Tuesday, July 22, 2014

College admissions

As a high school teacher, I see the ill-effects of college admissions on students often. Students chose classes that don't interest them and/or they are not academically ready for because of how the classes will look on their applications. Of course, many students do need the push of college admissions to challenge themselves, but more often than not, it comes out in the wrong way: a student who might really enjoy art, who wants to go to art school, but finds it impossible to say "no" to an A.P. Calculus course even though he doesn't really like non-geometrical math much. Also, students push themselves to do far too many extracurriculars.

In simplest terms, it is an arms race. And mostly, it is driven by the desire to get that all-coveted Ivy League (or similar) admission letter.

Of course, this is stressful and harmful for students. But it is also really harmful for the colleges, too.

So extreme are the admission standards now that kids who manage to get into elite colleges have, by definition, never experienced anything but success. The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential. The result is a violent aversion to risk. You have no margin for error, so you avoid the possibility that you will ever make an error.

From Dr. William Deresiewicz here. My own anecdotal experience agrees with him. I went to a selective school, and while I was there, there was a real sea change in the kind of students who were admitted as the college became even more selective. They might have been more impressive than my class on paper, but they were neurotic and dull in person.

Perhaps one could defend the system by saying that the colleges know what they're doing and select exactly which students they want. Perhaps they don't mind that their students are more neurotic now than in past years. However, as Ph.D. candidate Rob Goodman pointed out here,

Admissions offices have reported that many rejected and admitted applicants are "indistinguishable." For a substantial part of the applicant pool, officers are making essentially random decisions about who gets an acceptance letter. Promoting a narrative that the college admissions process consistently finds the very best and the very brightest, and concealing the inherent chance involved in evaluating these virtually identical candidates, is both wrong and harmful.

The problem is that the top colleges have a surfeit of well-qualified applicants, and the colleges make arbitrary decisions on easily quantified criteria, like the number of extracurriculars. Dr. Deresiewicz proposes that top students avoid the Ivy League altogether. Anyway, the prestige of the Ivy League undergraduate colleges is mostly rubbed off from the quality of the research and the graduate schools, not from the quality of the undergraduate programs themselves. In fact, despite American colleges outsized reputation worldwide, U.S. college graduates as a whole are not that strong on international comparisons. I point this out to note that the link between reputation and quality is often weak. So there's that.

Mr. Goodman proposes something more radical: a lottery. A school gets an initial cut so they can reject unqualified applicants, but all their tentative admits would then go to a second stage, a lottery. As a thought experiment, it is very provocative. But I struggle with why a kid who really, really, really wants to go to U. Chicago for economics might get rejected over a kid from Florida who really hates the thought of the city's winters and would rather be at Emory.

I think part of the problem is that the colleges have less information than the students do. A better system would be a matching algorithm that puts most of the power in the hands of the students. Imagine that each selective college could rank a student into four categories: (A) highly desired (these would most likely be the resume-heads); (B) desired (very academically qualified but with more limited extracurriculars); (C) waitlist (the bubble kids); and (F) reject. Each student would rank the colleges she applied to in order, from most desired to least desired. A matching algorithm could pair the college to the student. This is a well-known problem: the stable marriage problem. Specifically, the National Resident Matching Program, which matches residents to hospitals, currently handles the placements of new doctors. Apparently, the college admission problem is more complicated, although I think some of the difficulty has been that people have assumed a student would be ranked uniformly across all the colleges. Maybe limiting the colleges to only four rankings -- A, B, C, and F -- would help make the problem more tractable. The same method is also used in matching students to high schools in New York City.

I imagine a such system working for the most elite schools in the country, say the top 50 private schools (ranging from 6% to 33% acceptance), as an early decision program. Students would have to meet some quite high G.P.A. and S.A.T. score minima to be considered (basically, 90th percentile or better). Elite colleges could reserve some spots in the regular admission pool, but they could keep these numbers very low to encourage every serious applicant to apply in the early admission matching program. Students who do apply to the match program but don't get in anywhere can apply at the regular time.

Why would this be beneficial? More of the highly qualified applicants would get into their first or second choice programs. The information would mostly come from the students ranking the colleges, not from the college ranking the students. As more students got into their first or second choice programs, anxiety might be damped down. Under the current system, if I want to go to U. Penn., because I know they reject most of their qualified applicants, I will go crazy trying to make sure I'm extra razzle-dazzle awesome. And sadly for me, U. Penn. is not the number one choice for a lot of the applicants. They simply applied because they also have to play the numbers game: apply to a dozen or more schools to have a good chance of being admitted. Everyone is locked into a numbers game, and everyone is locked into an arms race.

One New York Times story pointed out this very fact: the selective colleges haven't really gotten more selective in the last decade; there has simply been application inflation. Some of the application inflation comes from unqualified applicants taking the long shots more often, but most is probably from qualified applicants sending out far more applications than before. In other words, highly qualified applicants have just as good a chance of getting in to a selective college as before, but keeping those odds steady requires sending out a lot more applications now. Other people have taken issue with the specific statistics in the New York Times' story, but I think the overall point is true.

To reiterate: there are about the same number of high school seniors; there are about the same number of highly selective college spots. Therefore, colleges are not getting more selective. It's just that these highly qualified seniors are sending out more applications.

In the current system, each student applies to 8-12 colleges, and the average acceptance rate of the highly selective college is about 18% [my guesstimate based on U.S. News college data]. Once upon a time in the early '90s, each student applied to 4-6 colleges, and the acceptance rate was about 36%.

Under my admission matching program, each student knows that he or she needs to get over a certain threshold (admittedly, very high) to have a very good chance of getting into his or her top one or two colleges. From the students' point of view, the colleges look less "selective" because no longer is there nearly so much noise. And under an admission matching program, elite colleges would have just as many awesome students as before, but the difference would be that more of those students would be expressly excited to be at that particular school.

Update, 24 Jan. 2015: I just finished Mitchell L. Steven's book, Creating a Class: College Admissions and the Education of Elites. He's a sociologist who "embedded" with a college admissions office. It gave me a new perspective on how hard college admissions officers have to work to find and recruit strong applicants. It confirmed for me that, although admissions officers are very sincere and well-meaning, their decision-making truly is limited by a lack of nuanced, reliable information. Of course, they can tell right away which students are not qualified academically, but otherwise, they are making a lot of fine distinctions on what is mostly guesswork.

Update, 7 April 2015: Here's a very similar proposal to mine. Just 8 months after my blog post. Two really good points here:

1. The colleges are suffering because of wildly fluctuating yield rate. A matching system would help alleviate this a lot.

2. Highly qualified low income students really lose out in the current game. Without the coaching or savvy to send out the requisite number of applications, they only take a long shot or two. They significantly hurt their chances to get into a highly selective college.

Update, 7 Nov. 2015: Ben Orlin had a great point about how colleges' (false) pretense of a personalized admission process (when it's a factory process) hurts applicants' feelings. I might add, "Rips out their hearts," but I'm pretty jaded on it.

Update, 22 Dec. 2016: As one thoughtful person said, "College admissions wasn’t designed to send signals about what’s important—to impact what goes on in high school. But it’s become that, and it’s become that without a conscience." And it's worth bearing in mind what Jonathan Cole from my alma mater said:

Cole recalls asking some of his students whether they’d support an admissions system in which a list of potential candidates for the 1,400 or so freshmen seats at Columbia were narrowed down to the best 5,000 applicants, which would then be admitted by lottery. “There’s not a single student who would go for the lottery system. They want to believe that in the sight of God there is a rank order from 1 to 36,000 and they’re among the elect,” Cole said. “They don’t recognize that there are other people who have been rejected for a whole series of reasons who really have as much potential in a variety of ways as they do.” Admission, Cole said, often depends on “which person in the admissions committee reads your application; what their biases are, their presuppositions; whether they’ve had a bad egg-salad sandwich that day or read too many applications. These are all things that enter our decision-making process as human beings. It is [a lottery], but no one is willing to admit it.”

Update, 27 April 2018: Apparently, many of the ideas contained in this blog post would require an anti-trust waiver from the Justice department, which I hadn't considered before.

Update, 28 May 2018: One interesting suggestion is to change admission standards to favor integrated high schools. Read more on my blog about school segregation here.

Update, 31 March 2019: I'm including this article about the mathematical software that runs D.C.'s school choice program. It sounds like the matching program is easy for parents to navigate and manages the school-student selection--and the waitlists--fairly. I think it's particularly relevant to consider what a mess it sounds like D.C.'s school choice program was BEFORE they used the program. The similarities to the college application process are myriad.

Update, 10 May 2019: Another good article on college admissions. And a thoughtful essay about New York's high school admission test.

Update, 18 June 2019: James Fallows, writing in The Atlantic, makes several good points about college admission. Specifically, he makes the point back in 2003 that much of the surge of applications was about students applying to an ever-increasing number of schools:

"One of those fifty-three students applied to twenty-three other colleges. Counselors at upper-end public and private high schools nearly all report an increase in the number of applications each college-bound student submits. At admissions-conscious schools where students in the early 1990s typically applied to five or six colleges, they might now apply to eight, ten, or twelve. In more relaxed settings the average has risen from three or four to six or eight. Counselors consider twenty outrageous—but some say they have seen that and more. "Students have the idea that if they throw more darts at the board, their chances go up," says Carl Ahlgren, the director of college counseling at the Gilman School, a private boys' school in Baltimore. Ahlgren says that in his experience exactly the opposite is true: the more careful and deliberate students are about choosing where to apply, the more likely they are to get in."

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