Monday, March 19, 2007

Radical proposal for college admissions


In that column, Barry Schwartz outlines some of the virtues of this proposal (in essence, reduced stress on high school kids, all the good things that will flow from it). In addition, he points to our tendency to overestimate our ability to pick that one best thing out of many 'good enough' things (this applies to kids picking colleges and vice versa):

The tragedy of all this selectivity and competition is that it is almost completely pointless. Students trying to get into the best college, and colleges trying to admit the best students, are both on a fool's errand. They are assuming a level of precision of assessment that is unattainable. Social scientists Detlof von Winterfeldt and Ward Edwards made this case 30 years ago when they articulated what they called the "principle of the flat maximum." What the principle argues is that when comparing the qualifications of people who are bunched up at the very top of the curve, the amount of inherent uncertainty in evaluating their credentials is larger than the measurable differences among candidates. Applied to college admissions, this principle implies that it is impossible to know which excellent student (or school) will be better than which other excellent student (or school). Uncertainty of evaluation makes the hair-splitting to distinguish among excellent students a waste of time; the degree of precision required exceeds the inherent reliability of the data. It also makes the U.S. News & World Report annual rankings of colleges silly for assuming a precision of measurement that is unattainable.

We also tend to underestimate the role of 'luck':

Now, it is no doubt true that, on average, students at the very top of the heap of outstanding applicants will be more likely to succeed than students near the bottom. But plenty of high school superstars turn out to be supernovas who burn out while at college. In my 35 years at Swarthmore, I've seen more than my share of "can't miss" freshmen miss (not for intellectual reasons but for psychological ones including all those pre-college years spent becoming "can't miss"). Surprisingly, there are no good studies on how ranking at the time of admission predicts college achievement, not to mention achievement in life after college.

There is probably a right answer to the questions "Whom should we admit?" or "Which college should I select?" But we won't know until after the fact. Chance factors (roommate assignment, romantic successes or failures, or which English professor evaluates your first papers) might have a bigger effect on success and satisfaction than the tiny differences among applicants (or schools) within the range of acceptability. So once a set of "good enough" students or "good enough" schools has been identified, it probably doesn't matter much which one you choose; or if it does matter, there is no way to know in advance what the right choice is.

Barry Schwartz is at Swarthmore College. His publications are listed here (with some links). His 2004 commencement address ("... I want to talk to you today about autonomy, freedom, and choice") has some of the best advice anyone can get.


  1. Blue said...

    While I agree with the premise (that there are miniscule differences between the "top tier" of students and that both students and admissions officers spend much too much time agonizing over them), the crux of the argument shouldn't come in a statistical determination of whether or not randomly-selected students perform equally as well as the "chosen ones" while in the classroom.

    Of course the majority of these smart kids are going to do well, wherever they are placed (barring personal crises as mentioned in the text).

    The real test should be where these kids are after a few years out of college. People don't hop on the Ivy bandwagon just because they think it'll get their kid a better education; they believe that it will provide them with the maximum number of opportunities after the undergrad experience. Networking and the like.

    If this is true and can be proven, then it makes the lottery system unfortunately unfair. At the same time there's plenty of evidence that the current system is specious at best and may be equally unfair.

    What to do?