The Visible and Hidden Harms of the Elite University Admissions Process

One reaction some people had to my post on elite university admissions in a winner-take-all-society could be easily summarized: So what? Hundreds of thousands of families invest time, energy, hope and resources into attaining a child’s admission to Harvard, Princeton etc., most of them don’t make it, but life is tough, deal with it, nothing to fix here. I don’t agree with that, which is why I proposed a positional arms control agreement among elite universities that would reduce the pressure for adolescents to have a thousand extracurricular activities, SAT training camps, admissions coaches and the like.

The harms that I think do warrant some type of reform are of two types. The first, which is well-discussed by Frank and Cook in their book The Winner-Take-All Society, is mis-allocated resources. Certainly there is no damage done when students strive to improve their odds of elite university admissions by making sure that they become proficient at math and writing. These are investments that will likely pay off no matter what happens to them afterwards. If you become an excellent writer in the hopes of getting into an Ivy League school and you don’t make it, you are still an excellent writer, which will have professional and personal value for you forever.

In contrast, what use is knowledge of how the SAT is designed once you have taken the test? Kaplan is currently charging between $300 and $1300 to prepare students to do well on the SAT and its brethren. Families can spend even more money on an “admissions coach” who will help their child choose the “right” extracurricular activities (many of which also cost money), craft the “perfect” admissions essay and otherwise reveal the tricks of the admissions trade. As with SAT prep courses, virtually none of this has economic value that outlasts the moment when that fearful letter arrives from the elite university’s admissions office.

Meanwhile, the money required for all these services is a strain for many families, drawing down resources they need for other things. And of course countless families whose children will never get into an elite university (A key feature of winner-take-all markets is that they attract too many participants) will make the investment anyway and have their elite university dream crushed just the same.

These sorts of harms are fairly visible and I think most people can see them. But there is another type of damage I see when I work with elite universities on problems of mental health and substance use among students. Fair warning: I cannot prove with systematic evidence what I am about to describe, so take it as only as one person’s report from the front line.
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