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The Big Sleep

Problems and the Role of Chance in College Admissions

History News Network had a very interesting link to an L.A. Times article on college admissions by Swarthmore professor, Barry Schwartz.  Here are some excerpts outlining his argument [bold emphasis mine][and my responses in brackets and italics]:

To today's high-achieving high school students, the future seems to ride on getting into selective institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Stanford or my own institution, Swarthmore, where almost every one of the applicants is good enough to succeed but only one in 10 will be given the chance. And so the competition trickles down: The road to Harvard goes through the "right" high school, the "right" elementary school, the "right" preschool. Thus the anguished "admissions essays" from the parents of kids still in diapers.

... And I'm not just talking about the stress on students. It's what the competition itself is stealing from our most talented youth.

Students choose classes that play to their strengths, to get easy A's, rather than classes that might correct their weaknesses or nurture new interests. They sacrifice risk-taking and intellectual curiosity on the altar of demonstrable success. Moreover (as documented by a great deal of research), because students are doing the work they do in and out of school for the wrong reasons — not because they are interested in learning — the intense competition undermines their motivation to continue to learn for the sake of gaining understanding.  [This is part of why I would not encourage any of my children to apply to these universities] -  As a result, even those who excel enough to get into Harvard, Stanford or UCLA are likely to be less inspired students once that goal has been achieved. By making themselves so competitive, our selective institutions are subverting their aims.

The tragedy of all this selectivity and competition is that it is almost completely pointless. Students trying to get into the best college, and colleges trying to admit the best students, are both on a fool's errand. They are assuming a level of precision of assessment that is unattainable. Social scientists Detlof von Winterfeldt and Ward Edwards made this case 30 years ago when they articulated what they called the "principle of the flat maximum." What the principle argues is that when comparing the qualifications of people who are bunched up at the very top of the curve, the amount of inherent uncertainty in evaluating their credentials is larger than the measurable differences among candidates. Applied to college admissions, this principle implies that it is impossible to know which excellent student (or school) will be better than which other excellent student (or school). Uncertainty of evaluation makes the hair-splitting to distinguish among excellent students a waste of time; the degree of precision required exceeds the inherent reliability of the data. It also makes the U.S. News & World Report annual rankings of colleges silly for assuming a precision of measurement that is unattainable.

Now, it is no doubt true that, on average, students at the very top of the heap of outstanding applicants will be more likely to succeed than students near the bottom. But plenty of high school superstars turn out to be supernovas who burn out while at college. In my 35 years at Swarthmore, I've seen more than my share of "can't miss" freshmen miss (not for intellectual reasons but for psychological ones including all those pre-college years spent becoming "can't miss"). Surprisingly, there are no good studies on how ranking at the time of admission predicts college achievement, not to mention achievement in life after college. [As both a statistician and research assistant, this lack of research surprises me!]


There is a simple way to dramatically reduce the pressure and competition that our most talented students now experience. When selective institutions get the students' applications, the schools can scrutinize them using the same high standards they currently use and decide which of the applicants is good enough to be admitted. Then the names of all the "good enough" students could be placed in a metaphorical hat, with the "winners" drawn at random for admission. Though a high school student will still have to work hard to be "good enough" for Yale, she won't have to distort her life in the way she would if she had to be the "best." The only reason left for participating in all those enrichment programs would be interest, not competitive advantage.

This modest proposal may seem outrageous. Nobody likes the idea of important life events being determined by a roll of the dice. But college admission is already a crapshoot, and our failure to acknowledge this is a collective exercise in self-deception. Admissions people like to believe that they have the diagnostic acumen to look at, say, 8,000 wonderful applicants and pluck from them, with high accuracy, the 1,600 "super-wonderful" ones. But there is little evidence to support this claim. So picking a fifth of the 8,000 "good enough" applicants at random might be just as good a way of producing a great class as today's tortured scrutiny of folders.


At the very least, colleges and universities should consider doing the following experiment: Put a random half of the applicants through the normal admissions process and the other half through a "good enough/luck of the draw" admissions process. Then track the performance of the students admitted from these two sets of applicants over the course of their college careers.

If there are no major differences in performance between these two groups, then by publicly adopting the "good enough" practice, schools can take a lot of the pressure off high school students so that they can be curious, interested kids again. The desperate efforts of high school students to climb to the top on the backs of their classmates could stop. Adolescents could once again devote at least some of their time to figuring out what kinds of people they are and want to be. Parents could relax a little about high school, middle school and even preschool placements. And the result, I'm convinced, would not be worse students at our top institutions but more interesting, more curious and better motivated ones...

There is another potential benefit that extends far beyond the confines of the college admissions game. We like to believe, in our least cynical moments, that the U.S. is a meritocracy. Success is about talent and hard work. Luck has nothing to do with it. This attitude may well contribute to a lack of sympathy, sometimes even bordering on disdain, for life's losers. I believe that this attitude is profoundly false. It is not the case that people always get what they deserve. There just aren't enough top rungs on the Ivy League's (or life's) ladders for everyone to fit. If talented and hardworking people are forced to confront the element of chance in life's outcomes when they (or their kids) fail to get into the "best" college, they may be more inclined to acknowledge the role of luck in shaping the lives of the people around them. And this may make them more empathic toward others — and a good deal more committed to creating more room at the top.



This article has some of the most cogent and far thinking ideas I've seen on this topic. Amazingly clear headed. Deep understanding of the actual unintended damage and consequences, and the vain self deceptions, that run all through this stuff.

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