Elite University Admissions in a Winner-Take-All-Society

Megan McArdle is surely correct when she notes how much is expected today of young people who aspire to attend elite universities. Her own experience as a teenager was different:

…the things that we achieved were basically within reach of a normal human being who was going about the business of growing up: playing a sport, perhaps badly; taking classes; occasionally volunteering as a candy striper. Most of us took the SAT without the benefit of test prep services, and the “test prep” we got in class consisted of–learning vocabulary and algebra. People like me, who were painfully unathletic and had hashed some early high school classes still had a shot at an Ivy League School

These days, a nearly-perfect GPA is the barest requisite for an elite institution. You’re also supposed to be a top notch athlete and/or musician, the master of multiple extracurriculars. Summers should preferably be spent doing charitable work, hopefully in a foreign country, or failing that, at least attending some sort of advanced academic or athletic program.

She then raises a provocative question:

This entire thing is absurd. I understand why kids engage in this ridiculous arms race. What I don’t understand is why admissions officers, who have presumably met some teenagers, and used to be one, actually reward it.

Robert Frank and Phil Cook’s Winner-Take-All Society was written almost two decades ago, but its acute analysis of situations such as this remains relevant and informative today. Admission to an elite university is a classic winner-take-all-market. First, competition is intense because the number of competitors has grown (i.e., there was a time when you competed for a Harvard slot only against a narrow sociodemographic segment of Northeasterners — now all manner of people all over the world apply). Second, rewards are distributed based on relative rather than absolute performance and even a narrow advantage over other market participants can have enormous consequences. Third, the rewards are concentrated in the hands of a small number of winners. That is, if 10 applicants are fighting for a single slot at Harvard, there is no scenario under which they can each come out with 10% of the reward they seek, or even a scenario where the best candidate gets 30% of the reward, followed by the next person getting 20%, third place receiving 15% and everyone else getting 5%. Instead one person gets 100% of the reward and everyone else gets nothing.

This situation has generated what McArdle decries: An arms race that families hate yet at the same time are afraid to retreat from unilaterally. If no parent signed their teenager up for SAT prep courses, interview training and essay coaches, and no adolescent invested thousands of hours in resume-stuffing extracurricular activities, all parents and all adolescents would be better off and no one’s chance of getting into an elite university would be affected (Recall that in a winner-take-all-market, it’s relative performance that matters). The problem of course is that in a winner-take-all-market such as elite university admissions, once even a few people engage in these competitive behaviors it costs everyone else not to engage in them also. Hence begins an arm’s race that the participants are damaged by but will not unilaterally exit.

Frank and Cook note that in organized systems of competition, “positional arms control agreements” are possible. For example, athletic leagues can agree to test athletes for steroids, removing the pressure for everyone to take steroids because they fear someone else will do so and thereby gain a relative advantage. But the world’s parents and their children are not an organized system and could never agree to much less enforce such an arm’s control agreement.

McArdle clearly recognizes this as she isn’t blaming parents or asking them to do anything differently. Rather, she wants college admissions officers to stop rewarding kids who have over-stuffed, over-burnished resumes. That seems logical on its face, but another lesson of Frank and Cook’s work is that the people imposing brutal competition on others are sometimes trapped in a higher level such system themselves.

Frank and Cook cite the example of investment banking houses that refuse to hire anyone who didn’t graduate from a handful of Ivies. That creates a winner-take-all-market for young people who want an investment banking career. Don’t the people at the firms realize that brilliant young people graduate from a wide range of universities and that some certified witlings have Ivy league degrees?

Of course they do. However, if you are overseeing a division at the firm that makes a bad investment and loses millions of dollars, you must insulate yourself against being blamed by higher up management. One way to do that is to say “Look, I hired the very best people – it’s all Harvard and Princeton grads in my shop”. In contrast, if the investment team you oversee is full of Michigan State University grads (my alma mater) you will be vulnerable: “Your lax hiring standards made the firm lose money — you should have hired Ivy League grads like all the other division heads” (against whom of course YOU may be competing in a winner-take-all-market for year-end bonuses).

Investment firms are also in intense winner-take-all-competition with each other for super-wealthy clients. Even if the relative reputational advantage of having an all-Ivy team is a slight one, if it nets even one more oil sheikh a year your firm wins big and other firms with more open hiring lose big. Hence if you control hiring for the firm you will continue to impose what you know is an irrational winner-take-all-market on job applicants because your division and your firm as a whole are themselves competing in equally irrational winner-take-all-markets.

Back to university admissions. Elite universities compete with each other in a constant neck and neck race for educational prestige, of which the omnipresent and in my view malignant US News and World Report ratings hang over all. Everyone knows those ratings are of questionable validity, but they also know that if their university is rated say 11th versus 9th it can have dramatic short-term consequences for their number of applicants for admission as well for faculty positions, and adverse long-term consequences to the university’s endowment. There are only 10 spots on the list of top ten national universities, and if you are 11th instead of 10th you might reap the same rewards as the school that is 50th (As the noted philosopher Ricky Bobby put it “If you’re not first, you’re last”).

I suspect therefore that the reason individual admissions offices at elite universities don’t unilaterally take the step that McArdle suggests is that they fear the relative reputational disadvantage that would result if they become the one soft touch university in the brutal winner-take-all-market of educational reputation. The reputational effect might be slight, but one of the defining features of winner-take-all-markets is that slight relative differences can have huge consequences.

Is it therefore hopeless and/or excusable? I don’t think so. What I have said to my friends in the admissions business is this: For the sake of the young people they will admit and the young people they will not, the most elite universities in this country (Including mine) should negotiate a positional arm’s control agreement regarding admissions. Many options are available. The elite universities could allow students to list two and only two extracurricular activities on their application regardless of whether they’ve done two or two hundred. They could agree that all high school grade point averages above 3.7 would be counted as equivalent. I am sure with all the brainpower and experience among elite university admissions officers, they will find wiser suggestions than these ideas off the top of my head, but the goal would be the same: Ending the arm’s race that is causing emotional misery in and economic harm to the countless families who want their child to receive an elite university education.

Comments

  1. npm says

    I don’t remember where I heard the suggestion, but it would match up well with yours: Admissions officers often say that there are boatloads more qualified applicants than they can accept. Therefore, they should create a pool of extremely well qualified applicants – say, two to three times the number of acceptances. They should then randomly select accepted students from that group. There could be variations on that theme – for example, if you want to make sure you have an orchestra, you could make sure you accept at least two tuba players.

    • newsouthzach says

      Of course, if the admissions officers took your suggestion, they’d no longer be able to justify the staffing levels or salaries that they currently command in the name of “picking a great incoming class.” I’m not holding my breath.

  2. dave schutz says

    You’ve got an assumption that admission to top-ten institutions will retain its value. May well – has for years. But I can conceive of changes which would lessen the value, and thus the enormous pressure to seek admission. Parents are lower on money than they have been, and I expect rising unwillingness to mortgage retirements to pay for swell schools. This can feed back two ways: the exceptional kid from Pahrump, or Clovis, who might have been pipelined to Yale will go to a cheaper school and then go on to do well, and models you-can-do-well-without-Yale. And, Yale gets less interesting in losing the kid from Pahrump.

    The elite schools have been keeping their classes to the same sizes they were forty years ago. In the short run, ruinous competition to get in, in the long run, lots more elite-qualified kids don’t get in and they make their careers without the credential. As well, huge numbers of Chines and Indian and Korean kids are applying. Schools are happy to take them, they go home after graduating – so even fewer elite-school slots relative to what we need to run the country. Damn! Goldman has to dig a little deeper in hiring.

    Last, the academic system is truly vicious. People are encouraged to spend ten years on graduate school, and come out burnished to teach at Duke, and Duke is full. So they scrabble for jobs at Linfield, and Humboldt State. Or become freeway flyers, teaching a class at a time in community college. Result is that the teaching to which kids who went to non-elite schools get exposed is of much closer quality to that at elite schools than it was even fifteen years ago. This further diminishes the advantage elite admittees have over the rest of the graduates.

    Broadly, if this all comes to pass, I think it will be a good thing, and can diminish the struggle for position and admission which blights the lives of Suzy Weiss and Blair Hornstine and their peers. A fellow can hope, right?

    • Anonymous says

      Nice comment. On your first point, though, I think the top schools, well-endowed, are much more interested in getting the best students than in getting the maximum amount of student tuition at this point. Certainly so at Harvard etc given their financial aid programs. More price consciousness might actually help the very top schools pull away from the next, less well-endowed tier.

    • J. Michael Neal says

      1) The truly top schools can give sufficient financial aid that they are unlikely to lose out on students for the reasons you list. All of the rest of the schools can’t, so the incentive to remain one of the top schools and to get into one of the top schools increases as more families struggle economically.

      2) The rest of your points are largely irrelevant. The value of a Harvard diploma goes far deeper than than the quality of the education. In fact, that was largely the point of Keith’s post.

      • Warren Terra says

        Re your (2), Harvard very likely doesn’t offer a truly better education opportunity in many topics than any top-level public research university, in terms of the teaching or the access to faculty, for the student determined to seek out and use all the resources they can find, or can wheedle. This certainly has been my experience (from the public university side of that contest, knowing extremely talented peers who went to the Ivies). But the average undergraduate at a large public research university does not get a good education, and the undergraduate who is merely above average probably gets a good education, but not a great one. My (possibly ill-informed, romantic) impression is that it’s quite easy to get a good education at a place like Harvard. This is a major difference; there are advantages to smaller class sizes and a faculty most or all of whose members would be stars elsewhere. And the quality of the interaction with the other students is going to be different at such a highly selective institution – you will come out of Harvard knowing more brilliant peers, and knowing vastly more influential peers (and perhaps even some who overlap), than you would attending a less selective large public research university, even if the resources exist at that university from which the determined student can cobble together an education the equal of any in the world.

        • Maynard Handley says

          The question as to whether you HAVE to go to an Ivy depends on what you want to do with your life. You can be a fine doctor or lawyer or engineer without going to an Ivy.
          So what it seems to boil down to is
          - do I want to make a billion in finance OR
          - do I want to have elite boasting credentials?
          - do I want to be not just a good (doctor| lawyer | engineer) but the very best (in which case, why am I complaining that I have to demonstrate that superiority?)

          None of these seem especially worth getting upset over.

          There IS a very real issue of whether a meritocracy structured as the US currently is (sort of) is a good idea, an issue covered extensively in Chris Hayes’ book. This issue is grounded in questions like “is it better that group decisions be made from as wide a pool of knowledge as possible, rather than from the supposed ‘best’ minds available” or “is it actually true that very high rewards generate better performance (all evidence says very much no)”, but these do not seem to be what people are arguing about.

          What I see here is that what is needed is a CULTURAL SHIFT which stops putting so much importance on having an education from one of a handful of schools; but what is actually being said (by Megan and many commenters) is that the existing cultural paradigm is just fine, only somehow the “wrong” people using the “wrong” techniques are getting into this handful of schools. Can you people not see how incoherent this is? Essentially the model you seem to want to reign is some variant of “we’ll still have winner takes all, with all its pathologies, but now we’ll decide who the winner is by lottery”! I fail to see how this is an improvement in any sense.

          • J. Michael Neal says

            The statement, “You can be a fine doctor or lawyer or engineer without going to an Ivy,” omits a very important consideration. While it is certainly possible to become very good at almost anything no matter where you get your undergraduate education, it is not equally likely. Getting into Harvard makes it a lot easier to conduct that job search, or an application to graduate school. It adds a level of security to the early stages of postgraduate life that an alumnus of most public universities do not have.

    • Warren Terra says

      As has been noted, the topmost and wealthiest schools (Harvard, Princeton, presumably Yale though I don’t know their tuition scheme) don’t care about tuition, and are quite generous with tuition forgiveness and even room and board. Of course, they can afford this, with their endowments – and moreover, they make far more money from the long-term benefits they realize from producing heads of state and titans of industry than they could plausibly get in tuition payments.

      • prognostication says

        Yes, although you don’t have to move all that far down the list before you get to “top” schools where the aid is not nearly as generous.

        • Katja says

          Of course, if your family is in the income range where you just don’t qualify, but where tuition and other expenses are still a significant part of your family’s disposable income, then you may have a problem.

          This was actually the situation I was in; of course, I still had all the other benefits of a high SES student [1] and did just fine regardless [2]. :)

          [1] Among other things, a stimulating environment with two academic parents who managed to challenge me without resorting to tiger parenting; actually having lived abroad for five years and having to adapt to going to school speaking an entirely different language and navigating a different school system; etc.
          [2] The downside was that at times I was a pretty insufferable 17-year old, though I did eventually fix my social shortcomings. Well, most of them. :)

          • Keith Humphreys says

            This depends in part on whether the school uses notching for establishing aid worthiness. In those cases, you can be better off making less money just below the notch than by making substantially more but just above it. Stanford’s system I believe is not notched: Aid diminishes gradually as family income over 100k goes up.

  3. Curmudgeon says

    Looking ahead a few decades, winner-take-all admission and employment policies will be scary as hell when bioengineering allows parents to design their kids for intelligence. Concentration and intelligence enhancing drugs are already on the table in some areas (note the misuse of ADHD drugs by non-ADHD persons to increase concentration) and it’s only a matter of time until genetic engineering starts giving parents options to design enhanced children.

    If the baseline for admission into the only well-paying sectors of the economy becomes a $1,500,000 pre-birth bioengineering upgrade, social mobility will be a permanent dead letter.

    • Keith Humphreys says

      Frank and Cook write about this, saying they can imagine a world in which parents bioengineer their kids while at the same time regretting that the technology was ever invented.

      • Katja says

        The scary part is that we don’t really need to imagine such a world anymore.

        And personally, I’d have to say that if I were given the chance to ensure that none of my children suffered from any genetic defects, would I find this to be a bad thing? But then, at what point then “lack of intelligence” become a defect? At what point would there be a difference in kind, not just degree, when selecting for “no bad genes” vs. “only good genes?” How do we defined “bad” in a way that does not give rise to ethically troubling questions?

        (Another reason, along with the already occurring selection for sex, why I don’t quite see “freedom of choice” as quite the answer to the abortion problem, like a lot of progressives.)

  4. DCA says

    There is at least one school that has unilaterally opted out of the US News nonsense — Reed — and they seem to be doing just fine. (How do you opt out? You throw the
    rating questions they send you in the trash). Certainly the Ivies (and equivalents, such as Chicago and Stanford) could all do this tomorrow with no impact on themselves but probably a lot on US News–but I suppose this requires a level of contrarianism that few university presidents have.

    • Keith Humphreys says

      Let me tweak that — if ONE of them did that, they would endure a cost. But what if every single one of the top 25 did it collectively? That might bring it down.

      • Brett Bellmore says

        “But what if every single one of the top 25 did it collectively?”

        Numerous people would, in that same world, suffucate because the air molecules in their rooms happened to decide to congregate over in the corner for a few minutes.

        Groups of more than tiny size do not act unanimously save under coercion, any plan that requires them to do so either rests on coercion, or is hopeless.

        • Keith Humphreys says

          Groups of more than tiny size do not act unanimously save under coercion

          Yeah, that’s never ever happened in all of human history. Never been a mass movement. Never a boycott. Never a fad. Or even a club. Or a parade. Never ever happened. Ever anywhere on the planet, man. Because you said so.

          • SamChevre says

            I think you are missing “unanimously.” Mass movements are common–but getting them to be unanimous almost always requires coercion. (Scabs, Claiborne Hardware, the Boston Tea Party.)

          • Ken Rhodes says

            Sam, I don’t think DCA missed “unanimously.”

            He suggested the Ivies could decide to opt out. Without Harvard, Yale, Princeton, et al, the US News rankings would certainly lose their luster, wouldn’t they?

            And the Ivies could *definitely* decide to do that, and follow through. In 1951 Dick Kazmaier won the Heisman Trophy, and the Princeton Tigers were ranked in the top 10 in the country. Nevertheless, in 1952 the Ivy League decided that “student athlete” should mean just that, with the emphasis on “student,” so they abolished spring practice as well as participation in post-season bowl games.

            The Ivies are not such a large and diverse group that they can’t agree on something like that and stick to it.

          • Keith Humphreys says

            That was me, not DCA, but Ken Rhodes is correct. The Ivies have also filed SCOTUS briefs together and adopted the same financial aid policies (until it was ruled as anti-trust violation). More generally, groups of organizations freely choosing to form coalitions to achieve a political goal happens every day in this country.

  5. Jeff says

    I, along with 99% of parents, couldn’t care less whether or not my kids attend an Ivy league school. I am pretty sure it won’t make them any happier (or wiser?). I think this post might be written from within a bubble.

    • J. Michael Neal says

      It might not make them happier or wiser, but there is a fairly high probability that it will make them more economically successful.

      • NY-Paul says

        “there is a fairly high probability that it will” open some doors that might otherwise be closed. But, once they attend their first day at work, they’re on their own. And, so, the rat-race begins.

        • Larry Lennhoff says

          But, once they attend their first day at work, they’re on their own

          Their first day at work at each job, maybe. But I got an interview and a job (given how sketchy the interview was) in my early 40s based primarily on the fact I had attended the same prestigious college as the person who hired me. He actually stated “I need someone smart for this job, and if you were smart enough to get into X, you’re smart enough.”

        • J. Michael Neal says

          Where they spend that first day at work will be heavily influenced by where they go to school. Where you get your second job will be highly influenced by where you got your first job. And so on.

          • NY-Paul says

            All true, no argument. My only point was, that having gotten that first job, whether you prosper, and advance, is not guaranteed based on whatever elite school you attended.

          • J. Michael Neal says

            As I said above, phrasing it as providing a guarantee is a canard. It substantially improves the odds of that success.

    • Keith Humphreys says

      @Jeff: I, along with 99% of parents, couldn’t care less whether or not my kids attend an Ivy league school.

      This is equivalent as saying that if you offered 100 parents an Ivy League education for their children, 99 of them would be indifferent. Not credible. And totally untrue in the “bubble” in which I was an adolescent (The posh region known as West Virginia).

      • Jeff says

        You may be right Keith. I have been known to be wrong. But, where I grew up (middle class and Midwest), many parents would prefer that their kids go to “State” as opposed to Harvard, and not just because of the cost difference. Where I live now (urban and East Coast) the competition starts with preschool admissions, not at college application time, and I can’t help but think that these parents are delusional. This is not my area of expertise, but the literature seems split on the value of an elite education.

        http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/21/revisiting-the-value-of-elite-colleges/

  6. Altoid says

    Strictly from an admissions officer’s point of view, I think you’re closest when you get to the hiring patterns of those investment houses. Similar institutional pressures drive admissions people to work from checklists that, in turn, drive kids to pile up credentials, and I think that’s a big part of it.

    Some of these are positive pressures– geographic and ethnic and some class diversity, balancing single-minded high achievers against all-rounders, having some wild card admits to point to so you can talk about providing opportunity, stuff like that.

    Far stronger, imho, must be the negative pressures. There’s such a plethora of top students for these slots that you have to have ways to distinguish and choose among them, and it has to be something that can stand up to lawsuits. You can’t pick the one out of 100 (or 500, or whatever) competitive applicants for any slot just because you have a feeling about the kid. You have to have something defensible you can point to. So by far the safest way to go is to count up activity points of whatever kinds you want to use. It can work fine as long as it’s systematically applied, and it’s by far the safest thing to do. And at elite places you’re taking absolutely no chances, because something over 90% of the applicants would do fine there. The thing you really can’t do is the lottery that npm suggests, as tempting as it is.

    I think of this as an example of creeping credentialism. It’s expanded because we really can’t be arbitrary in passing out the societal rewards (because it turns out that when we think we’re being arbitrary we’re really discriminating pretty systematically in favor of somebody); but it goes haywire in situations like this where more and more can be asked simply because there does have to be some non-arbitrary way of picking the winners.

    We see something similar with ever-stiffer tenure requirements– we ask them of tenure-track people because we can, not because the requirements are really necessary. But that’s probably a different direction.

    • Keith Humphreys says

      Far stronger, imho, must be the negative pressures. There’s such a plethora of top students for these slots that you have to have ways to distinguish and choose among them, and it has to be something that can stand up to lawsuits.

      @Altoid: This is something I know nothing about — how often do admissions offices get sued? Do you know of any data on this?

      • Altoid says

        I don’t, alas. But I was peripherally involved with admissions and other aspects of administration for a couple of years, and I had the very strong impression that with admissions, as with virtually every aspect of administration, the consciousness of possible lawsuits is always hovering just behind everybody’s shoulder region. Especially the past 8-10 years; Risk Management or its other-institutional equivalent runs all our lives these days, and the legal context is all-important. This was not at an Ivy, however, but at a place where lots of applicants really didn’t belong in college. But everybody in admissions offices everywhere has to be well aware of the big suits and rulings (Texas and Michigan, at that time).

        And to be fair, it wasn’t all fear, and I don’t actually attribute everything to that. Sorry if it seemed that way. The people I was working with also wanted to do the right thing and have a basis for doing so that they could explain to parents and legislators. But the way things work today, you can only do that with quantifiable things on checklists (as is true of almost everything related to education today– everything must be like a standardized test, it seems). Procedural regularity *is* vital. But in situations like the one you described, it can easily go unchecked and create the kind of escalation we’re talking about.

        I do vaguely recall something like a 60 Minutes segment on the head of admissions at one of the Ivies who actually came out and said that it was basically arbitrary because they had so many applicants who were so good. They *are* in a special class, but I have to think they’re subject to the same pressures everyone else is (except direct legislative oversight in most cases), plus most of the parents have enough money to cause them real trouble if they want to.

        Just to be clear, this legal consciousness developed long before recent woes burst on our scene. Grooming of procedures and guidelines with specific legal responsibilities in mind has been ongoing for years.

  7. Colin says

    If they’re really selecting for academic merit, they should set hard entrance exams and/or academic interviews (maybe not to the extent of France’s Grandes Ecoles, but put at least as much effort in as say Oxford). GPAs can only detect consistency, not brilliance. In the UK, I know that extracurricular activities aren’t taken all that seriously by admissions people at any prestige level – their main concern is how good a student you are. (The phenomenon of banks and law firms showing an extreme preference for Oxbridge grads is, alas, exactly the same story as in the US.)

    Or am I totally missing the point of Ivy League schools?

  8. Brett Bellmore says

    What’s confusing about it? With the pressure for more and more people to go to college, the admissions pool keeps growing. The schools in question seem determined not to use their remarkable financial position to simply grow to meet demand. So, if they’re to maintain any pretense of being meritocratic institutions, the criteria for admission have to get stricter and stricter. As Altoid says, it’s not like they dare institute a lottery.

    Really, the most straightforward way out at the institutional level, is to expand. If they’d simply maintained their admissions as a fixed percentage of population or applications, to keep exactly as exclusive, they’d be much bigger schools by now. Instead they’re engaged in their own exclusivity arms race, because they can.

    • Keith Humphreys says

      Most of the elite universities are expanding, they just are not doing it in the US. They instead are open campuses in the Middle East, Southeast Asia etc.

      • Brett Bellmore says

        That’s an approach to gaining business without losing the exclusivity race, I suppose: Expand into other markets, rather than better serving the one you’re in.

        My son is 4, I will be personally shocked if the university system looks anything like it does at present, by the time he might have some interest in it. I went to college in an era when you could work summer jobs, and emerge from college with a marketable skill, and essentially debt free. But then, the college I attended had half the faculty to student ratio then that it has today, and a much higher percentage actually engaged in teaching.

        And even then the students were enraged at how much of our tuition was being spent on things which in no way contributed to our education.

        The cost of a college education is still growing faster than inflation, and it’s already uneconomic for many degrees. The system must collapse at some point. The ‘elite’ institutions will survive, if only because they have such insanely large endowments they don’t actually need students paying tuition. They could up and abandon the mission of educating, and just become country clubs for the faculty, if they felt like it.

        • NickT says

          “They could up and abandon the mission of educating, and just become country clubs for the faculty, if they felt like it.”

          No they couldn’t. The faculty don’t as a rule bring in the donations that keep the endowment afloat and sometimes expanding. They could, however, shed rather large chunks of the grad school population – and I would not be surprised if they start doing so in the humanities.

  9. Ebenezer Scrooge says

    I have to question the premise of the post. It’s false,unless you’re trying to get into I-banking, law or consulting. For most other things, the Ivyness of one’s undergrad school is not particularly important. There are a lot more job openings than there are Ivy degrees, and most employers don’t care where you went to school five years ago. And if you’re going to grad school in the arts and sciences, Ivy is only a small leg up. Every professor in the country knows that the Ivies care much more about their matriculation standards than their graduation standards.

    Maybe your ambitions are slightly greater than mere employment: to be in a student body composed of exclusively of serious students. There are plenty of schools that fit this bill, and don’t have the luxury of being able to reject nine of their ten top applicants at random. Names like Reed, Earlham, Oberlin, Grinnell, St. Johns (Annapolis/Santa Fe) come to mind. (Ivies are not composed exclusively of serious students: football, lax graduation standards, legacies.) Good students should be able to get into one of these. And they tend to give you the same small leg up as the Ivies do in grad school.

    The exceptions, of course, are the paths to the top 0.1%. Ivies help a lot in law school admissions, and hiring at I-banks and elite consultancies. I’m getting bored with the lives of the top 0.1%. Even in this rotten inegalitarian society, the top 10% still live decently.

    So drop the arms race, and just do well in high school. There are many worse fates than Bowdoin, or even Enormous State University.

    • Keith Humphreys says

      Ivy is only a small leg up.

      This observation is not a contrary one. A key point of Frank and Cook’s book is that a small leg up (i.e., slightly better relative performance) can have a massive consequence for rewards in a WTAM.

      • Ebenezer Scrooge says

        True that. But few markets are true winner-take-all. The rewards for the better losers may be modest, but they’re definitely there. I’m a mid-level corporate bureaucrat who lost the race to the top a long time ago, and am still living pleasantly. Borderline major league players have a minimum wage of $500k/year, not $7.25/hour. Etc.

        The path to the 0.1% is strait indeed, and every little bit helps. The top 10% has a different dynamic. It’s still competitive, and increasingly so. But it has plenty of room for false starts, and small advantages tend to dissipate in the noise.

        It’s the fate of the bottom 80-90% that scares me, and Ivy admission is completely irrelevant here.

        • Keith Humphreys says

          Borderline major league players have a minimum wage of $500k/year, not $7.25/hour. Etc.

          Pro baseball/basketball/football are absolutely WTAMs, and your data point here isn’t the relevant one. What percentage of people who wanted to be a major league baseball player are even a borderline pro? You have to take into account all the guys in AAA, AA, A and then all the countless people who nurtured major league dreams and practiced like hell through childhood, teen years, college and at some point got squeezed out. This what Frank and Cook call talent-misallocation, WTAMs attract too many entrants who then do individual and social harm by spending time pursuing top rewards they will never get instead of smaller, but attainable rewards in other endeavors.

        • Ebenezer Scrooge says

          Keith,
          I think I understand what you’re getting at, but it is damn complex. I think you’re using WTAM a bit too broadly. Nobody would call academia a WTAM, but it sure does attract too many entrants who waste a lot of time before going to law school and ultimately endowing a chair in the field that broke their heart when they were young. Conversely, baseball may be set up as a winnowing talent tournament, but many of the losers do fine. 75K (AAA salary) is good money in the Dominican, and a lot of high school coaches never made it out of low A. All of those actors and dancers in NY are similar. (My wedding band was a superb group of high school music teachers, all of whom had played with somebody you’ve heard of but decided on a steady paycheck.)

          The point I am trying to make is that the WTAM market that is fed exclusively by the Ivies is a very limited one: biglaw, i-banking, media, consulting. Iviness doesn’t make much difference in other markets, some of which are WTAM; others of which are not.

          • NCG says

            I think you make a good point, Ebbie, and an important one. There is a lot of room for second chances in the US (well, if you’re not an ex-con anyhow … we have a little problem there).

            However, these people – “biglaw, i-banking, media, consulting” – kind of have a lot of influence. It is worth thinking about what kind of people we are sorting into those fields. You may have really put your finger on something that explains the Now, in fact.

          • Keith Humphreys says

            Frank and Cook do not argue that all markets are WTAMs, just that because of technological change and inequality, this form of market, which has long been characteristic of some fields, has now spread to other endeavors. There are plenty of job markets that are not structured this way: plumbers, electricians, teaching, engineering, restaurant owner, florist to name only a few.

    • SamChevre says

      It’s false,unless you’re trying to get into I-banking, law or consulting.

      Or politics (including political blogging).

      • Ebenezer Scrooge says

        Media yes. Politics no. The classic path up in politics is to go to a local college, make contacts, go to a local law school,make contacts, become an ADA for a few years, make contacts, get elected to something small (if the path to DA is too long), sell insurance, make contacts, get elected to something bigger, etc.

        Of course, if you mean “President” by “politics”, Sam is correct. Going back to Ike, they’ve all been to fancy schools except LBJ, Reagan and arguably Nixon.
        Obama: Columbia, Harvard (Romney: BYU, Harvard)
        Bush the Lesser: Yale, Harvard (Gore: Harvard, Vanderbilt; Kerry: Yale, BU)
        Clinton: Georgetown, Yale
        Bush the not-Lesser: Yale (Dukakis: Harvard (I think))
        Reagan: Eureka (Mondale: Macalester, University of Minnesota))
        Carter: Naval Academy
        Ford: Michigan, Yale
        Nixon: Whittier, Duke (although Duke’s star was not so bright back then)
        LBJ: ????
        Kennedy: Harvard
        Ike: USMA

        • Keith Humphreys says

          I am too lazy to Google but I suspect you’d find a lot of Ivy in cabinet members over the past 35 years at least

          • Ebenezer Scrooge says

            Depends. Let’s look at George Bush’s first cabinet (Ds are probably ivier). By my count, four Ivies/Ivoids, four top public schools, seven not-so-top public schools. ymmv. Only about 4 or 5 or elected pols, so I’m not sure what this has to do with SamChevre’s point.
            Colin Powell: City College
            Paul O’Neill: Cal Fresno
            Donald Rumsfeld: Princeton
            John Ashcroft: Yale
            Gale Norton: U. Denver
            Ann Veneman: Cal Davis
            Don Evans: UT Austin
            Elaine Chao: Mount Holyoke
            Tommy Thompson: Wisconsin
            Rod Paige: Jackson State
            Mel Martinez: Florida State
            Norm Mineta: Berkeley
            Spencer Abraham: Michigan State
            Anthony Principi: Naval Academy
            Tom Ridge: Harvard

          • Keith Humphreys says

            Thanks for being less lazy than me Ebenezer — GW Bush’s cabinet is clearly not all Ivy (though Ivies are overrepresented).

            For Clinton, I didn’t google everyone but here are some data: President, First Lady, Defence Sec Les Aspin and Labor Secretary Reich all have Yale degrees. Al Gore, Larry Summers and Bob Rubin all have Harvard degrees. Madeline Albright has a Columbia degree, and was a Prof at Georgetown. Warren Christopher and Second Defence Sec Bill Perry have degrees from Stanford.

          • Anonymous says

            On the list, only Aspin and Gore were politicos. Well, Bill Clinton at the time. Hillary was most emphatically NOT a politico in ’93 (or less charitably, an incompetent one), although she has become a fine one since then.

            I think I’ll stick to my point, with perhaps a collateral concession. I don’t think that politicos are ultra-Ivy, although they are reasonably well-represented at the higher reaches. Maybe the “policy community” is.

        • CharlesWT says

          LBJ: Southwest Texas State Teachers’ College (now Texas State University-San Marcos)

  10. (I am a material girl living in a material world) says

    32 responses upthread of me and everyone, like McArdle, misses the larger point.
    Let’s run the title of Mr. Humphrey’s post again with some bold added:

    Elite University Admissions in a Winner-Take-All-Society

    Which leads me to suggest: In a Winner-Take-All-Society one should expect students to behave this way.
    Shaking one’s finger at Admins or scolding the Ivy League is a wittering waste of time.
    The problem is your culture. It sucks. It is ugly. You’ve become a people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

    Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, 30 years of the cult of the CEO… and here we are.
    Here’s the funny part: McArdle dares to shake a schoolmarm finger at this, all the while, supporting a Winner-Take-All-Society.
    Which tells you all you need to know about the quality of intellectuals produced by a Winner-Take-All-Society.

    • CharlesWT says

      “You’ve become a people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

      I take it that you are one of those people who know the value of everything and the cost on nothing.

      • John says

        Some of us actually are able to watch the price and value and come to very different conclusions than Ms. McArdle. Shocking, I know.

        But IAAMGLIAMW has the right of it: McA is complaining that she got what she wanted.

    • Anonymous says

      32 responses upthread of me and everyone, like McArdle, misses the larger point.

      Thank God you arrived to educate us!

  11. paul says

    As a sometime interviewer for one of those universities, I’m going to make a few other points:

    1) The incentives for cheating on your extracurricular claims are enormous, and the resources to discover same are minimal
    2) Those kids scare me; they’re just a little too much like the square-jawed executives I used to meet at startup dog-and-pony shows.
    3) I can’t imagine that the educational experience (on either side of the desk) is anything like the one that prevailed at the time when the Ivies were making their reputations. In fact, I can imagine that a lot of those elite, driven kids would do better at a good public research university, where their focus would lead them to seek out the resources they need.

    4) If the kids scare me as people, the kind of world they might make terrifies me even more. They’ve all pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps, and they’re going to be succeeding in a world where everyone has done the same. Any empathy they might have for the rest of us will be entirely coincidental.

    Oh, and one more thing: to the class of careers such kids aspire to, add opinion-shaper. The top ranks of punditry and think-tankage are crowded with Ivy types (not even counting the Ivy academics).

    • NCG says

      Re 4): I’m not so sure about the bootstraps. They will probably have worked hard, but it mostly won’t be the kind of work that teaches you about life — such as, having actual part-time jobs during the summer. When I hear of someone who did charity work in a foreign country at a young age, sorry, but what I think is, “silver spooner.” With tiger parents. In no way does this make me think better of them as a person. They might be a good person, or they might not. As a data point it means nothing. It is always so much easier to try to fix someone else’s country. Sorry if I sound classist, but you know what? I am, a little bit. (It’s a rebuttable presumption, but there is a presumption in there.) Out of the rich kids I met in school, some of them actually worked real jobs over their summers. It’s not everything, but it’s something. I bet no one bothers with that anymore.

      Meanwhile, as you say, we’re teaching kids to be risk-averse brownnosing gradegrubbers, who won’t take the hardest classes anymore, or make any interesting mistakes. It’s not good.

      • paul says

        Sorry, I miswrote. What I meant to imply was that these kids are being taught that they are earning their places entirely on their own merit, rather than being aware of the degree to which their parents’ wealth, privilege and/or special efforts have helped them, as have the efforts of teachers and mentors at all the paid and unpaid places they have worked and studied.

        Some of the rich kids I knew worked in the summers, but pretty much all of the non-rich ones did, often at jobs arranged by the university. This gave them the kinds of contacts they needed to compete with the rich kids…

        In my later life, meanwhile, I’ve found that many of the people responsible for groundbreaking this or that were screwups early on, and never would have gotten into positions to do good work in today’s environment.

  12. KLG says

    While I was a postdoc at the *best* medical school on the eastern seaboard (no, not the one in Boston) I went to a McKinsey & Company recruiting event, just for the hell of it (my Michigan State equivalent might as well have been Ponca City College; not that there is anything wrong with that). The speaker was a former neurosurgeon with some sort of unplaceable British accent, naturally, who actually said that removing brain tumors from children had become stultifying. So he decided to do something exciting, like borrowing his clients’ watches and telling them what time it is. That’s when I stopped listening, for the most part. But the emphatically stated assumption that McKinsey could and would hire only graduates of Ivies and equivalents was absurd then, and still is. Jeff Skilling, Bobby Jindal, anyone? Chelsea Clinton?

    • Ken Rhodes says

      Just idle curiosity, KLG–what’s the reference to Chelsea Clinton? Stanford and Oxford–looks like a pretty strong “Ivies and equivalents” in her resume.

      • Keith Humphreys says

        And Jeff Skilling went to Harvard and Bobby Jindal went to Brown AND Oxford.

      • KLG says

        Ken, that was probably unkind of me. There can be no doubt about Ms. Clinton’s academic qualifications. She also seems to be an outstanding young woman, one that would make any parent proud. But she is making noise about a political future. Fine. Let her run for City Council and then move on up. Or maybe start as, say, Attorney General of a smallish state, as her father did IIRC. I don’t get the impression that she is likely to do that in the winner-take-all universe, and being a drop-in, drop-out consultant for McKinsey doesn’t really prepare her for much, aside from the access to the rich and powerful it provides. That comes with her name in any case.

        • Keith Humphreys says

          KLG: You did not address the fact that you said it was “absurd” to assume that McKinsley only hired people from Ivy-League caliber places and then listed as your examples three people who together have 2 degrees from Oxford, 2 from the Ivies and one from Stanford. Maybe I misunderstood your argument, but I don’t get how listing the names of people with degrees from fancy places disproves that that is who places like Mckinsey hire.

          • KLG says

            Yeah, I’ve done better…Sorry. The very dull point is that graduates of Brown, Harvard, and Rhodes Scholars are a mixed bag and that graduates of Michigan State who do well are just as good as the former when it comes to competence and good sense. That’s all. What really frosts me is that I agree with something McArdle wrote. I must be more open minded than I thought.

  13. byomtov says

    Is it possible that there is some degree of “feature, not bug,” in the system?

    After all, as everyone points out, the kids with test prep, summers spent building houses for Habitat in Ecuador, etc. are coming from well-off families. They don’t need to flip burgers or whatever all summer for spending money. If you want your freshman class, or a big part of it, from certain segments of society, without saying so, that’s one way to accomplish it.

    Let me add a small dig here. Dacid Brooks, I think, wrote a similar lament a few days ago, about stratification, etc. induced by Ivy League admission procedures. So maybe the stratification issue is drawing some attention on the right. When they expand the concern to cover broader social policies, including especially taxes, and so on, I’ll take it seriously. Until then, it loks a little like a cheap, albeit not entirely undeserved, shot.

    • Maynard Handley says

      ” So maybe the stratification issue is drawing some attention on the right.”

      I’ll require a little more evidence to believe that it is stratification that is worrying the right and NOT the two obvious facts that

      - yes, money can help, but when the competition gets as tough as it has become, MY precious little angel may not be able to get into Harvard!
      (cf the usual “I’m against gay rights until my kid turns out gay”, “I don’t care about mental health until my kid develops schizophrenia”)

      - meanwhile all too many “Asians” and “Jews” seem to be getting into Harvard.

    • NCG says

      Here is a little factoid. Back in the day (mid 90s), I knew a guy who helped with admissions for a pretty snooty West Coast law school, and was a student at the time. He would give conservatives a boost just because they were thin on the ground (back then). I doubt if this possibility ever occurred to the people who were fighting affirmative action. Love of diversity can be a real thing.

      Anyway, my theory is, everyone wants the criteria to be made up of whatever their own group is good at. Which can’t be the right answer, can it?

  14. Katja says

    To begin with, from a “consumer’s” perspective, I’d start by arguing that the top universities may be overrated (outside of, as Ebenezer points out, business and law for the connections you get out of them), at least for undergraduate study. I attended a state school as an undergraduate myself (in fact, the same one that Keith did, as I found out recently), and it didn’t hurt me. I ended up in the top percentile of the subject GRE and went on to get a Ph.D. Now, I could have gotten into a top school, and we could have afforded it (though barely — we had moved back from Europe a couple of years ago, with all the attendant costs, and my parents had just bought a home); in the end, however, the cost/reward ratio was not worth it. We were talking about a serious case of diminishing returns. Instead, I managed to put myself through school (between scholarship money and working) and learned to stand on my own feet in the process, which was very much worth it, I think.

    It’s also worth noting that not all rewards are economic in nature; with a Ph.D. in computer science, I could be slaving away 50-60 hours a week in Silicon Valley for a solid six digit income to make people look at ads and retire early, but I’m quite a bit happier as a part-time mom, part-time academic research fellow, given that between my husband and myself, we still earn plenty. Insofar I’m questioning the winner-takes-all premise.

    That said, I have also started to look at what this all means for our daughters. While this may sound silly, as they’re still pretty young at the moment, I strongly suspect that the older one at least is college-bound because of raw talent alone, and if we will be living in America by then, it’s sadly not too early to at least start thinking about college funding (this goes even for a good state school these days). Now, luckily, my daughters do have American, British, and German citizenship and are being raised bilingually, so they do have other options.

    Obviously, if we were to stay in Scotland, the University of Edinburgh would be an obvious choice, though admission is pretty competitive (that said, there are plenty of other good universities here, too). However, there would be no tuition to pay. The SAAS fully funds tuition for your first course of study if you’re a Scottish resident or non-British EU citizen. While this theoretically may change during the coming decade, this is unlikely, given that the Tories would have to win a majority in the Scottish parliament, which seems somewhat less likely than hell becoming a hockey rink. I would be surprised to see more than a token amount of undergraduate tuition.

    More importantly, however, there are options on the continent. Consider ETH Zürich, for example. It’s ranked right up there with the best American universities (#12 worldwide according to the Times World University Rankings); the sole requirement for admission for most subjects is passing the Swiss matriculation exam (foreign student may meet additional requirements or pass an entrance exam); now, the Swiss matriculation exam is pretty challenging, but a far cry from what MIT or Stanford may demand. As I understand it [1], Switzerland gets away with it for two reasons: One, they have a very attractive VET program, which makes universities comparatively less attractive for many young people. Two, while the admission process may not be as selective, the actual programs are; i.e., grading on a curve basically does not exist, if you cannot handle the challenge, you will drop out. (Only a few subjects, such as medicine, have additional restrictions.) This has both advantages and disadvantages: The advantage is that hardly anybody who meets the basic skill requirement is going to be barred from trying; the disadvantage is that if you can’t handle it, you may waste a year or two of your life without getting anything out of it. Tuition at ETHZ is around 600 CHF per semester, though cost of living may be high for foreigners.

    Germany has yet another system. As it is, Germany does not really have elite schools in the American sense, unlike the UK or Switzerland. There are some attempts to change that (such as the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology; it’s no coincidence that the name is patterned after MIT’s), but they still have a ways to go. This does not mean that German universities don’t have some excellent departments or individual professors, but they don’t really have this “concentration of excellence” that you find at American, British, or Swiss universities, where top universities constantly and aggressively recruit the best of the best (both among teachers and students).

    This seems to have partly historical reasons: When the Nazis took the axe to the German research landscape after their rise to power in 1933 by forcibly exiling Jewish and dissident professors, they also did destroy many of the renowned universities (Hilbert’s bitter statement to a Nazi functionary about the state of mathematics in Göttingen comes to mind). After WW II, a rebuilding process was necessary. Rather than rebuilding Göttingen and other universities to their former glory, Germany seems to have focused on primarily building the aforementioned “concentration of excellence” through its non-profit research societies, particularly the Max Planck Society (for basic research) and the Fraunhofer Society (for applied research). Both of them have excellent reputations for their research (the MPS in particular has very high impact factor, though in part that may be because of its sheer size).

    Both the Max Planck Institutes and Fraunhofer Institutes are generally colocated with universities and tend to operate in close cooperation with them, including students doing projects, thesis work, or complete dissertations at them. At the same time, they are still separate and as a result, German universities tend to be quite a bit more egalitarian than their American counterparts, especially with respect to undergraduate admission. While there are substantial qualitative differences between German universities, it’s not too difficult to get into one of the better ones; especially in several of the STEM areas, quite a few good universities are seeking more students.

    As in Switzerland, an attractive VET system also draws potential students away from universities; and likewise, admission, while less selective than in America, also does not mean that you may not be out of your depths and wash out before getting a degree (I remember a German colleague mentioning a 70% failure rate in a theoretical computer science course a while ago). Tuition at German universities is generally either free or up to 500 Euro per semester.

    A note on tuition: Both Germany and Switzerland (like many other continental European countries) are heavily subsidizing tertiary education, both vocational and college; aside from the social justice aspect, both are high tech countries that depend on having a skilled labor force.

    [1] This is from having read up on it, so I may have gotten some details wrong.

    • Warren Terra says

      But of course Germany does have some of this stratification: I don’t know what it’s like within Germany, but everyone I know who’s gotten a really good postdoc or a good faculty job in the US out of the German system did their work in Germany at a Max Planck Institute, rather than at the University. So far as I know, graduate students in MPI labs are enrolled at the nearby University, rather than directly at the MPI, but they will have in reality applied to the lab at the MPI. So the selectivity exists and determines later career options there, too. Sure, getting into a really good lab to do your PhD is probably easier at an MPI than it is to get into Harvard as an undergraduate – but for that matter it’s an awful lot easier to get into Harvard as a PhD student (at least in the fields I know of) than it is to get into Harvard as an undergraduate. For one thing, I don’t think I’ve heard of any PhD applicants whose extramural activities unrelated to their field of study were even remotely considered to be a factor.

      • Katja says

        Oh, I don’t disagree. My point was that it doesn’t seem to splash over much on undergraduate admission. I’m not really stressing out over Ph.D. programs being selective; heck, I’d consider it problematic if they weren’t sufficiently selective. (It’s also worth noting that post-Bologna, the German admission system seems to have become somewhat more Americanized, for better or worse.)

        My concern is (especially with respect to my own children) the accessibility of basic tertiary education; if they have the talent, they should be able to get a college education that allows them to turn that talent into a job that allows them to pay the bills without having rich parents or going through a dog-and-pony show. But if they want a Ph.D., they’ll have to earn it. This is also why I think it’s important to have a good vocational training story for those who don’t have the talent for college; I find it rather problematic when your income depends too much on whether your skills happen to be marketable rather than how hard you’re working. It’s kinda embarrassing that even as a part-time academic I earn as much as some people working full time.

  15. Katja says

    Also relevant in this context: I vaguely remember a study that compared Penn State and UPenn graduates. The claim, as I remember it, was that while UPenn graduates did better on average (performance on tests, jobs), that edge disappeared once you controlled for student quality; i.e., UPenn basically had an edge because they were attracting the better students, but did not necessarily provide the better education (at least by outcome-based metrics).

    Does anyone else remember this or is my memory deceiving me? While it’s not implausible on its face, I don’t really have more than some vague memory fragments to go by, so I don’t know if this is real (or even if the study, if it existed, was based on solid evidence).

    • Keith Humphreys says

      Frank and Cook document that better students (e.g., Westinghouse Science winners) are increasingly concentrated at the elite schools. This lowers the chance that a student somewhere else will have a brilliant science lab partner or roommate or friend. It also affects life chances afterwards if you go to a university in which post-college, your friendship network will include many highly successful people.

      All of which is to say that the advantage generated by better students at your college isn’t an artifact, but a true advantage.

      • Katja says

        I’m well aware that these advantages; I am wondering whether they translate into measurable benefits once you look at the actual educational process. (And I don’t know one way or the other, which is why I’d like to see evidence; as I said, I vaguely recall that one study which may provide a counterpoint if I’m not misremembering.)

        For example, yes, you may have a better lab partner at an elite college; on the other hand, one can argue that when using a learning-by-teaching approach, the superior student is actually favored (and this may evolve naturally when you are a “big fish in a small pond”). I recall that when I was a TA for a professor who used partner-based collaborative learning approaches, we were instructed to make sure that both partners took turns explaining, for this very reason. See, e.g. Noreen M. Webb, “Task-Related Verbal Interaction and Mathematics Learning in Small Groups”, Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 1991, vol. 22, no. 5, pp. 366-389; in particular, Webb found that given explanations was positively correlated with achievement (even controlling for ability), while receiving explanations was not or negatively correlated with achievement.

  16. Donald A. Coffin says

    I’m about to do a mini-version of one of my ongoing rants. Keith is quite right about the exponentially more intense competition for admission to elite private universities; that competition is one reason those institutions have been able to raise tuition as much as they have. But that’s an aside.

    Suppose you were running a profit-making firm, and the demand for your produce was increasing over time (by my estimates, the number of people who may want to enroll at an elite private university in the US is at least 4 times as great as it was in the mid-1960s). Standard economic theory suggests that you will (a) raise your price *and* (b) increase your output. Yet undergraduate enrollments at elitr private universities inthe US have barely budges since the 1960s.

    I understand that one may wish to maintain a scale of operation that allows for elite status. But why hasn’t Harvard (for example) decided to compete directly with all those schools calling themselves “the Harvard of the Midwest”? Given their endowment, they could build a campus in Chicago and establish a presence there.

    As long as elite private usiversities use increased demand for their products as a means to raise prices–without increasing enrollments–the problem will not go away.

  17. Maynard Handley says

    I’m not sure I understand the nature of the complaint.
    Megan wants to get into a pool that is, by definition, the top .0001% of students, but is unhappy that to do so she has to be a substantially above-average student? This is pretty much the definition of entitlement, isn’t it?

    There would be genuine cause for concern here if the Ivy’s were the only colleges in America, or even the only good colleges in America, but that’s far from the case. What the Ivy’s are is where the next generation of future movers-and-shakers meet their future cronies. This is the world that Megan defends at every turn, a world supposedly based on nothing but “merit”.
    [Would it be unreasonable to suspect that, lurking behind all this, is a fear that them asians and jewish kids have an "unfair advantage"?]

    The whole thing strikes me as massively incoherent nonsense — in other words par for the course from Ms McCardle, a writer who seems to specialize in whining about things that are the obvious consequence of the policies she whole-heartedly supports.

    • J. Michael Neal says

      The problem is that an awful lot of what the elite universities use to determine what constitutes an above average student not only is nothing of the sort but are actually damaging to the psychology of the teenagers in competition for the slots. Granted, I think McArdle stumbling across a problem and correctly identifying it is one of those strange occurrences that can happen only infrequently and by accident, but she has done so in this case.

  18. alkali says

    The better solution would be not to tinker with admissions but rather to increase supply. Over the last 50 years, the size of the U.S. population has grown from roughly 180 million to 300 million, an increase of about 67%. Yet, as Brad DeLong has pointed out, during that same time period, “Harvard has gone from 1200 undergraduates a year to 1600,” i.e., just a 33% increase, “and has done so in spite of starting with a substantial endowment and receiving $15B of private charitable gifts.”

    If the preeminent private schools had used their substantial resources to grow their undergraduate ranks at least in proportion to the growth of the US population, we wouldn’t see this same kind of arms race on the admissions side.

  19. MosesZD says

    But this is classic free market behavior driving increases in worker (in this case our child-student-applicants) productivity! We’re supposed to celebrate productivity gains in the workforce, even if we don’t reward said workforce for these productivity gains… So, I find it amazing how she can decry the situation where more ‘worth’ is produced from the same pool of labor… That’s just philosophically contrary to the ideals she has espoused over her career as Libertarian Hack with Bad Calculator…

  20. EB says

    The dynamic is difficult for the students who think they’ll have a dim future if they don’t get into a top ten (or 15, or 20) but the squeeze for those colleges means that a much higher proportion of truly gifted students are ending up at top 50 or top 100 institutions. Or wherever. Case in point: rode the plane back from the American Chemical Society meeting in New Orleans yesterday. Large contingent of chemistry undergrads on their way back to Minneapolis; frighteningly smart, and have to be students at UMinn, Carleton, St. Olaf, Macalester, or some other non-Ivy/MIT/Berkeley school.

  21. NY-Paul says

    I would like to see a study regarding what a student’s interests were when entering an elite university, and whether they drastically changed over the course of the ensuing years.

    Just one anecdotal experience…….A brother had an early-life love affair with physics. His goal was to emulate Einstein, holing up in some Princeton research tower, toiling away at the leading edge of advanced physics. His scholastic achievements matched his goals and, so, his collegiate history was: Freshman/sophomore years at MIT; junior/senior years, Harvard; Masters, Berkeley, Ca; PhD, Harvard (Theoretical Nuclear Physics.)

    But, something interesting happened in his detours through Harvard. He went in dedicated to pure research, he came out as senior advisor to a huge international hedge fund. His financial rewards became enormous, yet his lifestyle was one of extreme frugality. Trading the study of string theory (and beyond) for the study of anomalies in HFT, I thought his transformation quite ghoulish. Anything of interest here?

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