By Jacob Zimmerman, Opinions Editor
For the class of 2015, the acceptance rate at Furman University was 83%. For the class of 2016, the acceptance rate fell to 77%. When compared to other private, liberal arts colleges, these numbers are very high. These numbers, common knowledge on campus, were evaluated three weeks ago in an article that ran in this newspaper.
In “Chapters from My Autobiography,” Mark Twain identified three kinds of falsehoods: “Lies, damned lies, and statistics.” While this perhaps paints too strong a picture, this quote does strike on an important truth—statistics without explanations mean absolutely nothing.
While this should not dissuade further investigation into potential problems with Furman’s admissions and marketing policies, the student body’s reaction to this particular statistic should not go overlooked. Why are we inclined to read this statistic in a negative way, and what does that reading say about us?
Furman University caters to a particular kind of student. This mythical “average” student is white and upper-middle class. This student wants a horizon-broadening liberal arts education but wants that education given to them in a conventional and conservative package. This student is self-aware enough to recognize that exclusivity in the groups that they belong to reflects well on them. We all are hostile toward changes in university policy that we would understand and reduce our perceived value or privilege.
More disconcerting for this average student are the hard realities behind the 83% statistic. Furman is an institution adapting to a new and more tenuous financial environment. The average student begins to realize that he or she is not necessarily uniquely talented or insured future success simply because we met the criterion for acceptance. We are here often not because we are the best and brightest but because our parents were financially affluent enough and we may have looked a little bit better on paper.
Furman is not a utopia of educational ideas, liberated musings, and tenured professors—our university is an institution that like any business of government provides services and works according to certain rules. We may have earned admittance not because of our own inherent greatness, but because the rules worked in our favor. The average Furman student likes winning but not the consequences it can have or the unfairness that is sometimes revealed in the process.
For all of our enlightened attempts at creating a better world, we are complicit in economic conditions that perpetuate some serious inequalities. These sorts of problems are structural, and hold true at every private institution.
Does Furman turn away capable, talented students simply because they do not have the right pedigree? Are students who are accepted under a higher acceptance rate somehow less capable? Do potential students who are equally qualified, equally able, and equally driven as any of us choose not to attend Furman University because of the price tag? Selectivity is a comforting and self-assuring notion—remove it and we see the often tenuous differences that separate us as Furman students in a much clearer light.
The problems that an 83% acceptance rate raise for us are not easy problems, or problems which can easily be solved by reevaluating our policies or shifting our attitudes. However, a few immediate conclusions can be drawn from the student body’s reaction to this statistic. First, we have all been given an opportunity that very few people get. Although all of us worry about getting a job after our graduation, a diploma makes us instantaneously more valuable than another person who does not have an equivalent piece of paper. Worrying about the value of that diploma is like bartering for pennies when buying a house. If we try to think of ourselves as guaranteed anything, we grasp at a certainty that simply is not there to secure us.
Second, because education is a gift it is also a responsibility. We all have a responsibility to do something with our education, recognizing our facilitated success as a gift that should be passed along. This is not simply Liberal Arts pabulum, something we say to make ourselves feel more enlightened or more empowered. Instead, we have to recognize that opportunity carries with it an obligation to make something of those possibilities and make those possibilities avaliable to others.
We should stop worrying about what Furman is doing to our educations and worry about how we are going to get the most out of our education as we possibly can. By overcoming our own pretenses, we may find solutions to our problems in unexpected places. Whatever else it may represent, an 83% acceptance rate forces us to take a serious look at our circumstances and determine what it is about those circumstances we are prone to dislike.