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March 11, 2005

private ordering gone awry

Don Herzog: March 11, 2005

I recently suggested that it's a mistake to collapse the public/private distinction into the state/market distinction.  A connected mistake is to think public and private, state and market, map onto good and bad.  Sometimes I dourly suspect that armies of lefties march around chanting, "state good, public good, market bad, private bad!" and armies of righties fire back, "state and public bad, market and private good!"  Sigh.  No, double sigh.  Both positions are inane.

We're used to seeing how the farflung decisions of independent private actors lead to efficient and beneficial market outcomes.  Already in the seventeenth century, John Locke waxed rhapsodic about markets, a rhapsody that remains valid even after we junk his labor theory of value:

For it is not barely the ploughman's pains, the reaper's and thresher's toil, and the baker's sweat, is to be counted into the bread we eat; the labour of those who broke the oxen, who digged and wrought the iron and stones, who felled and framed the timber employed about the plough, mill, oven, or any other utensils, which are a vast number, requisite to this corn, from its sowing to its being made bread, must all be charged on the account of labour, and received as an effect of that; Nature and the earth furnished only the almost worthless materials as in themselves.  It would be a strange catalogue of things that industry provided and made use of about every loaf of bread before it came to our use if we could trace them; iron, wood, leather, bark, timber, stone, bricks, coals, lime, cloth, dyeing-drugs, pitch, tar, masts, ropes, and all the materials made use of in the ship that brought any of the commodities made use of by any of the workmen, to any part of the work, all which it would be almost impossible, at least too long, to reckon up.

Even markets can fail.  But when we leave behind the specific social structure of markets and turn more generally to private action, there's no reason even to expect good results.  Consider changes in college admissions.

In The Atlantic (September 2001), James Fallows, former editor of US News & World Report, laid bare what he called "The Early-Decision Racket."  US News began ranking colleges in 1983.  The more high-school students came to rely on those rankings of colleges, the more detailed the magazine made them.  The magazine started calculating yield and selectivity.  Yield is "the proportion of students offered admission who actually attend."  Selectivity "measures how hard a school is to get into":  it's the proportion admitted of those who apply.  The better a college's numbers on both, the higher it climbs in the rankings.

Here's how early-decision programs work.  Students can apply to only one college on an early-decision basis.  They commit to enrolling if they're accepted.  (High schools help enforce the deal:  they won't send out any more transcripts and references for students who win early decision.)  The more students a college takes early decision, the higher its yield and the higher its selectivity.  It didn't take long for admissions officers and other administrators to notice that they had a recipe for climbing, even vaulting, in the US News rankings.  Just expand their early-decision programs, as one college after another did, up and down the status hierarchy.  For it's not just that the #12 campus would rather be #9.  The #78 campus would rather be #68, too.  And so on.

For the campuses, it's what game theorists think of as a security dilemma or an arms race.  Whatever you think of early decisions, you can't afford to slip in the rankings as other campuses take advantage of those programs.  Your prestige will go down and you'll attract inferior students.  Then too, your improvement matters only insofar as it's relative to what others do.  They can match or exceed your improvement with their own, forcing you to struggle back with further expansion of early decision.  For students, it's what game theorists think of as a tournament competition.  Rightly or wrongly, many students believe their life chances depend on going to the best campus they can.  (That thought can't be a fantasy.  Indeed, to the extent that graduate schools and employers notice the increasingly important work admissions offices are doing in sorting out students, they will pay more and more attention to where students earned their degrees.)  So the students are racing, too, trying to keep their high-school transcripts as polished as they can, trying to get the best SAT and ACT scores they can — Kaplan and Princeton Review are busy cashing in on student anxieties — and trying to figure out by the beginning of their senior year of high school where they want to go to college.  And the more other students rely on US News, the more you may think you need to, too:  it's hard for many students to believe that there are endless dozens of good schools and they just have to find one that's a good match for them.

Not only are students racing, but they also face excruciating strategic choices, because it's now easier to get into many schools early decision than it is to wait for the general pool.  Fallows cited research (published here) showing that applying early decision boosted a student's chances of admission as much as an additional 100 points out of 1600 possible points on the SAT would.  Picture the heartbreak of the student who really wants to go to School A, but worries that A is a long shot and she can probably ensure herself admission to School B if she applies there early decision — and frets that if she waits to hear from both A and B in the regular season, she might not get into either one.

All this is madness.  If you know any high school students, you already know how mad it is.  The system makes everyone worse off.  (Well, okay, not Kaplan, not the Princeton Review,
and not US News & World Report.  And maybe not The Atlantic:  two years after running Fallows's article, they published their own college rankings.)  But every student is behaving rationally.  Every campus is behaving rationally.  In this private setting, the farflung decisions of independent actors have led to a train wreck.  The cloven foot of state intervention is nowhere to be found.

Fallows proposed that the top ten schools call a truce and agree to stop early decisions admissions for five years.  No, they didn't do that, though in 2002 Yale and Stanford joined Harvard's longstanding policy and shifted to "early action," which doesn't bind the student to accept the offer.  (But all three schools now require that if you apply early action, you not apply to any other school on any early basis.  When Harvard added that requirement, they claimed it was good for high school students.  A savvy writer for their student newspaper promptly shredded the claim.)  In The Chronicle of Higher Education (2/25/05), Barry Schwartz proposed that top schools identify students who are "good enough" and then choose from that broad pool at random.  No, that's not going to happen, either.  How competitive does the business get?  The Boston Globe reported (6/7/02) that Harvard announced that they would feel free to admit students who'd gained binding early decision elsewhere.  In response to outrage
— "We like to think we're building a nation of people who abide by their commitments, but Harvard is going back on that," commented a College Board official — Harvard backed down.  For now.

And no, I don't think the state should step in.  I hope that at some point, students, parents, and colleges will develop enough battle fatigue, not to mention disgust, that they'll be able to sit down and hammer out cooperative solutions.  Meanwhile, don't permit yourself to imagine that private outcomes are generally fine.  Every single year, the many thousands of students gingerly entering the college admissions arena, feeling like they're being thrown to the lions, will be glad to explain to you that you're wrong.  Indeed the ninth-graders already on notice that they'd better excel will join them.


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Tracked on Mar 13, 2005 5:10:44 PM


Posted by: Shag from Brookline

Students participating in the ratings game might want to obtain some empirical evidence of end-game value, including the colleges that top executives in industry and government graduated from. Or is this a matter of brand name for resume purposes, as opposed to perhaps actually learning a lot in college? After all, the top rated colleges also produce idiots - like Yale!

Posted by: Shag from Brookline | Mar 11, 2005 7:26:03 AM

Posted by: Jay Cline

I guess I just don't see the train wreck. Has the product suffered? Has the delivery of the product suffered? Has the efficiency suffered?

Sounds like you could argue that the "madness" of spending millions in marketing Pepsi vs Coke and vis-versa proves that the cola market, in terms of market theory, has failed.

Second point. The motivation of markets are profit. If you don't make a profit, regardless how much or little you spent on marketing, you don't succeed. When has education, private or public, been strictly a market? Should we start evaluting the success of all human endeavors (churches, government services, charities, Little League Baseball) solely in market terms?

I really don't see it.

Posted by: Jay Cline | Mar 11, 2005 7:43:15 AM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Umm, well, hammering out cooperative agreements is a market solution.

I think I’ll continue to “permit [my]self to imagine that private solutions are generally fine,” thanks anyway; but since we rabid ‘market fundamentalists’ never meant that markets led necessarily to utopian nirvana but only that they usually lead to the best actually achievable resolution of most situations most of the time, perhaps we would do well to acknowledge that the best of all possible worlds is far from the best of all imaginable worlds. If there are ‘market fundamentalists’ out there who deny that, (as Mr. Herzog is fond of saying in response to certain stereotypes about liberals), I don’t know any personally.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Mar 11, 2005 8:24:44 AM

Posted by: Terrier

Jay, haven't I heard some around here argue for no public funding of education? If there is no public funding then what will drive education but profit and/or incompetence? And that leads to what bothers me about evaluations based solely on markets even in the private sector. Most of what I see in large business is incompetence. I really don't see any human endeavor driven by a rational assessment of alternatives. Where is the fantasyland where this happens? Still, I am a capitalist, because it is the worst system except for all the others. I find it very hard to wax rhapsodic about it however because I don't even see rational self-interest at work in this system. I only see people acting irrationally and emotionally and trying to justify it later by adopting positions and arguments that support their actions. If we were rational as a species wouldn't we stop arguing about angels dancing on pinheads? Wouldn't we work to ensure we could survive the big rock, which must surely be coming? And wouldn't we all want (even the guy running a startup carpet cleaning business in Omaha) to ensure that everyone could be educated freely to the maximum level they had the potential to achieve? Wouldn't more educated people improve everyone's economic prospects? Or can the future only be ensured if we make so little we can only afford to purchase less?

Posted by: Terrier | Mar 11, 2005 8:42:18 AM

Posted by: bakho

All markets operate under sets of rules. There is no such thing as a "free" or unregulated market except in the ideal. In any market there are actors that play by the rules and actors that try to "game" the system. Those that "game" the system seek financial rewards for themselves at the expense of others and even the good of the entire system.

The key to markets is to understand that the different actors have overlapping sets of competing interests. These interests MUST BE NEGOTIATED. In the US, these rules are made by Congress and that is why lobbyists are so important. The lobbyists take the time to study legislation and determine its impact on interest groups.

Educated people can move beyond a dualistic view of good v bad, public v private and corporate v worker to recognize that the market is filled with competing interests. These interests work to change the rules to their own advantage.

For instance, a large retailer, let's call them MalWart, pays its workers only minimum wage and no health benefits. The retailer uses low pay to out-compete local businesses that want to pay health care benefits for employees. The local business goes under. Consumers benefit from low prices, but the health care costs of the MalWart workers, who don't have heath care as a benefit and don't make enough money to purchase health care are now dumped into the lap of Government. Some MalWart workers that get serious illnesses, incur huge health care costs, then go bankrupt, transferring the health care costs onto their creditors.

This is a complicated example of how competing business interests, costs of consumer goods, minimum wage and benefits for workers, lack of a national health care policy and taxation to provide a societal safety net ALL OF WHICH ARE RULES THAT AFFECT THE MARKET must be considered in arriving at a policy that optimizes the social good.

A dualistic view of markets and the economy is too simple and cannot adequately reflect the complexity needed for good policy assessments.

Posted by: bakho | Mar 11, 2005 8:56:33 AM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Sadly contrary to Mr. Herzog’s comment about ninth graders, the madness actually begins much earlier. Recall a classic moment from The Simpsons, Lisa’s nightmare:

Springfield Elementary School Teacher: And the lowest grade in the class ...
Ralph: She's going to say my name!
Teacher: Lisa Simpson, zero!
Principal Skinner: Lisa, the president of Harvard would like to see you.
Pres. of Harvard: Nasty business, that zero. Naturally, Harvard's doors are now closed to you, but I'll pass your file along to ... Brown.
Skinner: Mmmm, Brown. Heckuva school. Weren't you at Brown, Otto?
Otto (the bus driver): Yup. Almost got tenure, too.
Lisa: [gasps in horror] No! Not Brown! [groaning] Brown…

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Mar 11, 2005 9:03:59 AM

Posted by: Don Herzog

My market fundamentalists are people who think all there is to social life is state and market. They are not people who think markets always work well.

I don't think the college admissions game is a market: that's why I describe it as private ordering outside the setting of the market. Yes, there are loose metaphors you can use: students are bidding for places, or colleges are selling them to the right bidders, and so on. But places in colleges aren't simply up for sale to the highest bidders.

Jay Cline: one of the train wrecks here is the pressure on high school students to figure out where they want to go to college by the beginning of senior year. That's a big big loser. But given that it's easier to get in early decision, there's serious pressure on students to do that.

Posted by: Don Herzog | Mar 11, 2005 9:51:36 AM

Posted by: Nick

Woah! I'd call that less of a train wreck and more of a wake-up call. Life is full of difficult decisions backed by minimal information and I don't see why exposure to that in H.S. is a bad thing. "Welcome to the real world High School Student - game on and good luck!" If they're not mature and ready to make those decisions and live with them, then I feel their parents and to some degree the school has done a poor job of preparing them.

It's NOT the fault of the colleges/universities for trying to improve their own student selection decisions and try to minimize the costs of the selection process - early acceptance being a method that can be used and is apparently effective if yield improves.

I think we need to quit coddling people so much and accept that being an adult is not easy, although it can be very rewarding.

- Nick

Posted by: Nick | Mar 11, 2005 10:10:32 AM

Posted by: Untenured Whig

"The cloven foot of state intervention is nowhere to be found."

[I said I would leave because of the personal attacks on me, but I have been waiting patiently for this from Don, so let me get my 2 cents in on that and then go.]

WHAT? Take away the government-protected student loans, and 95% of the market just effing *disappears* *completely*, along with any need for merit based admissions assessment. Take away government spending and 95% of the *institutions* disappear. Presumably employer expectations about the kind of education required for the jobs these kids will take anyway disappears too, since working in the mail room or being the latte counter doesn't require reading Irigaray first. Then the top 5% institutions return to their traditional function of charm school for the upper class and museum of the mind, the function they still play anyway.

But if you combine the institutions' decision to incorporate *some* merit-based assessment for determining admissions (don't panic! the merit will be largely controlled by quality of pre-college education, which in turn will be a function of the available real property tax base for local schools--you're all but guaranteed to find that smarter equals whiter and wealthier), continue the class-reproductive function for the top institutions, and now throw around a lot of government money, like blood in shark infested water, what do you *think* the rational masses will do? Well?

Back when almost no one went to college, going to college was a sign of distinction and not unusual among the higher orders. In our wonderful spirit of egalitarianism, we have decided that going to Harvard will still be connected to the goodies, but we will create zillions of Schmarvards where the masses can go so that they can feel that *everyone* got to play. But the masses are not stupid. So instead of *going*, it becomes about *where* you went. In effect, nothing has changed except the moment of tantalizing possibility in which the ordinary person imagines that they might conceivably beat the system, and the additional class wound of now being told that their betters are not their betters because it simply is the way things are, but because they had their chance and blew it, because they're *stupid*.

More irrelevant stomach-emptying: These class system realities are part of the reason why I view (see other therapeutic stomach emptying post about slime molds) affirmative action policies in academia with such baleful eye. Because the set-up (dare I say "racket"? perhaps not) works tolerably well, you can afford to throw a bone to the black middle class in the undergraduate admissions area without ever having to think about the mind-crippling effects of the failed, real property tax driven K-12 which consigns most African-Americans to the oblivion of the blind leading the blind. And when it comes to affirmative action *hiring*, well you can always pat yourself on the back and say that you did a Good Thing by shifting income within a white middle-to-upper-middle-class household from a male to his wife or lover, which is clearly a deep blow to the system, eh?

Not that I have a problem with it. Not even with the hypocrisy that permeates it. The human comedy.

OK, that was all. Bye.

Posted by: Untenured Whig | Mar 11, 2005 10:13:36 AM

Posted by: Stuart

Sure, it's madness. My daughter is a junior in high school and we're going through the process now (she's taking the SAT this weekend).

But this process isn't an economic one. Part of the madness is that the criteria for success are maddeningly vague. There is simply no way of knowing rationally what one has to do to get the people in the Ivy admissions offices to smile upon your application. In fact, when we were touring Harvard, the admissions officer who presided over the information session quite cheerfully admitted that, though they admit 2000 students to get a class of 1650, they could just as easily admit the next set of 2000 students down the list and notice no difference in the quality of the class - and she didn't deny that the winnowing process was totally subjective. (That's not an indictment: I totally understand that when you get 20,000 applications and all are from valedictorians and class presidents, there isn't a rational way to choose.)

So instead of having rational competition for spots, the students' efforts to get a leg up get shifted elsewhere. It's no different from the Romans trying to figure out how to get the gods to smile on them: if the events seem to be random, why not slaughter a goat and look at its entrails? It's as informative as anything else.

On the larger point, Don, you're still missing something here. There are fewer spots in elite schools than there are students who want to fill them. Some method of selection has to be used, and the colleges refuse (or say they refuse) to use quantitative methods. AND according to your thesis, their objective ins't the economic one of getting the best class, it's the external one of getting the highest ranking. So this is not a market problem at all - it's a problem created by the fact that the colleges refuse to operate by market rules, but nevertheless are acting out of market motives (i.e. out of self-interest).

If you're not behaving as a market actor, you can't say that the broken system that results is a market failure.

Posted by: Stuart | Mar 11, 2005 10:42:05 AM

Posted by: Stuart

Oh, and I should add that part of the issue I see with college admissions is what some may perceive as a cetain lack of honesty. Every one of the schools I visited with my daughter insisted that it is NOT easier to get in through early action or early decision. They claimed that the criteria are the same. They explained that the acceptance rate is higher for early applicants because the early applicant pool is that much stronger and is composed of people who have a commitment to the school.

Is that mere balderdash and flapdoodle? Who the hell knows. But I can assure you my daughter will be applying early to her #1 choice, mainly because you can never be too sure.

Posted by: Stuart | Mar 11, 2005 10:48:32 AM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Fair enough regarding Mr. Herzog's stipulative definition. I hereby deny that I am a market fundamentalist in that sense. Moreover, it isn’t as though I disagree with the thrust of Mr. Herzog’s comments. Indeed, I could drone on at great lengths about the problems of the current system, especially as the proud father of a high school senior who is awaiting those April Fool’s Day envelopes.

I do think, however, that confining discussion of markets to notions of bidders and sellers in the financial sense is too crabbed a view of the usefulness of market analysis or the market model. Actors and athletes bid for places in theatrical productions and sports franchises, respectively, and vice versa and it is clearly the case that these decisions are not strictly matters of the “highest bidder” in terms of dollars. We ‘compete’ in markets of sorts for our friends and lovers, for that matter; although I’ll gladly admit that as the notion of a market becomes more and more generalized it also becomes more, well, metaphorical and often far less useful. Indeed, I’ll grant that bona fide market fundamentalists tend to extend the model to the point of nonfalsifiable tautology. But none of that gainsays its usefulness here as long as we don’t get carried away with ourselves.

As such, I think it is highly useful to see college admissions as a market, albeit a skewed and hardly free market in the neoclassical sense. First, we are really only talking about somewhere between 10% and, at most, 25% of all colleges and universities. The majority of accredited schools in the U.S. are not significantly selective beyond requiring graduation from high school. Second, the selective schools, themselves, are engaged in marketing themselves to prospective students in a manner strikingly similar to other high-end luxury items and services. That BMW might not be as reliable or cost-effective as a Honda, but it sure is more fun to drive and even more fun to park in the driveway. Check out one of those glossy fact-books from any of the selective schools and compare them to automobile brochures. And what better “accessory” for that gleaming, new Beemer than an Ivy League decal in the rear window? And students play the same game. An undergraduate might well get a crappy education at Harvard, but at least it’s a crappy Harvard education. Sadly, this matters to the rest of the world.

I think the behavior of highly selective universities regarding undergraduate admissions and especially early admissions and early action (but also athletics and grades and curriculum and, oh Lord, the list just goes on and on) in recent decades is unconscionable, and the behavior of upper-middle class parents playing along in this vicious circle hasn’t been much better. Does that mean I stood on my principles and refused to play the game when it came to my own kids? Hell no! (As I’ve remarked before, I have principles I’ve never used once!) What was the lesson repeated by the “experts” over and over to my son and me as we plodded through the process (beginning in middle school, actually)? That even as the schools are marketing themselves (often deviously if not outright falsely), it was the student’s job to do exactly the same thing.

But while I’ll gladly lament the absurdity of it all, it still doesn’t follow that the system leaves everyone worse off. It doesn’t leave the Have’s (the ultra selective schools and the kids whose biggest worry in April is whether to live in Palo Alto or New Haven for the next four years) badly off at all. As for the rest of the academic food chain on both sides of the equation, it is (returning to our game theory analysis) a far from optimal process (or market equilibrium, if you will.) Eventually, though, the ‘market’ will adjust, if only because markets always do. In the meanwhile, since we are agreed that state intervention is not the way to ameliorate the current situation, what practical alternatives do we have short of letting these private, voluntary processes work themselves out?

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Mar 11, 2005 10:55:40 AM

Posted by: SeanD

If there's anyone here who has an 'inside view' on the college admissions process, I'd love to hear their (or anyone's) answer to a few questions:

Just what qualities, exactly, are college admissions officials attempting to maximize in their incoming classes? Some dispositional properties having to do with 'likelihood of success' both during and after undergraduate education?

And why do they believe the indicators used in the decision-making process track these qualities? For instance, I can see why (maybe) SAT scores and grades would provide some reliable information as to likelihood of success in higher education, but what does being the class president have to do with anything? Or the emphasis on 'extracurricular activities'? Or are these non-academic factors simply 'coin-flips' being used to distinguish thousands of academically equivalent students?

I have some thoughts on the answers to these questions, but they're pretty half-baked, so I won't subject anyone to them. I'd love to hear any 'insider' opinion, or even guesses from someone more educated on this issue than I.

Posted by: SeanD | Mar 11, 2005 11:14:33 AM

Posted by: SeanD

One more question- are there any 'internal', or non-rankings-related, reasons to maximize 'yield' and 'selectivity'? Does maximizing these somehow increase the quality of education, or research, or any good sought by universities other than reputatation?

Posted by: SeanD | Mar 11, 2005 11:19:27 AM

Posted by: miab

The significant point I see in this post is not specifically an attack on early admissions. It is that universities are pressured into using admissions processes that they do not believe are good ones, either academically or for their prospective students, because a magazine uses certain criteria to rank schools, and those rankings have some prestige among prospective students.

Universities' purpose for existence is not to get high US News rankings, but they find themselves cornered into using admissions systems that are sub-optimal on an academic and human level, because they can't afford to slide down the rankings (on top of damage to deans' egos, the damage to alumni fundraising is reason enough).

US News uses number of books in the library as one of its ranking criteria (at least for law schools). Luckily it's a minor one. But nonetheless, some schools buy used books in bulk, regardless of whether there is anything academically worthy in those books, to drive up that number. Even those schools wouldn't claim this is an academically or pedagogically sensible allocation of resources.

Unless you want to "extend the model to the point of nonfalsifiable tautology", as D.A. Ridgely put it, it's hard to see how these outcomes of private ordering are helpful either to the institution's academic purpose or to prospective students.

As to Jay Cline's: "I guess I just don't see the train wreck. Has the product suffered? Has the delivery of the product suffered? Has the efficiency suffered?"

1. The kids suffer. The increase in stress and angst, and the pushing of stress and angst to an earlier age, constitute suffering.

2. To the extent the universities are skewing their processes in ways that they believe are sub-optimal for their academic mission, but are pressured into because of the self-reinforcing reputational power of US News rankings, then yes, the university suffers.

Posted by: miab | Mar 11, 2005 11:30:09 AM

Posted by: razor

"Eventually, though, the ‘market’ will adjust, if only because markets always do."

Que sara sara. Dr. Pangloss strikes again.

I stand on the strength of my tautology and you can do nothing about it. Submit.

Posted by: razor | Mar 11, 2005 11:32:05 AM

Posted by: hick

Ivy League aristocrat-training institutes embody the elitism and injustice of the education market. The stamp of Yale or Harvard (or Stanford or UC's) confers immediate respect, as does Cambridge or Oxford. However, as with the case with Bush, our Fratboy-in-Chief
(who mumbled his way through the debates like some hungover texan at a Houston clubhouse) knowing whether that prestige is justified is another matter.

If it were purely quantitative and based on SATs and high school calculus grades, as it seems to be with many schools, that would be acceptable to some extent, though anyone care to wager that the highest SATs are produced generally by the kids from well-to-do families? The "market" was in their favor from birth, and will continue to be so, even if they only manage a 1.7 GPA.

In other words, if quantitative educational skills are what count, then it seems prestige should be factored out. I am sure there are students at state colleges, perhaps even some from Cal States, who can unravel integrals or organic chemistry or formal logic problems much more proficiently than can many Ivy League graduates ( or Ivy League professors). This is somewhat obvious, but when it comes to hiring time in Silicon or LA or NY what do you wager the Ivy Leaguer's, with some non-quantitative liberal arts BS, is awarded some management internship or law school admittance or journalism job, and the struggling nobody with a Cal State BS and honors in math or science takes out more loans and goes to get his teaching credential.

Posted by: hick | Mar 11, 2005 12:02:07 PM

Posted by: Stuart

Sean D - Having now listened to admissions spiels at five separate highly selective schools (Penn, Columbia, Harvard, Barnard and Yale), I can tell you by heart the qualities they claim to be looking for. They claim NOT to look at grades and SAT scores in more than a cursory way, because that is just the foot in the door, and the applicant population has already largely self-selected to qualify based on the raw academic numbers. Once the applicant gets past that first filter, they claim to want to see passion, leadership, dedication, talent, community involvement. Traits that will make the college a livelier and more interesting place, and make the college's graduates go on to become leaders and reflect well on the college. How the heck do you measure that? Beats me. To some extent it could be mumbo jumbo, just a cover for a different agenda based on social engineering, subtle bias, or any number of other things. Who the heck knows. It's a hell of a crapshoot.

Posted by: Stuart | Mar 11, 2005 12:27:35 PM

Posted by: Stuart

Don, on reflection, I guess part of what we have to determine is what it is that a prospective student is trying to get when s/he applies for college. I went to a local public college and got a decent education. If what the kid is looking for is a college education, that can be had at almost any accredited school. And I remain to be convinced that the quality of the classroom education, standing alone, is so much better at, say, Stanford, than it is at, say, SUNY Stonybrook, that the cost and student debt are worth it.

That said, I can't deny that when I started law school (at Columbia) and looked around, I noticed that my classmates - a huge percentage of whom went to elite schools - had gotten much more out of college than I did. What the elite schools offer is an environment, more than anything else. (that, plus a credential). Measuring who will fit into or contribute to an environment is not a rational, quantifiable process. But it's also not one with a readily quantifiable return.

Don's lament that the process is madness isn't necessarily something to get agitated about. People or institutions have the right to be arbitrary and to do what they think is in their self-interest. If some student doesn't like the process, they have a right to opt out of it and not try to get into a top-20 college. Their education won't suffer for it. If getting into a "name brand" college is important enough to the student, then s/he is making a decision to put up with the arbitrariness and unfairness of the process. Welcome to real life: life is not fair. So the "madness" isn't a sign of bad private ordering, that's just life, and a consequence of the mismatch of the number of slots at elite schools and the number of kids who, ceteris parabus, would like to fill them.

On a personal note, I'll just tell you that my daughter is shooting for one of the elite schools, but understands full well that she might not get in where she wants. The worst case scenario is that she ends up in the local public college. That's hardly a tragedy.

The whole point of

Posted by: Stuart | Mar 11, 2005 12:41:41 PM

Posted by: Don Herzog

Untenured Whig is obviously right that government financing has lots to do with higher education. But I don't see how that financing could conceivably explain the change in admissions regimes. Once upon a time, students applied to different colleges, waited to hear in April what their choices were, and then selected one. Then thanks to the US News rankings, colleges made their early decision programs much bigger. In response, it became increasingly important for high school students to know by the beginning of their senior year where they wanted to go, and to apply early decision to just one school.

That change, which is my concern here, has nothing whatever to do with government financing.

Mine is not a complaint against competition, or stress, or anything like that. Mine is a complaint about how the shift in admissions systems has made students, and I think colleges too, worse off. Yes, of course on any admissions regime some students will be disappointed, mistakes will be made, deserving people will be denied, and so on. That's irrelevant to the point I'm pressing here.

I'd like to endorse a point miab makes, though it's not in my original post. Colleges have not responded to the US News rankings solely by juggling their admissions policies. They have changed all kinds of things. Some of them may be improvements on academic grounds, and then the rankings, publicizing what's going on, are all to the good. But some of them clearly aren't.

Posted by: Don Herzog | Mar 11, 2005 1:01:48 PM

Posted by: hick

"People or institutions have the right to be arbitrary and to do what they think is in their self-interest"

Nein, nyet, nicht. There are plenty of good grounds for viewing the Ivy League system as a form of monarchist tyranny. The entire notion of "admittance" is highly dubious. The modern european models of open admittance and low or non-existent tuition are much preferable to the US private schools feudal, clerical admittance policies: schools such as Yale or Duke or Brown are like versions of Oxford or Padua, circa 1300, but with lots of lesbians and technology that no one knows how to program.

Posted by: hick | Mar 11, 2005 1:05:28 PM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

I didn't even know one could program a lesbian.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Mar 11, 2005 1:12:07 PM

Posted by: Steve Horwitz

Stuart writes:

They claim NOT to look at grades and SAT scores in more than a cursory way, because that is just the foot in the door, and the applicant population has already largely self-selected to qualify based on the raw academic numbers. Once the applicant gets past that first filter, they claim to want to see passion, leadership, dedication, talent, community involvement. Traits that will make the college a livelier and more interesting place, and make the college's graduates go on to become leaders and reflect well on the college.

Yup, that's about right. I'm at a school that matriculates about 560 kids each year, which is winnowed down from almost 3000 applications. Being the associate dean of the first year, I work with our Admissions folks a lot, both behind the scenes and "selling" the place at events for prospective students and their families. Stuart has it right. Our folks here do use a system to rank applications with a particular rubric, but with our small size, the admissions staff can read each application carefully and thoroughly to look for just the sorts of qualities that Stuart mentions. And our Dean of Admissions still, I believe, reads each and every one herself.

As for the arms race Don's original post describes, he's dead on target. The biggest problem with US News and the like is that it ranks schools by their inputs not by their value added. The analogy to a market would be judging the success of firms not by their profit (esp. expressed as a rate of return) but by the price/quality of their inputs. US News et. al. are input rankings not value added rankings. If I were a parent who was college shopping, I'd be more interested in what happens to students *while* they're at a school then either what the rest of the entering class looks like or what the external reputation of graduates is (not that those aren't important, and not that they aren't related to what happens during the magic four years). Ask about what happens in the classroom and out, for example.

I should also note that we've gone standardized-test optional here starting with the incoming class in 2006. The rationale for doing so is laid out
here. There's also some comments about our admissions process more generally there.

Posted by: Steve Horwitz | Mar 11, 2005 1:20:08 PM

Posted by: hick

The relative clause (indicated by "that") attaches to "technology" only, not to lesbian. Hey did you by chance attend an Ivy League school?

Posted by: hick | Mar 11, 2005 1:21:37 PM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

That hick,... such a card!

But seriously, folk…

Okay, focusing only on early admissions programs, what’s the solution? Ideally, parents would refuse to play the game and at the very least refuse to pay the application fee for their kids’ early admissions applications, the early admissions pool would shrink, be given less importance, etc., etc. Conversely, in an unexpected burst of altruism, highly selective schools could abandon the early admissions programs. (“Yeah, and politicians could stop seeking campaign contributions…. Yessss, that’s right…. That’s the ticket!”)

But as matters stand it isn’t rational for those schools to do so; or, at least, it is difficult for me to see why it would be to their benefit. Likewise, since the students are aware that their chances at a highly selective school slightly improve by using the early action option (early admission is less clearly advantageous), they optimize their already crap-shoot chances at schools with an admission rate of 15% or lower by availing themselves of it.

So, again, while we’re all agreed the status quo is problematic, the question remains what is a viable solution?

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Mar 11, 2005 1:24:52 PM

Posted by: hick

Seriously, shyster, since this is about measurable skills, and not about your racketeering abilities, let's compare some standardized scores--GRE or LSAT. In fact I took the LSAT 10 years ago for fun and was in upper percentile, but wasn't going to take out 100 grand to pay to refine my swindling skills. Indeed the LSAT's about the last bit of actual logic (low level at that) the law student encounters.

Ivy League --not only tyrannical and irrational, but a mockery of any authentic Christian values as well. Billy Bob from Baton Rouge rarely gets in, even with perfect SATs (or later, GREs).

Posted by: hick | Mar 11, 2005 1:33:19 PM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely


On the off chance those last comments were (mis)directed at me, I have claimed no academic pedigree at all, let alone anything so exalted as high test scores or an Ivy League education. (I do confess, though, to having once cheered on my college football team to defeat when they were resoundingly crushed by “those jocks” from Harvard.) In any case, while one might wonder how you could know what law students do or do not encounter, having foregone the experience yourself, I’m happy to hear your swindling skills needed no further refinement.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Mar 11, 2005 1:47:43 PM

Posted by: miab

DA Ridgely: "But as matters stand it isn’t rational for those schools to do so; or, at least, it is difficult for me to see why it would be to their benefit."

But isn't that exactly the point of the post? Schools *are* behaving rationally. It's like the tragedy of the commons -- individual choices made in rational self-interest can sometimes produce a result that's bad for most or everyone.

Posted by: miab | Mar 11, 2005 2:01:37 PM

Posted by: miab

Solutions? For starters, US News could stop using such gameable criteria as yield and selectivity. I am surprised schools don't start offering $25 to any high school student who applies. They could quickly drive their selectivity to 1%, while not changing their cutoff SAT/GPA levels and while ending up with an identical student body.

Incoming SAT & GPA's may not be a great measure of real quality, but at least when a school maneuvers to raise them it is actually working to raise one of the factors by which students' caliber is measured. Likewise student/faculty ratio -- hard to improve this ratio without actually improving something directly relevant to education. Post-graduation income? Maybe for business schools.

But US News is doing fine with things the way they are, so why should they, acting in rational self-interest, change anything?

Posted by: miab | Mar 11, 2005 2:05:08 PM

Posted by: Stuart

Uh, Hick? You do have the right to behave irrationally or in your self-interest. You just can't take stuff away from other people in the process. It's a free country. If you don't like that whole system you don't have to participate in it.

As for everyone else, I don't see how there is a "problem" here that has to be "solved." If you don't like the whole top-tier schools' admissions game, you don't have to play it. What I think is going on is that some people want the perceived glamour or credential of a so-called top-tier school but want it on their own terms instead of on the terms that the institution is willing to use. And that's not how things work in a free country. If you don't like Harvard's criteria, don't go to Harvard (or Stanford, or Columbia, or whereever). Of course, the sanctimony from the institutions about how they're helping students and applicants by the way they do things gets a bit hard to swallow, but that's a different issue.

It still remains true that you can get a very good, more than adequate college education at any number of respectable public colleges. That's what I did. What's going on with the selective schools has little to do with education per se, and a lot more to do with a certain atmosphere and with credentials.

Posted by: Stuart | Mar 11, 2005 2:21:25 PM

Posted by: mpowell

Well, the system is pretty absurd, but its actually pretty clear what top schools are looking for. And I mean, like the top 10-15. Public schools, even really good ones like Berkeley, the grades and SAT scores will get you in if they are good enough. People who complain that grades aren't enough just don't have good enough grades. But if you want to go to Harvard this is what you do: Find something you're good at that is respectable. This could be writing stories, poems, playing music, writing music, athletics, debate, academic decathlon, or academice competitions in math, physics chemistry or whatever. There are other things out there. But if you can get recognized for accomplishments on the state or, especially, national level, you will probably get into Harvard. If you can't perform at that level spend a lot of time doing it anyway and emphasize in your interviews, essays and recs how important it was to you, how it influenced your education and how it taught you valuable life lessons. Other students will get in, but this approach is your best bet. It is useless advice for anyone older than a high school sophmore b/c it is probably too late.

I've been telling this to people for years, and I'm not sure how much they listen. But if you think about what admissions people look at, realize that you need to be able to tell them a story about yourself that is built on something concrete so they actually believe you. You can talk about what a great person you are, but if your story is based on something you actually did that you can point to, it will carry a lot more weight. So parents of kids who want to go to top schools: only A's are acceptable (regardless of whether you are good at math, history or whatever subject it is) and find something you can commit 10-20 hrs/wk to for 3-4 years.

Posted by: mpowell | Mar 11, 2005 2:29:18 PM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

miab, good point. Still, if sub-optimal results are the best results we are likely to get, my response tends to be "Pity, but so what?"

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Mar 11, 2005 2:29:27 PM

Posted by: Stuart

Oh, Hick - was it to me that you were directing the offer to compare LSAT scores? I guess I'm a shyster in your book since I practice law for a living. So it might have been me. Was it?

Posted by: Stuart | Mar 11, 2005 2:29:27 PM

Posted by: mpowell

Incidentally, I feel like this is not a bad idea for high school students anyhow. You should learn what you can from hs classes and you should learn what it means to try and excel at something.

Posted by: mpowell | Mar 11, 2005 2:32:15 PM

Posted by: Stuart

Well put, D.A. Ridgely.

Not every imperfect result must be tinkered with.

Posted by: Stuart | Mar 11, 2005 2:32:37 PM

Posted by: hick

If the elite colleges aren't using quantitative measurements to allow students in, what are they using? The administrator-barons can alude to leadership, talent, community involvement and other subjective factors, but the process is more like some bouncer at a hip bistro saying to a group of well-scrubbed, cute multicultural suburbanites, you are allowed in; but the ugly kids in overalls (and yeah, mostly caucasian) who may do integrals and chemistry as well as the cute multicultural suburbanites are not allowed access. E.g. StoneCold Steve Austin (or say Dennis Rodman) has in his spare time become a renowned expert on quantum physics. You think he would ever have a chance getting into Harvard or Yale or Stanford if he did physics like Einstein? Hell no. There's a profile, if not caste system, and he doesn't fit the right profile. The field n-ers, of whatever race, aren't allowed in, even if they do spin equations or speak some frenchy.

Posted by: hick | Mar 11, 2005 3:12:57 PM

Posted by: Stuart

Hick, you're right that it's like the bouncer at the hot club. But I don't think it's much of a class thing, because if you take seriously what the admissions officers say, they would grab Steve Austin in a nanosecond if he had the grades and SATs and some semblance of "leadership" qualities. Ditto for the Appalachian kid who grew up barefoot and whose grandma smokes a corncob pipe. They'd view it as a kid who overcame challenges.

Posted by: Stuart | Mar 11, 2005 3:33:05 PM

Posted by: Untenured Federalist

No Don. It has *everything* to do with government financing. Unless you think that USNews never listens to market signals either. Your comment presupposes that everyone is a rational actor *except* USNews, who are motivated by whimsy. But of course the masses (who read magazines like USNews) want information that will increase their chances in the sharkpool, and USNews wants to sell more magazines than Time and Newsweek.

Posted by: Untenured Federalist | Mar 11, 2005 3:56:28 PM

Posted by: Don Herzog

I'm more than usually befuddled. What does government financing have to do with US News deciding to rank on yield and selectivity? That is the decision that has driven the cancerous expansion of early decision programs. And that is what has left high school students needing to figure out by the beginning of senior year where they want to go to college.

Posted by: Don Herzog | Mar 11, 2005 5:10:52 PM

Posted by: Steven Horwitz

For what it's worth, as a libertarian, I have no problem agreeing with Don's characterization of this process as a kind of prisoner's dilemma gone wild, with individually rational action leading to a collectively problematic result. Of course, the sub-optimality of a voluntary outcome hardly, ipso facto, demonstrates that government intervention is necessary or superior. The "sub-optimality" may just be the best we can do in an imperfect world. Alternatively, the actors in question might be able to find their own way out of this bind by reassessing their priorities or other means.

A good start would be to simply ignore US News and other rankings.

Posted by: Steven Horwitz | Mar 11, 2005 5:56:20 PM

Posted by: Don Herzog

Don of course denied that the state should step in.

Posted by: Don Herzog | Mar 11, 2005 6:03:14 PM

Posted by: David Bennett

This kind of thing is a logical development of a trend that puts kids under pressure and requires they fill all sorts of slots.

Ironically this is exactly the sort of thing that the "Free Speech Movement" was about. The "factory for intellect" of Kerr, the "I am a human, do not fold spindle and mutilate" protest signs. Yet institutions associated with leftism have passively accepted and responded to a pattern of child development that assumes that by acquiring a complex set of brownie points- the acquisition of which favors the wealthy- that structural advantages and near guarantees can be acquired. It resembles the old mandarin system of China in it's assumptions.

Thus a college degree is necessary for positions that bring status and the "better" college degree brings more gain. "Education" in an idealized sense is less evident, the role is economic at the same time there is a greater disdain for "vocational" training. What this is going to do to our capacity has a society is hard to say. Consider that a good waiter requires an IQ of 110 and that other crucial jobs including the construction trades require a heavy sprinkling of clever people, then consider the increasing pressure to keep the smarter kids out of these lines, to get them into college.

It's argued that the competitive process involved in all this is good, supposedly it prepares one for future competition in society, but do the skills and social patterns being emphasized really make us more effectice? Right now there is a sense that America can do no wrong, that our economy is a world example, but it's heavily based on credit, the world doesn't want our goods and we are moving our supposedly individuals into roles which consist of responding to various institutional demands so they can allegedly get into a protected lucrative profession. The form is more feudal than entrepeneurial. Note how when given reserves of cash that immigrant business owners could only dream of, the dot com morans spent it on a luxury that would make the Packards and Gates sick and multi hundred million dollar advertising campaigns along with bulking up organizations for the pure glory of numbers.

I think as the inability of the administration to absorb various reports on Iraq and the requirements of invasion, it's insistence that the reconstruction could be carried out by the best and brightest that sent their resumes to the Heritage fouundation (at times kids with resume listings like tried to start cooking school and ice cream truck driver were involved in deciding the allocations of billions in money;) the vaunted organizational of this country may be overstated. Further evidence is a health care system, supposedly competitive and efficient that uses a third of it's resources (twice that of the rest of the industrialized world) for administration, the list goes on and on; but it seems to me there is plausible reason to believe in the "creative destruction" that takes place in the next decade, the lucrative supposedly safe spots this process is supposed to provide may get hammered.

The entire pressure cooker indicates a populace driven by fads not reason.

- Studies show that the brightest students tend to do well no matter where they go, while a degree from a "good" school may open doors it's effect rapidly fades.

- If you try to tell parents that their kid can go to a less prestigious college and then transfer to get the increasingly necessary graduate degree at a big name place or even that these surveys are not fine tuned enough, if the kid has a clear set of goal the most highly respected undergraduate programs are not correlated with the big names; the response is blank stares. What we have is a fill in the form process, do what you're told faith in authority.

That universites are showered with the consequences of this, including the events described in Atlantic doesn't bother me. Out of timidity and out of self benefit and out of regarding other things as far more importaant; the university community as a whole has not raised a loud and aggressive voice in the definition of education. This is a warning, take responsibility. Start acting.

The assumption that a institution is so holy and important that it can continually increase it's costs beyond inflation so that a "good" college decuation costs as much as a house, make it's stamps of approval necessary for success; then blithely claim to be beyond such materialist things is an assumption that is going to lead to some very painful crashes. This is what has been wrought, confront it.

Posted by: David Bennett | Mar 11, 2005 6:04:06 PM

Posted by: Bret

The main point of this post seems to be that private, distorted or non-market outcomes are not always optimal by some measure. I don't think there's anything anybody would disagree with there.

However, the use of the admissions process as an example of this sort of non-optimal outcome is leaving me befuddled, even after reading all the other comments hoping to glean some enlightenment. With the old admissions process, n students were distributed in some permutation across m universities. With the early admissions rules there is now a possibly different permutation of n students distributed across m universities. Same number of students. Same number of universities. How do you develop a methodology to measure the overall utility of a given distribution of students across universities in order to compare different permutations? Has anybody actually done this to show objectively that, on average, everybody (students, universities, and society) is worse off? If not, how do we know that it's really even a problem?

Posted by: Bret | Mar 11, 2005 6:31:14 PM

Posted by: Don Herzog

I mean "worse off" for students in the following sense: strong pressure to lock into a choice of college by the beginning of senior year, instead of having a chance to survey a bunch of options much later that year. And then in turn some excruciating strategic choices about which school to try to get into, early decision. I don't think I need a fancy methodology about measuring utility, whatever that is, to say that these things make students worse off.

Posted by: Don Herzog | Mar 11, 2005 6:47:56 PM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

I’ll take a stab at fleshing out Untenured “non-Democrat’s” point for Mr. Herzog. If indeed the market for colleges shrank 95% and colleges numerically shrank accordingly, there would be no market for the U.S. News annual rankings in the first place, thus the ranking factors they used or didn’t use would be irrelevant. Witness the tremendous ‘cash-cow’ the Philosophical Gourmet is. (Note heavy use of irony in previous sentence.) They’d be better off running an annual swimsuit issue. (So, come to think of it, might Mr. Leiter.) For what it’s worth, I don’t think 95% is the right number. After all, I see plenty of middle-class folks driving those BMW’s and Lexus’s, too. Anyway, the argument might not withstand close economic scrutiny in that if the government stopped subsidizing retirement people would still retire. (Note oblique stab at pro Social Security comments on other threads.) But if the government started to subsidize luxury cars, the demand clearly would go up and would accordingly decline if it ceased doing so. I doubt Untenured meant much more than that but, of course, he can tell us otherwise if he wishes.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Mar 11, 2005 6:50:52 PM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Oh, there's absolutely no question students generally are worse off because of Early Decision, if only on financial grounds. (Early Action is rather less harmful in that sense.) Early Decision takes the pressure off schools to bid up their scholarship packages for the most attractive prospective students. Of course, if these schools would pony up full scholarships as part of the Early Decision offers regardless of the financial capacities of the student's families it might be a fair trade-off. I could still list ways it would be problematic, but every contract is, after all, a trade-off with various opportunity costs.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Mar 11, 2005 6:56:02 PM

Posted by: Bret

I'd appreciate just a little more clarification. Is it only that some students are worse off, or are all students worse off on average? In the first case, some students might be worse off, but other might be better off, since it's still the same number of students filling the same number of slots.

If they're worse off on average, is it primarily because of the psychological pain inflicted by having to make "excruciating strategic choices" during the admissions process or are they worse off (on average) because of what school they (on average) end up being admitted to.

Posted by: Bret | Mar 11, 2005 6:56:35 PM

Posted by: Don Herzog

No, come on, Mr. Ridgely: this won't do.

If there were no federally funded roads, people would not drive on interstates to commit murders. No one thinks that the government is therefore responsible for those murders.

If there were no oxygen in a building, it would not burn down. No one thinks that the presence of oxygen explains fires.

Had I been poisoned fatally last week, I would not be writing this comment on the blog right now. No one thinks my not being poisoned explains why I am posting the comment that I am.

The mistake here is confusing a steady background condition with something that can explain a change while that condition holds constant. So yes, of course, if the government were completely out of the business of funding higher education, the admissions scheme would be different. But the government's presence cannot explain how the admissions scheme has shifted over the last ten or twenty years.

Posted by: Don Herzog | Mar 11, 2005 6:57:13 PM

Posted by: Bret

Ahhhhhhh. Thank you D.A. Ridgely. Got it. Now I understand. That wasn't clear from Don Herzog's post.

Posted by: Bret | Mar 11, 2005 7:00:27 PM

Posted by: Don Herzog

That wasn't clear because it wasn't my point, though it sounds plausible and important.

I don't know if students on average are worse off: I don't know how to think about freefloating generalities like that. I don't know if they go to "worse" schools than they might otherwise. My thought is that it is in students' interests to have a wide range of choices and have extra time to think them through, and the process of searching and deliberation is truncated by the pressure to go early decision/action.

Posted by: Don Herzog | Mar 11, 2005 7:06:23 PM

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