You may have heard Grinnell College‘s enrollment patterns as an example of what’s wrong with American education and the nation’s future in the global market.
You heard wrong. Even if you heard it from Thomas Friedman.
“This is one of those things you can appreciate has gone viral, and we can’t stop,” said Cindy Deppe, director of media relations for the central Iowa college.
It started with a New York Times article last winter on American colleges’ efforts to recruit Chinese students, with Grinnell its focus. The article included the statement that “(a)t rural Grinnell, nearly one of every 10 applicants being considered for the class of 2015 is from China.”
Accurate, if a bit of a stretch for Deppe. She said there were 255 Chinese among the 2,969 applicants for the 2015 class – 8.6 percent.
But it’s from there that some commentators have made “Grinnell” synonymous with underachieving American youth who are all just a bunch of slackers, etc.
“Now it has been repeated as 10 percent of the entire class” are Chinese, Deppe said. “Those are very different numbers.”
Among those repeating it is the Times’ op-ed columnist Friedman, Grinnell’s 2009 commencement speaker. According to Tom Junod at Esquire.com, at a recent Atlanta speech Friedman “elicted murmuring from the audience when he reported that 10 percent of the incoming freshman class at Grinnell College in Iowa were from mainland China — and then audible gasps when he doubled down and said that half of that ten percent got perfect 800s on their math SATs.”
Actually,11 of Grinnell’s 435 incoming freshmen are from China – 2.5 percent. Deppe said she didn’t have access to those students’ math SAT scores.
“This is out there now thanks to the New York Times article and it just keeps getting replicated,” said Deppe. “Even the U.S. Secretary of Education used it – when he was out here in July, he used it in his speech.”
Since the misinformation began circulating, Deppe has fielded inquiries from the Chronicle of Higher Education and a few other journalists whose research skills are more developed than those of Friedman or U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
Still, the meme lives.
“It’s just been extrapolated all the way along, and it’s really hard to rein this in,” said Deppe.