Here is a scripture that concerns me:
And the people began to be distinguished by ranks, according to their riches and their chances for learning, yea, some were ignorant because of their poverty, and others did receive great learning because of their riches. Some were lifted up in pride, and others were exceedingly humble; some did return railing for railing, while others would receive railing and persecution and all manner of afflictions, and would not turn and revile again, but were humble and penitent before God. And thus there became a great inequality in all the land, insomuch that the church began to be broken up…. (3 Nephi 6:12-14)
A few years back, the Church announced that it would not be building another Church university (at least at the time) and that BYU for the first time would begin rejecting applicants who had met minimum educational achievement requirements. I believe that this development has unleased an important change in Church culture. My concern is twofold: the perception and the reality.
First, the perception. In preparation for this change, the word went out from BYU: the bar is being raised! Not only would BYU admissions place more emphasis on Seminary attendance (a good thing, in the opinion of this early morning Seminary teacher), but get those grades and test scores up! Soon rumors began circulating (at least in wards outside Utah) that applicants needed straight A’s and standardized test scores in the 90+ percentile if they expected to be admitted. These rumors seemed to be fueled partly by the BYU admissions staff, which has made tremendous efforts to do informational firesides all around the country, but in their attempt to prepare people for the possibility of rejection may instead have created a sense of elitism. While I assume that their efforts are designed to encourage the youth, my anecdotal experience is that the message becomes garbled in the translation. The youth of the Church — at least the ones I have encountered in Oregon, Tennessee, and Wisconsin — view BYU as an elite institution of higher education, and most find their (supposed) dim prospects of admission discouraging.
Now consider this from the BYU Admissions website: “BYU has been able to admit about 80% of those who have applied in recent years.” Schools with highly selective admissions typically admit around 10% (last year, for example, Harvard and Princeton each admitted 11% of applicants). Thankfully, BYU has a long road to travel before it becomes the “Harvard of the West.”
Second, the reality. While I think I understand the decision not to start another Church-funded school, the fact is that BYU is a tremendous bargain. As the Church grows, smaller and smaller percentages of the youth will have the opportunity to attend. Admissions standards (and presumably the quality of the professors attracted to teach there) will inevitably rise, thus attracting more people who might have gone elsewhere in prior years. This is the world in which the reality begins to catch up with the perception.
Add to this the growth of the Church worldwide. Currently, U.S. Mormons have significant educational opportunities that are not available to non-US Mormons. In my opinion, one of the great legacies of President Hinckley’s term in office will be the creation of the Perpetual Education Fund, but the education contemplated by the PEF appears to be primarily vocational, and the gap between the “learned” and the “others” will likely remain large.
While differences in “chances for learning” have always been with us, my sense is that the problem is likely to get worse before it gets better. Where differences exist, bitterness and estrangement often follow. As one who has had chances for learning, I feel a special obligation to narrow the gap, though I do not have any ready practical means of doing that, unless someone out there is willing to sponsor my family of seven on an education mission!
I cannot foresee the Church’s future actions in this area, though my impression is that the people who are pulling the levers (especially President Hinckley) are sensitive to the issue. In the end, however, my main concern is not over the Church’s future course, but rather my personal responsibility. While I do my best to encourage all of my Seminary students to further their education (and to explore the possibility of attending BYU if they desire to do that), I wish I could do more.