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the politics of college admissions at Berkeley and Cal Tech

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A few days ago, we got into a fruitful discussion of college admissions. Steven Pinker wrote a widely discussed article condemning the Ivy League for using non-academic criteria in admissions. I concurred with the basic point, but noted that it is all for naught because Pinker doesn’t discuss why college admissions is set up the way it is. Basically, current admissions policies are designed generate income, political legitimacy, academic respect, and other factors. People simply wouldn’t stand for an admissions policy that would turn Harvard into Berkeley or Cal Tech, where Asians are the majority and Latinos and African Americans are under represented, not to mention all the influential people whose above average kids can’t get into Harvard without the legacy program.

In the comments, Chris Martin suggested that if Cal Tech and Berkeley could do it, it wouldn’t be so bad. I think Chris under estimates the issue. To see why, let’s review Berkeley and Cal Tech:

  • Berkeley: This was a school that had a policy where students were given an index that combined a number of factors, such as GPA, SAT, race, extracurriculars and so forth. This system was not changed internally and race was only dropped due to a ballot initiative and various judicial battles.
  • Cal Tech: Even though Cal Tech is probably a more elite school than Harvard, it is very different in that the political pressures on engineering and science schools are much weaker. Roughly speaking, every smart kid in America dreams of the Ivy League, but only the nerdiest kids want to go to Cal Tech. In other words, I’ve never heard of wealthy senators intensely lobbying Cal Tech to make sure their C+ son makes it in.

Bottom line: These two cases are not exemplars of internally driven change. Instead, they highlight how constrained college admissions policies are.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power

Written by fabiorojas

September 11, 2014 at 12:01 am

Posted in education, ethics, fabio

steven pinker, do you want a meritocracy? YOU CAN’T HANDLE A MERITOCRACY!!!!

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In case you’re wondering, I’m obviously Tom Cruise and Steven Pinker is Jack Nicholson.

Recently, Steven Pinker wrote a response to William Deresiewicz’ recent article/book, which claims that the Ivy League is a horrible soulless place. Overall, I concur with Pinker’s retort. Deresiewicz doesn’t offer evidence to show that careerism has gotten any worse, he makes a broad over generalization about non-elite college students, and he overstates the cases that non-elite colleges are under appreciated refuges of learning (although a few are). The bottom line for Pinker is that the Ivy League is where talented kids should go and we should spend our efforts making it more academic by emphasizing standardized tests in admissions and de-emphasizing things likes sports and music.

I could quibble here and there, but instead, I’d like to focus on what I think is a profound problem with Pinker’s retort. I share Pinker’s desire to create a more academic environment in higher education, but nowhere in the essay does Pinker come to grips with why the system of elite college admissions is the way it is. Why, exactly, does Harvard, and most other competitive schools, use a mix of academics, extra-curriculars, race, legacy, and geography? Here’s the simple answer:

Race. And money. But really, race.

Here’s a more subtle answer:

College admissions policies are the result of multiple political and financial pressures. Management scholars call it “resource dependence.” Your organization must be set up in a way to keep the resources flowing. Elite colleges need political legitimacy, scientific & scholarly legitimacy, prestige, a positive self-image, and loads of cash. A purely academic admission policy does not accomplish this complex goal. The current admission policy does.

Now, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. Jerome Karabel’s The Chosen is the most comprehensive study ever conducted on elite college admissions and it explains in detail why the admissions system at Harvard looks the way it does. He focused on Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, but versions of the policies are now standard at other leading research universities.

Roughly, it goes something like this. First, the “docket system” (sorting people into geographical regions) was intended to limit Jews from the Northeast, mainly from New York and New Jersey, and favor specific private schools. Second, the emphasis on being “well-rounded” was designed to limit Asians who had trouble with English and didn’t do “artsy” things. Third, affirmative action was introduced to bolster African American and Latino enrollments in the post-Civil Right era. Fourth, legacy is simply a fancy word for “pay to play.” Fifth, the types of people who give the most back in donations are not the artists or painters that Pinker rightfully praises. They are those who do “Wall Street,” and related careers like “Big Law,” and they can be identified by extra-curricular activities in high school. College admissions has evolved beyond these basic policies but the overall structure remains. Academic performance is one very important factor, but there are others.

If Pinker were to have his way and shift to a strictly academic admissions system, the following would happen:

  • A huge increase in Asian enrollments
  • A modest decrease in White enrollments, but with strong Jewish  enrollments
  • A substantial reduction of African American and Latino enrollments
  • An increase in people who don’t give back
  • A very angry group of industry leaders, senators, governors, and other powerful people who are really angry that their kid didn’t get in.

Harvard as we see it today would cease to exist. You’d instead see it turned into something like Berkeley or Cal Tech, which are White minority institutions. How would he deal with the inevitable blow back?

I applaud Steven Pinker for decrying the dilution of academic culture. I’ve spent my entire career in places like Berkeley, Chicago, Ann Arbor, and Bloomington and I don’t regret it. But still, unless he can explain how he’ll solve this complex political problem that admissions policies are designed to solve, his preening is more of a show and not serious attempt at academic reform.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power 

Written by fabiorojas

September 8, 2014 at 12:01 am

Posted in education, ethics, fabio

does organizational sociology have a future? the final part

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This is the third and final installment of the “Does Organizational Sociology Have a Future?” panel from ASA, featuring Ezra Zuckerman’s presentation and the Q&A. Here’s part 1 and part 2.

Ezra Zuckerman closed on an up note with “some reasons to be bullish.” Rather than reviewing the past or summarizing trends, Zuckerman highlighted three pieces of work he’s excited about by younger scholars.

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Written by epopp

September 4, 2014 at 1:24 pm

Posted in academia, education

does organizational sociology have a future? the answer, part 2

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[This is a continuation of the summary of the "Does Organizational Sociology Have a Future?" ASA panel. Part 1 featured Howard Aldrich and Lis Clemens; tomorrow I'll wrap up with a recap of Ezra Zuckerman's presentation and the Q&A that followed the panel.]

Harland Prechel spoke third. He described himself as being located outside organizational sociology early in his career but was drawn to its useful analytical tools and incorporated organizational sociology into his research over time. Organizational sociology has a lot to offer. So why is it in decline?

A central problem is there is no integrated theory of organizations. Instead, there are numerous competing perspectives that rise and decline over time.  This occurs, in part, because each perspective has a narrow scope that constrains what can be examined, explained, and predicted. For example, given that the behaviors that contributed to the 2007-2008 financial crisis occurred inside organizations, why did organizational researchers failed to predict or anticipate it? One viable answer is the prevailing theories did not direct researchers’ attention toward the underlying structures that permitted the risk-taking behaviors associated with the crisis.

Another part of the explanation for the decline in organizational sociology is that business schools have begun to produce their own PhDs in organizational studies and have become less dependent on sociology departments. Also, organizational sociology is perceived to be less relevant to managing organizations. Given these conditions, it is likely that the job market for organizational sociology in business schools will decline in the future.

Given all this, should we do more of the same? Or, should we be doing something different?

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Written by epopp

September 3, 2014 at 4:06 pm

Posted in academia, education

the dilemmas of funding: a commentary on the united negro college fund by melissa wooten

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Melissa Wooten is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her forthcoming book In the Face of Inequality: How Black Colleges Adapt (SUNY Press 2015) documents how the social structure of race and racism affect an organization’s ability to acquire the financial and political resources it needs to survive.

“Look…Come on…It’s $10 million dollars” is how the Saturday Night Live parody explains the Los Angeles chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) decision to accept donations from now disgraced, soon-to-be former, NBA franchise owner, Donald Sterling. This parody encapsulates the dilemma that many organizations working for black advancement face. Fighting for civil rights takes money. But this money often comes from strange quarters. While Sterling’s personal animus toward African Americans captivated the public this spring, his organizational strategy of discriminating against African Americans and Hispanic Americans had already made him infamous among those involved in civil rights years earlier. So why would the NAACP accept money from a man known to actively discriminate against the very people it seeks to help?

A similar question arose when news of the Koch brothers $25 million donation to the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) emerged in June. Not only did the UNCF’s willingness to accept this donation raise eyebrows, it also cost the organization the support of AFSCME, a union with which the UNCF had a long-standing relationship. The Koch brothers support of policies that would limit early voting along with their opposition to minimum wage legislation are but a few of the reasons that have made some skeptical of a UNCF-Koch partnership. So why would the UNCF accept a large donation from two philanthropists known to support policies that would have a disproportionately negative affect on African American communities?

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Written by fabiorojas

September 2, 2014 at 12:01 am

How Harvard students are channeled into finance & consulting

Amy Binder has a really interesting new piece in the Washington Monthly on why so many grads of Harvard and Stanford go work for McKinsey or Goldman when they finish. Surprise (well, not really) — it’s organizational.

Based on research she conducted with UCSD grad students Nick Bloom and Daniel Davis, she argues that elite schools have created a “structured pathway that leads straight to them.” In the 80s, banks and consulting firms realized that being able to advertise teams of Ivy League grads was valuable. In her words:

To get to those kids, the nation’s top banks and consulting firms began by competing with each other to become “platinum” members of the career services programs run by the most elite schools. Winners of this pay-for-play competition get the best tables at campus career fairs, access to students’ email in-boxes, entrée to the most impressive banquet rooms for holding information sessions and receptions, bundled delivery of applicants’ résumés, and space and scheduled times to hold one-on-one interviews, among other goods and services known as “recruitment.”

As these careers became the most central and visible on campus, student culture became more and more heavily organized around the search for these kinds of jobs. They’re seen as the high-status thing to do in very competitive campus environments.

What’s ironic is that it’s not so much about the money. It’s partly about status, but it’s also about a clear pathway at a time of uncertainty. Harvard students don’t go to college dreaming of becoming investment bankers. Okay, a few do, but this–all from students who took the finance/consulting track — is more typical:

Most students come to campus with vague plans about their professional lives, along the lines of a Harvard alum named Kevin, who said he planned to “study philosophy and go to law school and have a nice life,” or Olivia, who had chosen Stanford because she dreamed of launching a start-up. Another junior at Harvard laughingly recalled that he “thought careers in finance were like being a bank teller, being an accountant, or something.”

But they have to pick something. And the schools make it easy. From one student:

I guess a good job means consulting or finance because, well, look, that’s what the Office of Career Services has. When I talk to my peers, that’s what my peers are talking about. For someone like me who had very limited professional experience, who didn’t really have any baseline for what one could do, it was like, hey, I just see that these are the things that people from Harvard go do.

Ultimately, Binder’s argument is that the schools bear some responsibility for how large this track has become — 31% of Harvard grads take jobs on this track. Some articles have suggested there’s been a downturn in the numbers in the last five years, but even if that’s the case, it’s still a large fraction.

Harvard and its ilk don’t really need the money from career services booths, though they may like the promise of high-earning alums. But they are doing their students, and the rest of us, a disservice by making these paths so easy to fall into. Sure, there are students who have a passion for finance, and that’s probably where they should be. But for the rest of them, a little more encouragement to explore the road less traveled could be a very good thing.

Written by epopp

August 29, 2014 at 11:15 am

Posted in education, professions

grade inflation experiment

A recent article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives reports a recent attempt to curb grade inflation. High GPA departments at Wellesley College were required to cap high grades. The abstract:

Average grades in colleges and universities have risen markedly since the 1960s. Critics express concern that grade inflation erodes incentives for students to learn; gives students, employers, and graduate schools poor information on absolute and relative abilities; and reflects the quid pro quo of grades for better student evaluations of professors. This paper evaluates an anti-grade-inflation policy that capped most course averages at a B+. The cap was biding for high-grading departments (in the humanities and social sciences) and was not binding for low-grading departments (in economics and sciences), facilitating a difference-in-differences analysis. Professors complied with the policy by reducing compression at the top of the grade distribution. It had little effect on receipt of top honors, but affected receipt of magna cum laude. In departments affected by the cap, the policy expanded racial gaps in grades, reduced enrollments and majors, and lowered student ratings of professors.

My sense is that this shows that grade inflation, whatever its historical origins, acts as a competitive advantage for programs that few other market advantages. If you don’t have a strong external job market or external funding, then you can boost enrollments via grade inflation. It also absolves programs by masking racial under performance. The lesson for academic management is this: If you have inequality in funding, departments will compensate by weak grading. If you have inequality by race, departments will compensate by weak grading. Thus, academic leaders who care about either of these issues should implement policies where departments don’t choose standards and are accountable for results.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/F

Written by fabiorojas

August 5, 2014 at 12:01 am

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