on getting into harvard, yet again
I’m pretty sure that Atlantic-NYT-New Yorker-etc. readers have a near-bottomless appetite for articles on the elite college admissions process. I kind of do too, although I always feel a little gross afterwards, like I had one too many pieces of my kids’ Halloween candy. Not that I would ever eat their Halloween candy.
Anyway, the latest offering in this genre is a three-part series in the Atlantic (part one, part two, part three) by Alia Wong. Mostly it’s about how the process became so competitive, and what elite colleges are doing to try to make it less insane — in particular, how to stop incentivizing a certain kind of self-obsessed self-discipline among the the young demographic aiming at these schools.
The piece is well-researched, although a lot of this ground has already been covered exhaustively. But I did think the article overlooked a couple of key things.
First: Although the article is clear at the outset that this is a problem of “the 3%”, as Derek Thompson put it, it folds broader college-admissions developments in with elite college-admissions developments in ways that don’t always work. In particular, both parts point to enrollment management as a factor driving change in the elite admissions process.
I think enrollment management — the emergence of rationalized practices for selecting and aiding students to achieve some institutional objectives (financial, rankings, whatever) — is incredibly important in understanding changes in higher ed as a whole. But I suspect it doesn’t explain much of what’s changed in elite admissions in particular.
Enrollment management started as a financial tool for mid-level private colleges that were having trouble making ends meet (gated link). Elites have never embraced it quite so much, though they have adopted some of its practices. Where enrollment management matters is in understanding the rise of merit aid at less-elite colleges, for example, or in explaining the shift toward out-of-state students at public universities.
Second: So far, at least, the article overlooks the extent to which the elite-admissions-frenzy is driven by an increasingly winner-take-all society. If the returns to being in the 1% are increasing, then the returns to an Ivy degree are likely increasing as well. Conversely, as the middle class is hollowed out, to upper-middle-class parents, the costs of not getting one’s kids on the academic fast track look like dooming them to lifelong economic instability, as opposed to pointing them toward a nondescript but perfectly pleasant middle-class life.
Finally: There’s a simple solution to this problem: a lottery. Set some baseline GPA and SAT criteria, then admit people at random. Tweak the criteria to ensure racial and socioeconomic diversity, if you like. Even favor alums, if you absolutely must. But ditch the whole magical individualized selection process.
Of course, that’s pretty much a nonstarter. The whole point of Harvard admissions is, as Karabel suggests, to get to choose the next generation of elites. A lottery would undermine the very purpose.
[Edited to add link to part three, which doesn’t really affect my overall take. If anything, it further conflates general commercialization of higher ed with the elite admissions frenzy in an unhelpful way. Both important, but not closely related.
Also, ’cause I haven’t done nearly enough promoting — though still planning to — see Craig Tutterow and James Evans’ piece modeling how rankings might drive the development of enrollment management here in our new volume of RSO on “The University Under Pressure“. (Links gated, email me for copies.)]