Thoughts on ‘Harvard by lottery’
The Chronicle of Higher education is running this very interesting article by Dalton Conley: Harvard By Lottery.
The lack of measurable value of selective college admissions
In other words, while the difference between Stanford and no-name college may still matter, within a general range—say Stanford versus San Diego State University—it doesn’t make much of a difference where a student goes. Similar analysis has been conducted at the high-school level, examining high-stakes entrance exams in Boston and New York. Logic suggests that there is not any real difference between the ability of two kids, one who just made it over the line for admission to say, my alma mater, Stuyvesant High School, and one who barely came up short. The point or two gap probably reflects luck in the particular mix of questions on exam day or who got more sleep the night before or even who guessed right as they were running out of time. And as it turned out in a recent study by Atila Abdulkadiroglu, Joshua D. Angrist, and Parag A. Pathak, those who went to the most-sought-after high school were little better off than those who went to the next best one in terms of standardized text scores by their senior year or in their rates of college enrollment.
Why bother going to an elite school (either high school or college) if it doesn’t yield any measurable difference in terms of income, standardized test scores, or college enrollment? First, I think these studies confirm the silliness of trying to measure and schools on these narrow measures.
To me, this is one of the best arguments I can think of for a transformative school—a school that whose highest aims aren’t standardized test scores, or college admissions, but quite literally empowering its students to change the world. Selective schools aren’t going to stand out on the basis of standardized test scores or college admissions lists, as Chris Lehmann puts it, we must aim to “create a whole greater than the sum of its parts.”
I also believe that transformative schools do this by simple, but not often quantified means—encouraging strong relationships between students and adults. Through these relationships, students realize that they can actively explore the world of knowledge around them and engage adults to help them in their quest. Once students do this, almost every door is open to them.
I’ve also written about mentoring as a measure of a school previously, where I referenced an incredible story by one of Brian Carpenter’s students on the incredible role he had in her life as an advisor.
The college admissions arms race
In a later paragraph, Conley explains how, despite these small differences in measured outcomes of tests scores and lifetime wealth, the pressure for achieving admission at a highly selective college has lead to never ending arms race among students, parents and college admissions offices:
Such evidence aside, however, when I take off my social-scientist hat and put on my parental cap, I can’t imagine not taking my kids on a coast-to-coast college tour during their junior year. I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t pay for an SAT prep class. And damned if I let them just hang out working on their eight-ball game at a billiard hall after school rather than pursue serious internships and other extracurriculars. This insanity is equally rampant on the other side of the coin. As college officials, we obsess over keeping our acceptance rates down and our yields up. We worry about slight downward blips in the average SAT scores of our entering classes, and we trumpet recruitment victories over our bitter rivals as if they were the battle for Guadalcanal. Why? U.S. News & World Report rankings that parents like me scrutinize.
Even as the parent of a 17 month-old, I feel this pressure to make sure I’m doing everything I possibly can to make sure that my daughter has the greatest possible chance at success in life, and I’m constantly bombarded with gadgets, flashcards and other things I can buy to hurry her toward that success.
This guilt at feeling we might not be doing enough to help our children achieve success can be sometimes be overwhelming, but I think Conley highlights the danger of this approach and a possible solution in a subsequent paragraph:
But such arguments ignore the fact that obsession with maximizing SAT scores or larding extracurriculars onto our children’s college applications deflects efforts from more robust forms of learning that aren’t necessarily scored in the admissions process. It’s no different than the phenomenon of “teaching to the test” among elementary-school students.
My experience in college counseling tells me that many college admissions officers want to end this arms race as well. Their campuses are overflowing with hothouse flower students, and their psychological counseling offices are buckling under the demand form students for therapy for issues both large and small. I’ve had a number of conversations where admissions officers beam with satisfaction when describing a particular applicant who clearly showed a love of learning radiating from the page and how that applicant was able to harness grow that love of learning into something truly meaningful, sometimes despite the roadblocks of traditional schooling. These students are instant admits, and admissions officers are often willing to overlook a low grade or standardized test score to bring that sort of infectious joy in learning to their campus.
The problem is that these students are rare, and admissions offices have hundreds, not dozens of beds to fill. Once you dispense with admitting these rare gems, the real work of college admissions begins as admissions officers try to sort through the rest of their applicant pool of over-stressed, over-scheduled students, many too busy to find the real joy in learning, each thinking that one extra activity or AP will be the thing that boost them over the bar. And as parents, we think that might not be enough, so we add fuel to the arms race, SAT prep, a high priced independent college counselor, and more study guides and private tutoring than you can imagine.
Conley thinks the solution to this may be to have these uber-selective schools fill 10% of their enrollments with a random lottery of qualified students. This is a very intriguing idea, and I would love to see colleges try it, but it seems impractical in the extreme, and relies on a few college admissions deans and presidents taking very bold action. My solution, beginning the unilateral disarmerment of the college admissions arms race through small individual action seems at least a tiny bit more practical.
So, what should be the first steps in unilateral disarmament?