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Universities are like doctors that only accept well patients or gyms that require fitness for admission. If you need to lose weight, you should pick a gym that helps people lose weight: the real measure of institutional success should be the difference between input and output.

We expect university graduates to be successful, but that is hardly a measure of how much students have learned or how much the university has improved them. High school grades and the SAT may predict success in college, but mostly they demonstrate the previous achievements of applicants. Universities start with the students who have already demonstrated they are good at school, and then take credit when they continue to be successful academically. We are so certain of this, that our ranking systems (like the US News and World Report) rely almost entirely on measuring the competition for entrance.

As Americans, this idealized meritocracy sounds convincing. We believe that success is a result of hard work and is usually deserved. We assume that overweight people are somehow weak or lacking in ordinary will power. But our colleges are overwhelmingly populated with students from upper class suburbia and successful high schools: many private high schools graduate and send 100% of their students to college. If you can afford private school or to move to better school district, you can dramatically increase your child’s chances of entering an elite university. (79% of students born into the top income quartile in the U.S. obtain bachelor’s degrees, while only 11% of students from bottom-quartile families do.) A more academic high school, private tutors and multiple attempts at the SAT, all improve the individual students chance of college admission, but none of them measure potential.

We know from genetics that talent and potential are equally distributed among, races, genders and economic classes, so our system is wasting high amounts of talent. A college degree typically adds about $20,000 a year to an individual’s earning potential, and that benefit might be even larger for disadvantaged students. Unless you assume that Hispanic or Black students are less intelligent or lazy, their underrepresentation in higher education means we are not getting as much talent or potential as we could into our universities. Imagine the gain to the country if we selected students for college based upon those would benefit the most. In other words, it is fine to reward students who have done well in high school, but we also need a university that is willing to take on the challenge of measuring itself not by a single admission or graduation standard, but by the gains made while at the institution.

The success of your graduates, by itself, is not a measure of the efficacy of your institution or how much students have learned from you. Fit people tend to go the gym, so picking a gym full of bulging muscles is useless. You want a gym or a doctor with a track record of improving the health of its patrons. It is the difference between in and out that matters.

This is not a plea for open admission. Some schools should be open admission, but we also need an admission process somewhere that selects for potential. Again, free libraries are good, but they tend to attract people who can already read. Making all gyms free would initially just attract poorer, but still fit people. It would not affect our obesity problem. We also need special programs and a different approach to those who have been failed by public schools.

Ranking all colleges by graduation rates without factoring in the different missions and populations, therefore, is completely misleading. Not everyone can or wants to play in the highest stakes game, some doctors want to be podiatrists, not oncologists. But we need some doctors who will treat sick patients and we need at least a few well-supported universities who want to catapult underachieving students.

It might make business sense for a single insurance company to deny patients with pre-existing conditions, but it is catastrophic for society if they all do. It is fine for some universities to cater to the academically healthy, but we also need higher education hospitals to unleash the creativity, talent and intelligence hidden by underperforming inner-city school systems. The lack of mission and diversity in higher education is a drag on the innovation, growth and health of our society and even a drain on our economy.

The University of Potential would admit students not on how much they knew, but on how much they could learn. It would measure itself by how far students’ progress during the time in the institution. It would not have, nor expect, the same success that Stanford enjoys. It would have lower graduation rates and lower average SAT scores, but it would offer a second change to those willing to take it. It would transform society and improve our economy. It would also be intensely democratic and could help remake America, the land of opportunity, invention and potential once more.

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