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
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