Review: The Price of Admission

Daniel Golden’s The Price of Admission (based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning series of Wall Street Journal articles) is an expose of preferences for various types in undergraduate admissions: children of alumni, the wealthy, celebrities, and politicians; non-Asians; athletes; etc. Mr. Golden leaves little doubt that cash- and limelight-hungry institutions use admissions as a powerful perk (though probably not an explicit quid pro) for donors and supporters. (A student’s attractive connection is a “hook.”)

As a result, lots of merely talented students (the “unhooked”) are supplanted by those with natal qualifications. Says Mr. Golden:

Since Harvard and other elite universities with ballooning numbers of applications still make room for preferred groups, everybody else’s chances have shrunk dramatically. An applicant with my credentials (1410 SAT score, top-10 class rank, one advanced placement course) wouldn’t even be in the running at Harvard today unless he were a legacy, a development case, a recruited athlete, a faculty child, or a minority.

Mr. Golden suggests that preferences reduce upward mobility and contribute to an ossifying class structure in the U.S.:

Of all the sorts of diversity that elite college profess to seek, socioeconomic diversity counts to the least. To build a freshman class that is balanced in other respects, colleges routinely sacrifice the interests of low-income families. … Opportunity is scarcer today for children of poverty than in living memory, and our higher education system is partly responsible.

Unhooked students miss the chance to attend prestigious schools, matriculate with the best students in the country, and study under the top professors. On the other hand, although an Ivy League brand may provide greater initial opportunities, a degree from a more selective school doesn’t confer higher lifetime earnings when controlled for individual students’ earning capacity, according to this 1999 study (pdf) by Alan Kreuger and Stacy Darcy (via Zen Personal Finance and Money & Hapiness; see also this article) (1). Some critics, like Harvard’s Derek Bok and Harry Lewis, charge that elite schools are failing their basic mission of teaching. And only 10% of Fortune 500 CEOs have Ivy League degrees, according to the Wall Street Journal (via Greg Mankiw).

Kreuger and Darcy found that for students from low-income families, attending a more selective school did improve future earnings. Yet these students, with the most to gain, are most handicapped by preferences. Mr. Golden does not attempt to measure the cost or even the magnitude of admissions preferences, though he clearly believes that both are high. To do so, one might compare the level of variation in SAT scores for hooked and unhooked students at the same school (Mr. Golden often notes SAT scores – an indication of their importance to admissions officers?). One could then identify unusually unqualified students and thus estimate the number of students unfairly admitted not on their own merits.

Instead, Mr. Golden has published a collection of anecdotes. Even his “applicant with my credentials” example, which cries out for quantification (how likely is that profile to be admitted today, hooked and unhooked? What about 1990? 1980? 1960?) stands on its own. Perhaps the data for more detailed analysis is simply unavailable. Too bad. The top universities have only a few thousand slots each year, and society would clearly benefit by allocating them to the best students, not to amiable mediocrities. To prompt a national debate on the issue, though, we need to know how many hooked students there are and how much weaker they are than the unhooked.

Colleges that admit mediocre students because their fathers and uncles are alumni are like major league baseball teams signing high school players with great looks and “potential.” In his popular book Moneyball, Michael Lewis chronicled how manager Billy Beane transformed the small-market Oakland A’s by pricing players only for demonstrated performance. At the end of The Price of Admission, Mr. Golden profiles several colleges that could be described as the Oakland A’s of higher eduction, for admitting students strictly on academic merit: Caltech, Cooper Union, and Berea College.

The Krueger and Darcy study and the Fortune 500 data above suggest that corporate hiring and promotion are much more egalitarian than college admissions. Ability seems to be recognized and rewarded without regard to alma mater. But colleges have less data than companies: they are selecting unformed high school students. Billy Beane dealt with this problem by recruiting college players, not high schoolers. Software guru Joel Splosky wants to hire only the best programmers, but he thinks that they are on the market only a few times in their careers, so he hires them very young – as interns. He is running a series of posts on how to do this:

You’re looking for people who are

  1. Smart, and
  2. Get things done.

The series includes Sorting Resumes, The Phone Screen, and The Guerilla Guide to Interviewing.

For the first interview of the day, I’ve started including a really, really easy programming problem. …

Serge Lang, a math professor at Yale, used to give his Calculus students a fairly simple algebra problem on the first day of classes, one which almost everyone could solve, but some of them solved it as quickly as they could write while others took a while, and Professor Lang claimed that all of the students who solved the problem as quickly as they could write would get an A in the Calculus course, and all the others wouldn’t. …

[T]he good programmers stand up, write the answer on the board, sometimes adding a clever fillip (Ooh! Unicode compliant! Nice!), and it takes thirty seconds…

In some ways, this results-oriented, cut-and-dried approach sounds like the admissions practices of Cooper Union and Caltech, as described by Mr. Golden. How long can elite universities exempt many applicants from such rigor before undercutting their own excellence?

(1) Kreuger and Darcy found while that selectivity as measured by average SAT score did not affect future earnings, selectivity as measured by average tuition (which they took as a proxy for “resources devoted to instruction”) did. Also, 40 percent of students in their study turned down the most selective college that admitted them.

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One Response to “Review: The Price of Admission”

  1. Will the Real Jane Galt Please Stand Up? « Zeal and Activity Says:

    […] RELATED on Zeal and Activity: Review: The Price of Admission […]

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