Getting In, and Not Getting In

In another interesting take on the matter of academic pressure, over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Sandy Baum and Michael McPherson consider what’s going on in admissions at America’s elite colleges. They write:

Ultimately, the intense scramble among students and colleges at the top of the pecking order matters far less than the “big sort” that determines who gets to go to a college at all, and particularly to a college that offers the prospect of a good outcome and a start on a successful career. But we do put a lot of resources into highly selective institutions, and they educate a lot of people who make major contributions to society. We should improve the process and, in doing so, reduce the maniacal pressures on the pre-college lives of elite students.

In the long run this is a minor problem. A student from a good suburban public school who doesn’t get into Princeton surely will get into some other reasonably selective school and his life will turn out fine. A student from a bad public school won’t apply to Princeton; the pressure of such admissions is irrelevant. Nevertheless, there is something a little creepy about the current selection process at America’s fanciest colleges. The article explains that,

A basic problem is that the number of institutions in the top 20 has not and will not increase (by definition of “20”). The number of student places at these institutions has also been essentially fixed for years. But the number of students qualified for and interested in attending these colleges has grown dramatically. The number of 18-year-olds has grown and mobility has increased. Top students are much more willing to travel from all parts of the country to the top institutions than they were a generation ago.

Some 27,230 high school students applied to Yale this year. This is for a freshman class of about 1300. With numbers like that, the admissions department has to reject people for pretty capricious reasons, even though most of those 27,000 students would probably be just fine at Yale

One way to ease the trouble of the admissions process is just to make the school bigger.

Admitting more students, Baum and McPherson point out, would mean that many schools would have to use resources differently. But these schools are so rich that they can easily afford to do so.

This isn’t going to happen any time soon, in part because the current system is very, very good for America’s most elite colleges. Admitting more students and increasing the size of the freshman class is not “in the narrow self-interest of elite institutions,” according to the article.
It’s interesting to note, however, that the self-interest of these institutions is very different from the self-interest of the students they actually enroll, and those they arbitrarily decline to enroll.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer