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.
In many respects, the undergraduates at our elite universities are some of the most remarkable people I have ever met. They have almost uniformly accomplished more at their stage of life than I had, and by no small margin. And at the same time, some of them remind me of Freddy Rodriguez’s character in The Lady in the Water.
For those who haven’t seen the film, Rodriguez plays a man who is running an experiment on himself. He exercises vigorously, but only on the right side of his body. The result is someone who looks extraordinarily powerful from one perspective and weak and vulnerable from the other. I think of this image often when I meet university students who can speak 4 languages, but cannot ask for a date in any of them. I think of it when I meet brilliant students who can debate the works of Aristotle with confidence and verve but do not feel comfortable going to a social event without a few shots of vodka in their belly. And I think of it when I see the occasional young person we have at Stanford who looks perfect — 4.0 GPA 1600 SAT 8 million extracurriculars perfect — when they arrive and within 6 months is flunking classes, struggling with depression or otherwise lost at sea.
The time and energy that young people now spend polishing their application package to such luster has to come from somewhere, and one of those places may be the normal process of growing up: Making friends, learning to deal with conflict, having fun, becoming aware of emotions and how to cope with them, learning how to relax, discovering who you are and not just what others expect you to be. When those things are neglected, some of the young people who ostensibly win the elite admission rat race end up losing, and losing badly.