College Admissions, Merit, and Ethnicity

The (long) article is by Ron Unz. One somewhat tangential excerpt:

Ultimately, he stamped her with a “Reject,” but later admitted to Steinberg that she might have been admitted if he had been aware of the enormous time and effort she had spent campaigning against the death penalty, a political cause near and dear to his own heart. Somehow I suspect that a student who boasted of leadership in pro-death penalty activism among his extracurriculars might have fared rather worse in this process.

Pointer from Tyler Cowen, who seems to have misgivings about recommending the article. I would actually nominate for the citations that David Brooks hands out every year for most important magazine essays.

Unz proposes a two-part admissions process for prestige institutions. One part would select the very best students, based on demonstrated academic ability. The other part would select a random sample of other qualified students.

I think he is on the right track. In fact, forgetting the first part and just taking a random sample of students who meet some qualification criteria would be an outstanding reform. However, you would also have to make scholarship offers unbiased. My proposal would be to have them be totally need-based. These policies would take politics, ethnicity, and other factors out of the equation. It would make sports teams genuinely amateur.

When I was an undergraduate, I assisted a Swarthmore economics professor with a study of the admissions process. We found that the student’s interview received a high weight and that scores on the interview went down as SAT scores rose above the high 600s. I speculated that admissions officers were not themselves super-smart and did not like super-smart applicants. (I was admitted because I talked about wrestling with the alumnus who interviewed me, having seen his son lose a match for the high school state championship. The day I arrived on campus, the Dean of Admissions said that the wrestling coach was looking forward to having me on the team. I never was any good in high school, and I never met that wrestling coach, but the interview did the trick.)

Back to the Unz article, it raises questions about the process by which America selects its elite. I share Unz’s concern that this process has been deteriorating. Moreover, think about what happens when people achieve elite status without merit. They become really attached to the existing system, because they are threatened by true meritocracy. I think that one of the signs of that is when questioning orthodoxy itself becomes a disqualifying factor. As I see it, the American academy has crossed that threshold.

4 thoughts on “College Admissions, Merit, and Ethnicity

  1. People see the choosing of elites as the fulfillment of their aesthetic preferences. This is why its always an issue. People want a specific outcome, they care not about process or fairness. College’s should have a test, like they do in Asia, a simple objective measure. But since the outcome of such a process would violate people’s aesthetic sensibilities it can never happen. The real way to get around this is the market. Some rich folks, probably some rich asian folks, need to get together, and start to create their own university system. Its not enough to create, staff it exceptionally, and have high admission standards. They need to actively denigrate the HYP and other fuzzy admission schools. You can imagine a campaign that made fun of people making up fake extracurriculars and paying people to write their essays. Kids will be receptive to this message, as fairness tends to be the moral precept of most concern to the youth.

  2. I couldn’t help but think of our President. I wonder if his disdain for Mr. Romney could partially have stemmed from Mr. Romney’s business success.

  3. I’ve long wondered why college admissions is so concerned with “merit.” Why don’t colleges simply sell their product to whoever is willing to pay for it? If they’re concerned about students being unprepared, well, why are they? Isn’t that the student’s problem? If a student is unprepared, he’ll flunk out, and he will have wasted his tuition. If he’s spending his own money, that will be an incentive for him to choose his college carefully. If he’s spending other people’s money, that will be an incentive for third parties–not the college–to worry about merit. I’m pretty sure that’s how most professional certification courses work. Indeed, most products and services on the market are sold without the sellers worrying too much about who’s buying them. Why are colleges different?