Sunday, December 04, 2005

The (Il)logic of Ivy League Admissions

I just got through reading an old issue of The New Yorker which featured a characteristically interesting article by Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and Blink. First Gladwell informed of something of which I was not aware. In the early 20th Century, Harvard underwent a brief respite from being an institution of higher learning for well-heeled bluebloods, accepting students based on a [gasp] meritocratic system:
In 1905, Harvard College adopted the College Entrance Examination Board tests as the principal basis for admission, which meant that virtually any academically gifted high-school senior who could afford a private college had a straightforward shot at attending. By 1908, the freshman class was seven per cent Jewish, nine per cent Catholic, and forty-five per cent from public schools, an astonishing transformation for a school that historically had been the preserve of the New England boarding-school complex known in the admissions world as St. Grottlesex.

By 1922, Jews made up one-fifth of Harvard's freshman class. For Harvard, this amounted to a perceived image problem. The president devised an admission's policy that is still with us today (though to somewhat different affect):
Finally, [Harvard's president, A. Lawrence] Lowell—and his counterparts at Yale and Princeton—realized that if a definition of merit based on academic prowess was leading to the wrong kind of student, the solution was to change the definition of merit...The admissions office at Harvard became much more interested in the details of an applicant’s personal life. Lowell told his admissions officers to elicit information about the “character” of candidates from “persons who know the applicants well,” and so the letter of reference became mandatory. Harvard started asking applicants to provide a photograph. Candidates had to write personal essays, demonstrating their aptitude for leadership, and list their extracurricular activities. “Starting in the fall of 1922,” Karabel writes, “applicants were required to answer questions on ‘Race and Color,’ ‘Religious Preference,’ ‘Maiden Name of Mother,’ ‘Birthplace of Father,’ and ‘What change, if any, has been made since birth in your own name or that of your father? (Explain fully).’ ”

And Harvard and its peer universities retained their amorphous selection process with its "emphasis on character and arguing that they were searching for the students who would have the greatest success after college."

Now, I can understand selecting for people who are not necessarily the highest IQ test or SAT scorers but who have motivated personalities. In fact, I think it is a solid way to choose a student body, as long as it does not become an arbitrary selection process or favors one group-- for instance, students from elite private high schools--and as long as it doesn't discount intellect and intellectual curiosity. This has become the case with the high acceptance rate of student atheletes, according to a book cited in the article, which posits that the financial success that these students tend to enjoy after college is an incentive for a university to admit them:
The Ivy League is perfectly happy to accept, among others, the kind of student who makes a lot of money after graduation. As the old saying goes, the definition of a well-rounded Yale graduate is someone who can roll all the way from New Haven to Wall Street.

In the end, it seems Gladwell believes that we should take the famed prestige of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, with a grain of salt. Especially since the top priority of these universities isn't always to admit the best and the brightest:
In the 1985-92 period, for instance, Harvard admitted children of alumni at a rate more than twice that of non-athlete, non-legacy applicants, despite the fact that, on virtually every one of the school’s magical ratings scales, legacies significantly lagged behind their peers.

Harvard and the other Ivies are a brand name, says Gladwell, and it seems we're taking it too seriously if we believe that its selectees single-handedly define our nation's best students.

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