widespread, that enables students to attain an associate’s degree (the first two years of an undergraduate program) while in high school.

It has been contended that most fourteen-year-olds could handle a college program, or at least as well as most eighteen-year-olds can. There have actually been studies conducted where the top third or so of students that graduated eighth grade were sent directly to college; compared to their peers that went through high school on the way to college they actually performed better rather than worse. This is also supported by the fact that many colleges, including none other than Harvard, had student bodies with average ages in the mid-teens as late as the nineteenth century, apparently pursuing college educations without great difficulty. With a short amount of preparation in the preteen years it would seem there is no problem with sending most students to college at fourteen. Even without any preparation a large minority of students are performing well above grade level right now, the vast majority of whom fail to be accelerated to a level where they will be actually challenged.

Another positive effect of early admission is early graduation, which also means early entry into the workforce. The economic purgatory the modern world traps young adults in, which up to our time is only getting worse as a social problem, would be substantially rolled back; teenagers and twenty-somethings would once again be breadwinners. This also provides four extra years of saving and investment that wouldn’t have otherwise existed, thus enabling people to retire earlier or richer than they would otherwise; indeed, over the long term lowering the age of workforce entry by four years is equivalent to raising the age of retirement by four years, easily enough to bring many pension funds back into balance. Since those in their teens and twenties seem much more able and willing to work than those in their sixties and seventies, it would be a superior solution to the retirement crises plaguing the world, and it is very puzzling that no one ever seems to bring it up.

Conclusion

Encouraging early admission like is done at Simon’s Rock would be a distinctive and nearly unique feature for any startup higher education institution, including a college ship. Together with the other innovations such as test-only lottery admissions, the sweetheart quota, and the ship itself, it would present a singular and counter-cultural profile attracting students from all over the world and serve as the spearhead of a movement toward a different vision of the future.

Fourteen-year-olds taking a test, putting themselves into a lottery, and then traveling overseas on a ship to pursue a higher education, romantic love, marriage, and the bearing of children runs directly counter to many of the most insidious social trends of our time, which seek to strip the youngest adults of all these aspirations and dreams they have harbored and successfully realized from the very dawn of mankind. Such a full-throated assault upon the bureaucratic institutions and mentalities that have diminished the souls of not only our youth but of our whole civilization would surely have a very positive effect upon world culture. The sooner these proposals are adopted by any higher education movement and coalesce into a mass movement the better.

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