It seems that students (and their parents) are more stressed than ever about whether they’ll get into the right college. Admission to places like Harvard, Stanford, and Duke is getting more competitive each year, with less than ten percent of applicants actually admitted. Because attending the best high schools increases chances of admission, the stress doesn’t start in senior year — the competition to get into high school can be almost as stressful. And, of course, getting into the right high school requires the proper elementary education, so many kids are subjected to intense competitive pressure almost from birth.
Barry Schwartz argues that this isn’t the ideal way to prepare kids for college:
Students choose classes that play to their strengths, to get easy A’s, rather than classes that might correct their weaknesses or nurture new interests. They sacrifice risk-taking and intellectual curiosity on the altar of demonstrable success. Moreover (as documented by a great deal of research), because students are doing the work they do in and out of school for the wrong reasons — not because they are interested in learning — the intense competition undermines their motivation to continue to learn for the sake of gaining understanding. As a result, even those who excel enough to get into Harvard, Stanford or UCLA are likely to be less inspired students once that goal has been achieved. By making themselves so competitive, our selective institutions are subverting their aims.
Schwartz’s solution is a radical one. Instead of trying to select the top ten percent of a pool that is overwhelmingly qualified, admissions departments should identify all students who are able to complete their curriculum, then choose the actual students at random:
There are no doubt problems with my proposal (how to deal with diversity, athletes, legacies). But the system we currently use is badly broken, and no amount of minor tinkering (like the refusal of high schools to compute and provide rank-in-class data to colleges) will set it right. At the very least, colleges and universities should consider doing the following experiment: Put a random half of the applicants through the normal admissions process and the other half through a “good enough/luck of the draw” admissions process. Then track the performance of the students admitted from these two sets of applicants over the course of their college careers.
If there are no major differences in performance between these two groups, then by publicly adopting the “good enough” practice, schools can take a lot of the pressure off high school students so that they can be curious, interested kids again.
Interesting idea; however, I do see one major flaw with it. Once students know the admission process is random, they are likely to apply to more schools, in order to make sure they get in somewhere. Instead of trying to find the right school for his or her interests, every student will simply apply to lots and lots of schools. Admissions offices will be swamped with applications, and many students who might be an “easy admit” to schools which match their interests will end up getting rejected. There won’t be such a thing as a “safety school” any more, and this could arguably lead to more stress on the part of the students.
That said, the experiment Schwartz proposes would be an interesting one — it’d be intriguing to see whether it really results in less stress for students and their parents. But that points to one additional flaw in Schwartz’s plan. The stress-reduction benefit could only be achieved if the plan was fully implemented. If only half the schools used the random method, there’d still be an incentive for most students to follow the old system — since admission the random schools isn’t guaranteed, they’ll need to work just as hard to ensure themselves a spot in the schools that still award admission based on merit alone.