20 April 2010

College Admissions

Stephen Bainbridge points to a Lexington column in the Ecomosist* from some years back in the process of discussing the alma maters of Supreme Court justices and elitism.  That column touches on something that's been bouncing around my head since my friends and I applied to colleges a decade ago.

(* gated, but he [and I] extract the relevant sections)
[In The Price of Admission] Mr Golden shows that elite universities do everything in their power to admit the children of privilege. If they cannot get them in through the front door by relaxing their standards, then they smuggle them in through the back. No less than 60% of the places in elite universities are given to candidates who have some sort of extra “hook”, from rich or alumni parents to “sporting prowess”. The number of whites who benefit from this affirmative action is far greater than the number of blacks.
Sidenote: privilege is privilege. I don't care if it's your family name or money or your athletic skills or your race: you're getting a boost based on something unrelated to academic potential or performance.  The particular form that privilege takes is of secondary importance.
The American establishment is extraordinarily good at getting its children into the best colleges. In the last presidential election both candidates—George Bush and John Kerry—were “C” students who would have had little chance of getting into Yale if they had not come from Yale families. Al Gore and Bill Frist both got their sons into their alma maters (Harvard and Princeton respectively), despite their average academic performances. Universities bend over backwards to admit “legacies” (ie, the children of alumni). Harvard admits 40% of legacy applicants compared with 11% of applicants overall. Amherst admits 50%. An average of 21-24% of students in each year at Notre Dame are the offspring of alumni. When it comes to the children of particularly rich donors, the bending-over-backwards reaches astonishing levels. Harvard even has something called a “Z” list—a list of applicants who are given a place after a year's deferment to catch up—that is dominated by the children of rich alumni.
Side note two: I feel compelled as an ND alumnus to defend them a bit.  Notice how the columnist mentions how many matriculants at Notre Dame are legacies, but not how many applicants.  I happen to think, based on my anecdotal experience, that Notre Dame really overdoes it with legacy admissions, but it's impossible to tell just from the number presented.

Side note three:  Because I accepted my admission so late I had the good fortune of being placed in a dorm with a preponderance of men accepted off the wait list to Notre Dame.  They were by far more interesting, more unconventional, and more inspired than average.  I'd take Notre Dame's waitlist over Harvard's "Z List" day of the week and twice on Sundays.  Those are the men I want to face my life with, not some druggy under-achiever like Al Gore III.

Enough with the side notes, the actual point of this post is that the school which rejects this mode of admissions now will suffer in the short term but dominate in a generation or two.  A university could become the envy of every ambitious high school student if they built a name forthemselves as the place with the most capable, most industrious, hungriest alumni, and to hell with who their parents are.
The returns on higher education are rising: the median earnings in 2000 of Americans with a bachelor's degree or higher were about double those of high-school leavers. But elite universities are becoming more socially exclusive.
No, the returns to higher education when studnts actually bother to learn something are rising. By cutting out all the entitled children of privelege you'll get many more of your graduates actually achieving.

I see a natural alliance between an admissions strategy that focuses on talent, and a course of study that eschews softball majors and embraces rigor.

That's how Hoffer University will operate when I've founded it.

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