the politics of college admissions at Berkeley and Cal Tech

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.

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Written by fabiorojas

September 11, 2014 at 12:01 am

Posted in education, ethics, fabio

One Response

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  1. I get your appoint about Cal Tech, but I think Berkeley actually helps makes the case. The index that combined a number of factors sounds similar to the index used at Harvard, but without any trump cards (like legacy status). Even though race was dropped due to a ballot initiative and judicial cases, there is the fact that Berkeley is now less racially “diverse.” (I put diverse in scare quotes because Berkeley is not a homogeneous campus.) Likewise, UCLA.

    If this change in “diversity” had seriously affected those campuses, we would have expected their prestige to have declined since the changes. In other words, I’m comparing Berkeley pre-change to Berkeley post-change. I realize that in ideal world we’d have a campus similar to Harvard that we could use as a case study, but given that we don’t, I think this at least helps us measure something.


    Chris M

    September 12, 2014 at 12:28 pm

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