Cognitive Daily

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.


  1. #1 jeffk
    March 19, 2007

    I think I know what to do about legacies and athletes…

    Anyways, I can’t help but notice I’ve always been very unimpressed with people I’ve met that have attended the best schools. They’ve almost never interesting – they’re just highly capable of doing the specific things they needed to do to go there. My anecdotal evidence is that the most interesting people I meet either went to a run of the mill public university, or a decent but not necessarily great liberal arts college.

  2. #2 Beth Robinson
    March 19, 2007

    And none of that will make any difference unless the students understand that it’s what you do while in college, how you take advantage of your opportunities to learn, that matters the most to your future. Sure, there are exceptions. The name Harvard will always open doors, for example, but it is a point that seems to be left out of many discussions of “getting into the right school.” At least this is my opinion.

  3. #3 RyanG
    March 19, 2007

    When demand exceeds supply, the traditional method of correcting the situation is to increase price. Why not try that? It could be a problem for a public school, but I have a hard time believing it wouldn’t work for Harvard.

  4. #4 Katherine Moore
    March 19, 2007

    When demand exceeds supply, the traditional method of correcting the situation is to increase price. Why not try that? It could be a problem for a public school, but I have a hard time believing it wouldn’t work for Harvard.

    So only rich people should be allowed to attend selective schools? I personally think that increasing the price will make the quality of the students even worse in so many ways.

    I think Barry Schwarz is brilliant. I’m not sure his solution is the best one, but I like that he suggested it to get people thinking.

  5. #5 sasha
    March 19, 2007

    I have a couple issues with this:

    1. in practice, what he’s proposing is not that different than what happens today. admissions offices at the top colleges don’t have some objective, easily quantified ranking system which they use to create an ordered list of applicants. Particularly at small schools like Schwarz’s Swarthmore, admissions officers look for evidence that the students can handle the workload, but beyond that, they’ll look at not easily quantified things like teacher recommendations, club participation, and essay quality. I guess in the current system students feel like they have more control over the process, because they can tweak which clubs they join, which teachers write their recommendations, and what they say in their essays, but since they don’t know exactly what schools are looking for, the feeling of control is illusory.

    2. I think he’s overemphasizing the harms of the current system. He says the current system encourages students to choose classes that play to their strenghts, so that they sacrifice risk-taking and opportunities to broaden their intellectual horizions. This argument relies on the unstated assumption that high school students have a lot of choice to begin with. Beyond a few standard electives like art class or yearbook, how much choice do students really have? I suppose a kid could decide to take honors Biology instead of AP, or French class instead of Spanish, but for the most part, high school curricula are pretty standard, and there aren’t a whole lot of opportunities for intellectual risk taking to begin with. Maybe that’s a problem, but it’s not a problem changing the college admissions process is going to solve. If anything, the current system might actual promote intellectual risk taking, because the top schools require or strongly encourage four years of most major high school subjects. So a 15 year old girl who’s decided she doesn’t like math might want to stop taking it, but because colleges expect her to take it, she’ll stick with it long enough to find out she has a knack for calculus. Additionally, top colleges expect their students to take the most challenging classes schools have to offer, so in a way, they’re encouraging kids to push their intellectual limits. So maybe an okay french student tries AP french lit and gets a B, instead of opting for the easy A 4th year conversation & composition, for example.

  6. #6 RPM
    March 19, 2007

    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.

    Since when has UCLA been as selective as Harvard or Stanford (especially within California)? Back in the day (c. 10 years ago), ~2 kids from every Calif. public high school got into Stanford (and they seemed like random draws, and not the best and brightest kids) and even fewer got into harvard. Everyone got into UCLA.

  7. #7 Roy Huggins
    March 19, 2007

    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.

    That’s not so terrible, though. I applied to 12 colleges, most of them Ivy`s. So I had a different app for every one. A lot of schools use the common app, which would make war-application an easier process if the kid just wants to go to a low-high or middle tier school.

    I do agree with Schwarz’ assertions. I ended up at a high-tier liberal arts college and my anecdotal evidence tells me that this was far better for my general level of aptitude and capability than going to an Ivy.

  8. #8 Liz Ditz
    March 19, 2007

    Fred Hargadon (formerly Dean of Admissions at Stanford, now at Princeton has been widely quoted as saying the process is already a lottery:

    “we could have filled three separate classes from this year’s pool of applicants, with no discernible difference among them…. A student’s acceptance is, to a significant extent, a matter of luck.”

    In other words, Schwartz’s suggestion is already in place, at least some institutions with qualified applicants exceeding spaces.

    A related article:

    Michele Tolela Myers, the President of Sarah Lawrence College, wrote an essay on the sham known as the U.S. News college rankings.

    The short version is that the In other words, “in the absence of real data, they will make up a number”, thus harming the school in the rankings.

    The ranking mania leads to distorted decisions and less-than-honorable machinations by college administrators.
    Would U.S. News Make Up Fake Data?

    It’s not unusual for college presidents to complain about U.S. News rankings (at least out of the earshot of U.S. News editors). But on Sunday, the president of Sarah Lawrence College publicly charged that the magazine is preparing to publish made up, false data about her institution. Meanwhile, Inside Higher Ed has learned that 10 other liberal arts college presidents are preparing a letter to be sent to hundreds of college presidents proposing a new set of policies that might challenge the role of the rankings. The policy options include complete non-cooperation with U.S. News and refusing to fill out the “reputational” survey — which many educators deride as a “beauty contest” that is particularly lacking in substance, even though it represents 25 percent of the magazine’s rankings formula.

    Patricia McGuire, the President of Trinity University, wrote:

    Let’s start by confronting, not enabling, the rankings industry. Rankings are big business for commercial publishers, belying their solemn invocation of “public accountability” to justify these annual drives for improved profits. More than the Spellings Commission report and similar public diagnoses, the rankings industry has affected the reputations and priorities of colleges and universities, leading some institutions to consider actions that are, in fact, harmful to the public interest — a prime example being limiting access for low-income students to ensure more competitive retention and completion rates.

    Some alternatives are on the horizon:

    Loren Pope’s Colleges That Change Lives

    Colleges of Distinction

    Lloyd Thacker’s Education Conservancy

    Welcome to The Education Conservancy! Established in March, 2004, The Education Conservancy (EC) is a non-profit organization committed to improving college admission processes for students, colleges and high schools. By harnessing the research, ideas, leadership and imagination of thoughtful educators, EC delivers appropriate advice, advocacy and services.

    Dan Tyson, in a 1999 article published in the Journal of College Admissions, brought up another model:

    Guiding my own vision of admission perfection is Ireland’s Central Admission Office (hereafter CAO) operation. In Ireland, the process starts with students’ declaring a set of up to 20 university programs ranked in order of their preference. All the university programs declare the number of candidates sought and the level of academic merit that qualifies students for the program. These respective criteria are compared for matches at the highest level of satisfaction for both student and university program by high-capacity computer. Ties among those achieving the same academic order of merit for the last available positions in popular programs are resolved automatically by lottery. The Irish, not perceived in this country as a remarkably docile breed, accept the results of these matches at the 90 percent level with remarkable docility. There exists in Ireland a common school-leaving examination requirement which facilitates establishing a level of academic merit for each candidate based on a national standard.

    However, I do want to point out another view: the college-admissions frenzy affects a minority of American students.

    Of greater concern to me, for the long-term health of a republic, is the number of students who do not complete high school, or leave high school unable to read, write or calculate at a level needed in today’s society:

    Dropout rates of young people ages 16 to 24 in the civilian, non-institutionalized population gradually declined between 1972 and 2004, from 15 percent to a low of 10 percent in 2003, where the rate remained in 2004. (See Table 2) In this indicator, dropouts are those who are not enrolled in and have not completed high school. In 1972, the dropout rate among non-Hispanic blacks was 21 percent, and, among non-Hispanic whites, it was 12 percent. These rates declined substantially for each group between 1992 and 2004, narrowing the gap between the two groups (though the rate for blacks remains twice that of whites). The dropout rate for non-Hispanic black youth reached an historic low of 11 percent in 2001. (See Figure 1) This drop is at least in part related to the dramatic increases in incarceration rates among black high school dropouts since 1980, which takes them out of the civilian non-institutionalized population on which these estimates are based.7 Rates among Hispanic youth have declined in last few years from 30 percent in 1998 to 24 percent in 2004.

    An approximation for the proficiency levels of high school graduates can be found in the numbers of students requiring remediation, upon entering tertiary education. Taking the example of the California State University system:

  9. #9 mc
    March 19, 2007

    Teaching staff could also be placed at random.

    I have wondered if we should draft our public officials. I’m not sure anyone who would campaign for office should ever be allowed to serve.

  10. #10 David Marjanović
    March 19, 2007

    Competition between universities is stupid. If there aren’t enough universities for all prospective students, build more. Think of it as an investment (even in the financial sense).

    Yes, I live in Old Europe. Having finished the harder version of highschool, I have the right to study at any university in the country.

  11. #11 jvarisco
    March 19, 2007

    Is this a problem with selectivity or admissions criteria? Surely placing more emphasis on things like course choice, interviews, and essays rather than merely GPA could fix this. Also universal standards like SATs and AP tests, which are hard regardless, should help.

    If Harvard/Stanford/etc. can recruit three qualified classes, perhaps something is wrong with their curriculum. Why not make it hard enough that many of those extra unadmitted applicants would not in fact be qualified? I go to a relatively selective school, and the difference between student schedules is often quite large. The difficulties of my required core courses (which everyone takes) as opposed to my electives (which are mainly graduate level, I’m often the only undergrad) are very different. Recuit more qualified people and they will take harder courses and do more with them. It’s not Harvard’s job to teach you to write a basic paper, that needs to be done in high school.

  12. #12 Gordon Worley
    March 20, 2007

    In my opinion, a good deal of the problem is the changes to the admission system that got us here:

  13. #13 Dave Munger
    March 20, 2007

    An excellent article, Gordon. I’d also recommend this article in The Atlantic, which covers somewhat different ground. (unfortunately subscription only)

  14. #14 yolio
    March 21, 2007

    It’s a luxury market. Only a minority of college bound students engage in this process, most choose schools based on practial considerations like convenience of location, affordability, and the existence of relevant programs (i.e. a nursing program). Those who are involved in the frenzy to get into high ranked schools are going after prestige based on little more real value than a $1600 pair of designer jeans has. I have no sympathy for the parents and students foolish enough to get caught up in it all.

  15. #15 Damien
    March 28, 2007

    I have wondered if we should draft our public officials. I’m not sure anyone who would campaign for office should ever be allowed to serve.

    That’s how the Athenian democracy worked, in large part. Experts like strategoi (generals) were elected (hired?) but much else was done through sortition, aka random selection, e.g. 500 random Athenians making decisions for a year, instead of the assembly of all 5000 or whatever citizens.

    I’d be happy to try a Congress of 500ish random Americans. It’s one of my top radical reform ideas, along with the idea that all laws should expire after N years, unless actively renewed.

  16. #16 Yo
    March 28, 2007

    that’s an interesting idea.
    but why blame admissions?
    how about blaming the parents for not properly educating kids that there
    isn’t much difference in success potential between attending a top
    college vs. a “good enough” college?
    if the parents didn’t set such high bars for the kids to be the “best”
    then stress levels would drop much more dramatically

  17. #17 alexa
    March 29, 2007

    I agree with Old Europe guy (comment#10): build more colleges and universities. Kids are basket cases, their parents are destroying them at a ridiculously young age. They’re all going to lose it and end up chanting in the desert. Everyone needs to knock it off and realize that what you do with your life during the ages of 18 to 22 is not actually going to make or break you. I’m all for education. Go to college, learn stuff, grow, etc. But please won’t someone explain to the parents (because I doubt very much that it’s the kids initiating it) that where you attend college is not actually a life or death situation. I promise. It’s really not that big a deal. Get over it and let your kids be happy with themselves and make their own decisions (that actually does rate as important). I have two very young children, so I have some time before I have to start in on the college-application gauntlet. But I hope I’ll have a more, um, hands off approach to their education (and their future and their lives) than some parents seem to have these days.

  18. #18 msz09
    June 2, 2007

    Very interesting proposition, but I see problems in choosing a pool of qualified applicants to pick randomly from for admissions. There is a wide gradient of applicants, and two students deemed capable of high performance at an Ivy League school could be Student A, a prodigy who has recently proven a mathematical theorem previously thought unprovable, and Student B with 2150 SAT who plays the trumpet and wants to be a high school physics teacher.

    Roll the dice and Student A is rejected while Student B matriculates into Harvard. Does anyone else see a problem with this?

    Ultimately, elite colleges and universities are private institutions and have no obligation to change their admissions practices in efforts to make students less competitive and nervous. Should they? I think it’s the responsibility of students and parents to change attitudes about college admissions, not the colleges themselves.

New comments have been disabled.