Posted on September 29th, 2005 in Uncategorized | No Comments »
(Source: Haverford College)To some outsiders, admission to an elite college may seem like a crapshoot. Even straight-A students with dazzling SAT scores aren't guaranteed admission to the top schools. Who gets in? Is it simply random selection among a talented pool of qualified applicants?
It may as well be, according to one critic writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education. He claims that leaving such selection to chance—a lottery-type drawing of those deemed "good enough" for admission—would reduce the stress student face and eliminate much of the toil and preening colleges undergo.
Consider this, the crux of his argument:
There is a simple step that selective institutions can take that will sharply reduce competition and thus change the distorted adolescence that many of our most talented students now experience. All that is required is this: When Harvard, Stanford, Yale, and Swarthmore get their applications, they can scrutinize them — using the same high standards they currently use — and identify students good enough to be admitted. Let's assume that would cut the pool by half or two-thirds. Then the names of all the "good enough" applicants could be placed in a metaphorical hat, and the "winners" drawn at random. While high-school students might have to distort their lives to be the "best" to gain admission to Harvard, they won't have to distort their lives nearly so much to be "good enough." The only reason that would remain for participating in all those enrichment programs and attending high-powered pre-schools would be interest, not competitive advantage.
This modest proposal may seem preposterous at first blush, but it isn't. There is little doubt that any random fifth of the applicants who might survive an initial screening would make a fine first-year class at Harvard. Stanford could fill its entering class with applicants who had near-perfect scores on their SAT's and still have plenty with such scores left over.
Further, while admissions people like to believe that they have the discernment to look at 8,000 wonderful applicants and pick, with high accuracy, the 1,600 "superwonderful" ones, there is a huge literature on decision making, much of it reviewed in a classic article in Science 15 years ago by Robyn M. Dawes, David Faust, and Paul E. Meehl, which makes clear that people in such positions are much more confident of their abilities than the data warrant. In other words, picking a fifth of the 8,000 at random might be just as good a way of producing a great class as the tortured scrutiny of folders that is the present practice.Is this system more or less fair than the existing one? The current system asks admissions professionals to make educated decisions, but those decisions can be arbitrary and capricious, or based on non-merit factors such as race and legacy status. The author's suggested model leaves more to chance and fate.
Let's think about it another way. Should top schools be populated by those deemed "good enough," and at what point will savvy students stop pushing themselves once they've figured out what "good enough" really means? I suppose if you're better than "good enough," you'd balk at a system that gives less-qualified students an equal chance. But if you're a marginal applicant, then this method would perhaps improve your chances of getting in.
Not to worry, though. The author's suggestion is merely an exercise to get us thinking about the perceived randomness of elite-college admissions. His model would never take hold.