College Admissions: A Modest Proposal

Today, it seems, is the day.  You know the one I’m talking about.

The day our national obsession with selective college admissions comes to a head.  The day we check to see if any of the Ivy League Institutions (ILIs) has cracked the zero percent admit rate to which they all seem to aspire.  I’m not going to put any links to the articles celebrating the results; if you’re even tangentially attached to academia, you’ve already seen them.  If you haven’t, run away.  Run very, very far away.

It’s clear to those of us who know admissions that the vast majority of these now-rejected kids should not have applied.  Absent a “hook” as high school counselors call it, your garden-variety kid stands probably about a 1% chance of admission to many of these places.  In some sense, it may point out the dearth of good college counseling.  It may also point out a lack of understanding of statistics. (I should talk.  I know the odds of winning tonight’s MegaMillions Jackpot of over half a billion dollars, and I still bought a ticket.)

Even if they do get admitted, it’s unlikely to have the effect they think it will.  Read Malcolm Gladwell’s article about “Getting In,” and pay special attention to Section 3 where he differentiates between selection effects and treatment effects.  Ivy League admission is all about selection effects.  Or maybe, they enroll wealthy, connected students by accident.  You decide.

Next week, you can expect to read about all the kids who got no admissions but a few perfunctory wait list offers, despite a perfect GPA, perfect test scores, and perfect teeth.  Their parents will be outraged that “they” did everything right, and for what?  For this?

Here’s how we fix it:

First, all unsuccessful students are told one little thing: Before those seven colleges rejected you, you rejected hundreds of others, many of whom would have been thrilled to enroll a student like you, despite your obvious limitations that kept you out of Princeton.  It won’t do the students any good, of course, but perhaps they can post this sage wisdom on Facebook so their younger friends can benefit.  It may eventually sink in, like a viral video.  Do you know any kid who doesn’t know that the Honey Badger don’t care?

But second, and perhaps even better: A federal law that says any university that admits fewer than 20% of its students is prohibited from having an “Office of Admissions.”  It must change its campus signage and letterhead and publications to read, “The Office of Rejections.”  I’m guessing a lot of strategic plans get revised overnight to shoot for a 21% admit rate.

Who’s with me on this?


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