Popular Science Monthly/Volume 83/September 1913/The Matter of College Entrance Requirements

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1580065Popular Science Monthly Volume 83 September 1913 — The Matter of College Entrance Requirements1913Frank LeRond McVey


By President FRANK L. McVEY


IN the past several years a marked change has taken place in the attitude of colleges and universities toward the matter of entrance requirements. An examination of catalogues, articles and discussions, shows clearly the swinging of opinion from the former college view to the high school way of regarding the question. It is, moreover, now generally conceded that the relationship existing between the college and the secondary school is a part of the whole system of education and not a specific relation between two of the factors of that system. The growth in the high-school attendance and the emphasis upon the importance of it as a factor have been brought about by a clearer recognition of the high school in its relation to public education.

Perhaps the most fundamental point in all of this discussion is the fact that the secondary period in the school-boy's life is far more favorable than his college years to the free exploration of the boy.[1]-Self-realization has come to be a motive that has reached down into the high school period, and it has been found, in the opinion of able directors of secondary education, that restricted preparatory courses prescribed by colleges do not afford the experience needed in the high school. It is further stated that individual pupils can not know at the beginning of the high-school course that they can go to college four years later on. Moreover, it has been shown that the specification of subject matter for the four years of the high school tends to materially hamper rather than help in the direction of secondary education. The confusion in the requirements of different colleges east and west makes it impossible for the ordinary high school to meet the demands of all of them. The result is that those who have observed the boys and girls working in the high schools of the country have come to the conclusion that there is a wide discrepancy between preparation for life and preparation for college as defined in the ordinary entrance requirements. For these reasons and many others it has come to be felt that the high school should serve as an open door through which may pass the boys and girls looking for a larger education.

The placing of the emphasis upon citizenship and the efficiency of the individual seems to point conclusively to a Larger freedom on the part of the high schools and their management to meet the specific needs of the group of young people who come to their doors. The recognition of the mechanic arts, household science and agriculture, together with the attempt to reflect the major industries of the community, have brought the vocational idea in conflict with the traditional one of culture. A middle ground seems to be the saner position to take, since it is possible, and ought to be possible, for young people to secure a blending of liberal and vocational training at the same time, and through this combination education can receive the proper emphasis upon its social significance. The combination of the two makes possible a closer relationship of the work which the boy is doing to the welfare of society. Consequently, it appears to many educators that the requirement of four years of work in any particular subject as a condition of admission to the college or university is illogical and unhappy as a part of the educational machinery. Yet, on the other hand, it is distinctly understood that the attempt on the part of the high school to reach out and enrich its curriculum does not, and must not, mean the teaching of too many subjects to the same students at the same time.

The report of the Committee on the Articulation of High Schools and Colleges to the Secondary Department of the National Education Association in 1911 presented not only the various considerations that may be advanced regarding the function and field of education in the high school, but endeavored to define the meaning of a well-planned high-school course, and why it should be adopted as the basis of college admission. It is accepted without argument that fifteen units should be required for admission to the college or university, and that the specific subjects that should be offered may be summarized as three units of English, two units of one foreign language, two units of mathematics, one unit of social science (including history), and one unit of natural science. This makes nine units, and to these should be added two more units, so as to enlarge the requirements to at least two majors of three units each, leaving four units to be used as best meets the needs of the individual.

The suggestions of the committee have been more than accepted by the action of the University of Chicago in the new entrance requirements adopted by the faculties of that institution.[2] Accepting as fundamental the requirement cf fifteen units, the University of Chicago requirements place the first emphasis upon English and the demand for three units of that subject. The departure from the idea of the committee, and for that matter from the general plan adopted by most universities of the country, is in the option granted to the student in the choice of subjects for the remaining units. Seven units must be selected from five groups in the proportion of three in one and two in another. These groups are ancient language, modern foreign language, history or social science and science. The remaining five units may be selected from any subjects offered by the high school for graduation, but no student is to be admitted to the university on less than the fifteen units required for entrance.

Under the plan that has been outlined by the University of Chicago, it is possible for the student to enter the university without mathematics, or, if he takes another combination under the second provision of the plan, to present his credits without languages, either ancient or modern; or, he may enter with modern languages, mathematics or history, and without ancient languages or science. This statement of the plan, however, does not complete it by any means, since the university adds two additional features, one relating to the observation and control of students, and the other to the continuance of certain lines of work. There has been established a grading system, which automatically eliminates the student who falls below grade, while the university maintains a statistical comparison of school and college records, so as to follow up the work of the high-school student, not only after he has entered college, but to bring the comparison with his record as a high-school student. To this a third feature is added, namely, a conference of high-school men. Having entered college, the student must pursue one of the subjects followed in the high school, and by the end of the second year must have completed two years in history and economics, two years of mathematics and science, and be able to read a foreign language; and if he comes up for a degree he must have spent three years of work in one department and two in another. You have under this plan a systematic attempt to coordinate the work of the high school and the college through the entire course of both.

An examination of the table of admission units required in the liberal arts colleges of state universities, shown below, indicates a stricter adherence to type and quite a marked tendency toward a hardening of lines in the establishment of certain prescribed studies for entrance to the colleges of state universities. Under ordinary circumstances one would expect a closer coordination between the state universities and the secondary schools than in the instance of the privately endowed schools and the high school. The explanation for the advanced stand of the University of Chicago is to be found partially in the fact that her officers have studied the school situation more carefully perhaps than have those of other institutions, and partially in the fact of her location in a city well endowed with high schools. In most of the states the universities are compelled to hold to the general conditions existing in those states, rather than follow the lines of development in the older and better established communities. Consequently, while the state universities attempt certain vocational subjects, the practise in this direction is by no means so extended as it is in the case of the University of Chicago.

The average entrance requirements of the state universities are three units of English, one of science, one of history, and two and a half of mathematics. These correspond rather closely to the provisions set forth by the committee of the National Education Association, but that committee adds additional academic units in order to make a second major of three units. The vocational subjects permitted by the state universities amount on the average to two units, leaving the remaining units to be selected from foreign languages, mathematics, civics and history. The University of Minnesota has gone farther than any other state university in the larger freedom of election given in the prescribed English requirements. Two units of mathematics are demanded, and four units of English, while vocational subjects may make up the remaining number of units, if desired. Universities like Arizona, Kansas, California, Cornell, Georgia, Iowa and others do not accept vocational subjects for entrance requirements.

Most of the state universities have a system of courses based upon prescribed and free electives, prescribed limited electives and free electives, or upon the group system. The question of majors is left to take care of itself in most instances, the idea being that if the student is forced to take certain prescribed subjects, he will follow them up in his choice of electives. A study of the situation, however, shows that in the majority of instances where no majors are required the student scatters his free electives over a large number of subjects. Entrance to state universities is based upon the idea of the need of general knowledge and certain requirements for specific courses. That is, for the purpose of pursuing the social sciences, the student in the high school should have had elementary mathematics, foreign language and the beginnings of civics. This is merely an example of the point of view, and in support of this position it may be said that the student's preparation is materially limited from the college side if he enters upon his freshman year without some elementary training in science or mathematics. The movement to carry down into the high school the elementary work in these subjects is materially retarded, and the colleges are forced to establish courses of study in beginning languages and mathematics. Whether this is a calamity or not remains to be seen. The old Scotch university way of looking at it permitted any boy who thought he had in him the ability to carry on higher studies to go up to the university. No restriction was placed upon his entrance. The searching power of examinations was relied upon to determine his ability to maintain a standard sufficient for the granting of a degree. If, however, there can be aroused in the secondary period of the student's education a larger appreciation of his relation to society, some understanding of the forces of nature, and some fundamental principles instilled relative to citizenship, with at least some glimmer of what it means to study, the colleges and universities have all that can he expected or hoped for.

Table showing Admission Units Required in Liberal Arts Colleges of State Universities

Note.—Compiled from Catalogues 1911, in the President's Office, University of North Dakota. Any table of this kind can not be complete and fully accurate. Its purpose is served if it shows the situation.


Number of universities requiring 15 units for admission 23
Number of universities requiring less than 15 units 13
Number of universities requiring more than 15 units 5
Number of universities requiring less than 14 units 2
* Stars mean options, amount of credit offered not shown.
† Reduced to definition of unit.
‡ Deficiency of 2 units allowed.
§ Deficiency of 4 units allowed.
▒ Can postpone foreign language.
The figures refer to number of units that are offered for entrance.

This means that the movement of a few years ago to force down into the high school many of the subjects taught in the college must necesarily stop; that while the high school in tho larger places may reach up to the fifth or sixth year, yet the college will still be called upon to give instruction in the beginnings of languages and of the sciences to even a greater degree than has been true in the past. If this will change the idea that so many points are required for graduation and that certain credits must be received, for one which will emphasize the thoroughness of preparation and ability to think, the whole educational scheme now existing in America will be materially improved.

In Many of the states there are systems of organization that adapt themselves especially to the maintenance of fixed types of high school courses though this is not necessarily true of an administration of the system from a liberal point of view. The more important of the endowed colleges have established an examination board, which provides for the presentation of examinations in entrance subjects under uniform conditions. Such a plan has much to commend it, since the questions set are likely to be worked out carefully and the marking of papers carried on thoroughly well. Yet it has a tendency to maintain certain lines of examinations and tends to place emphasis upon the topics specifically called for in examinations. There is, moreover, no public force behind it other than the desire on the part of small groups of students to avail themselves of its facilities to pass entrance requirements to the schools represented on the examination board.

The diploma plan of admission, sometimes called the "Michigan system," rests upon the supposition that high schools of certain types are likely to give instruction of uniform value. It has not, however, been accepted by many of the states, since the tendency is to establish, even in those states where the diploma method exists, inspection by persons designated by the state universities. This plan has much to commend it, and where the inspection is made by some one especially skilled in secondary work, rather than by a group of men from the faculties of the university, it produces good results.

In other states a high-school board has been established, with the power of classifying high schools and of requiring certain courses of study from them and the fulfilment of certain conditions relative to equipment, selection of teachers and the form and character of buildings. In some instances, specifically in the cases of Minnesota and North Dakota, examinations are presented by the board, and in the last named state the high schools are required to accept them as the basis of promotion. This, however, is not rigorously adhered to and usually applies to schools of the second and third class that have hopes of becoming first-class high schools. In other instances, even where the high school board plan of examinations exists, principals' certificates are accepted in subjects for entrance to college, where the high schools have passed the inspection of the high-school board.

Too strict emphasis upon and adherence to specific courses of study result in lack of adaptation, regarding which much criticism has arisen. Just what credit shall be given for specific courses where the whole purpose of the high school is not taken into consideration is a question which arises again and again. This objection is fully met in the Chicago plan and partly in the average entrance requirements of state universities. The tendency in the latter instance, however, is to multiply the subjects in which credit can be given, in the hope of covering, as it were, the miscellaneous features of the high-school course.

So much emphasis has been put upon the "fitting for life" side of high-school work, that the ability of the ordinary high-school subjects to do this, even where they are called vocational, has not been brought into question. The president of a vocational college in his annual report for 1911 says:

A more difficult aspect of the problem (referring to the question of entrance requirements) is the amount of credit that may be given to the study of vocational subjects in the high school. While the pursuit of vocational subjects in the high school would seem to be a natural preparation for the vocational college, and while some of the technical arts are better acquired in the earlier years, yet because the high-school course is designed to be a finishing course and covers the whole of the subject matter in an elementary and superficial manner, it does not give a preparation upon which the more intensive and mature college course may be built. The ground must be covered again by a more thorough method and the time that has been spent on the subject in the high school is largely wasted, while the general subjects that have been replaced are permanently lost. If the schools would separate the technical arts from the elementary consideration of principles, the former might be accepted by the colleges and the later course built upon them without loss of time and with real advantage.[3]

In the statement which has been quoted above, the president of Simmons College has pointed out one of the difficulties in the teaching of vocational subjects so-called, and in a measure justifies the attitude which the state university has taken in the matter of their acceptance. The high school is not a trade school and ought not to be considered one. But the problem, which has been looked upon as one largely interfered with by the admission requirements of colleges, is after all a problem associated with primary, secondary and higher instruction rather than any one of its parts. The secondary school, therefore, should be given a large opportunity to work out its place in the scheme of education and to determine for itself, more than it has been able to do thus far, just what scope and methods of vocational training should be introduced in its course. The attitude of the state university in accepting numerous small credits in miscellaneous subjects of a scattered nature tends to retard rather than to hasten a closer investigation of the situation, while the granting of a certain amount of option and liberty to the high schools in the determination of the subjects to be offered in their courses will undoubtedly tend to reduce the number and to hold them in lines that will be more adapted to the needs of the community. Unquestionably, uniformity in the schools is desirable so far as it means uniformity in subjects, time, amount and speed of instruction, but if it means uniformity of instruction by the requiring of individuals the same subjects without regard to their actual needs, it is under all circumstances to be avoided. Looked at broadly, the state universities occupy a vantage ground, in the first instance, in that they have not moved to radical attitudes which upon closer investigation of the problems involved can not be held, and in the second instance that they are not so conservative as to stand in their own light. They are really in the position of modifying somewhat the average requirements for admission to meet the needs of the high schools as they stand to-day and to give them larger local option in the settling of their problems, if they are willing to give over the choice of a certain amount of their credits to the high schools rather than continue the policy of accepting credits in many small subjects. These universities are a part of the school system, and the adjustment which takes place will be from the bottom upwards rather than from the top downwards, but in this adjustment there is need of all the wisdom which the universities may have, as well as the cooperation of all the factors involved.

  1. Abraham Flexner, "The American College," p. 223.
  2. "Changes in Entrance Requirements at the University of Chicago," by C. R. Mann, Educational Review, September, 1911.
  3. From the annual report of the president of Simmons College, December, 1911.