Do we like complexity?

A few years ago, I was at a conference, and sat in a room with mostly high school counselors who had some bones to pick with the most selective colleges and the way they do admissions.  None of their points were unreasonable, of course: They wanted the colleges and universities to be more responsive when they asked questions, to give some semblance of predictable admissions decisions (“One college turned down my valedictorian two years in a row; what am I supposed to tell kids?” was one of the comments).  They were also pushing back against the proliferation of seemingly random deadlines, ridiculously restrictive Early Action (and of course, the inherently restrictive Early Decision).

Having sat patiently through 30 minutes of this, I got to ask my question, not of the colleges on stage, but of the audience members.  It went something like this:

Suppose the perfect college exists: It’s responsive, it’s high quality by any measure, it’s fully transparent about pricing, admissions decisions are predictable, and it puts the interest of students above its own.  In three years, do you think this college will a) have so many applications it can’t possibly be like that any more, or b) get so few applications that it will no longer be viewed as a high quality college?

A few people knew what I was getting at, but others seemed dumbfounded by the question.

I was reminded of this last week when I went to speak to parents at St. Mary’s Episcopal School, Hutchison School, and Memphis University School. I was asked to shed some insight, from a 30,000 foot level, about how admissions worked.

One of the slides talked about the confusing application rules for a hypothetical student who might be applying to eight selective universities.  The I tried to explain why it was like this.  I offered five points:

  • First, the process has evolved independently at each institution, much like evolution worked on earth.  You have fish and elephants and spiders and humans, all with some common chemical basis, but each very different.  Evolution typically does not move forward in perfectly predictable patterns.

However, I went on to suggest that we actually like complexity like this, for several reasons:

  • Complexity reinforces importance and special-ness, as opposed to the routine and mundane. Think of weddings, and how extraordinarily ridiculous they’ve become; think of corporate purchase orders the the bureaucracy, which are designed to ensure you don’t spend money foolishly; and think of the auto manufacturer Saturn, which tried to de-mystify the auto buying experience, and how horribly that experiment failed.
  • Complexity invigorates, even if the goal is the opposite: Think of family vacations, and how stressful they can be because you’re out of your routine, and suddenly coordinating among five people seems like Differential Equations.
  • Complexity is associated with big wins: The state sells a lot more Lotto tickets when the payoff is enormous, even though your odds on the scratch off are frequently higher, and easier to understand.  If I asked you to name someone who’s climbed the second-highest mountain in the world, would you be able to do so?
  • Finally (you probably knew it was coming to this): Complexity favors the insiders, and the people with a Sherpa who can help them navigate. Imagine being 17 and faced with figuring out where to start, no matter how intelligent you are.  The process is like Pac-Man; an average video game player who has watched it before trying it will probably do much better than an expert gamer who goes in cold.  And, unfortunately, college admissions is mostly something people do once, at least in the high stakes realm.

Does the data bear this out?  Perhaps.  What we see is that the institutions with the most complex processes tend to generate more and more applications every year.  Here is an image of a dashboard, where you can see for yourself.  Just click here or on the image to interact, and let me know what you think, whether your thoughts are complex or simple.




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