It’s elite college admissions season, which means that it’s also the season for elite media handwringing about how stressful it for high school students to compete for the vanishingly small number of spots available in the Ivy League. These concerns are understandable, of course—any young person who has recently gone through this process (or any parent who has watched) knows that it can be agonizing and arbitrary. But most elite commentary on the subject—which imagines that the best way to slow down the rat race is for admissions offices to de-emphasize academic achievement and instead emphasize character traits like kindness and generosity—misses the mark by a rather wide margin. Take the Atlantic‘s recent contribution to this genre, which approvingly cites a college admissions overhaul agenda championed by the admissions deans of the nation’s most selective colleges and administrators at the most elite feeder schools:
The new admissions-reform campaign is called “Turning the Tide,” and it currently has the backing of nearly 100 admissions professionals and other higher-education officials. Enshrined in a recent report by Harvard’s Making Caring Common project, it highlights the “emotional toll” caused by the “pervasive pressure” on students to outshine their peers. “This [admissions] process, instead of being a wonderful exploration of the future and something that’s exciting and dynamic and happy, is a burden, a thing to be feared, a thing to be endured,” said Rod Skinner, the director of college counseling at Milton Academy, an elite New England prep school, who was closely involved in the report.
The report, which goes on to make the case for a more ‘holistic’ admissions system, is clearly well-intentioned. But there is very little reason to think that its proposed solution—once again, entrusting elite admissions officers (the same admissions officers who wrote the report) to make detailed judgments about students’ degree of selflessness and empathy—will do much to ameliorate the worst parts of the system. After all, the number of slots at Harvard would stay the same; the only thing that would change is the rules of the competition. And anyone who has interacted with upper-middle class America knows that changing the rules for getting into an Ivy won’t make anxious students and parents compete any less intensively.
In fact, as we’ve written before, “requiring applicants to demonstrate a complex portfolio of personality traits will make the process even more opaque to disadvantaged students who are the first in their families to apply to college, and even more favorable to those who know the ins and outs of the system and can hire consultants to tell them what kind of essays elite admissions officers want to read.” Additionally, those of us who are concerned about the degree of victimhood and fragility currently on display at many elite campuses can be forgiven for wondering whether the admissions bureaucrats to these campuses are the most discerning judges about the type of traits that would be desirable in America’s next generation of elites.
The good news is that there are better approaches for bringing admissions madness under control. The most important change would be to attack what Freddie DeBoer calls “the Ivy League premium”—that is, make it matter less where a person went to college. Part of this change would need to be cultural: elites, and the institutions they run, would need to put less weight on fancy degrees. But there are also policy steps that could help encourage this shift. For example, a standardized or semi-standardized testing regime for college seniors would help ambitious graduates of the Nebraska state system, for example, compete on equal footing with Yalies.
Another, complementary reform: The elite schools that students are climbing over each other to get into should be making efforts, as WRM has written, “to clone themselves,” either by admitting more students, expanding online offerings, or setting up satellite campuses. There is no reason why the quality of education offered by Stanford or Princeton should not be scalable, and yet the number of slots at most of these institutions has held steady for decades, despite the extraordinary resources they have at their disposal.
The horribleness of the Ivy League admissions for 17-year olds is just one small symptom of a higher education landscape that is distorted all around. To fix it, we will need to come up with more creative and ambitious solutions than simply asking colleges to put more emphasis on this or that character trait as they cull 95 out of 100 students from the pile. And those solutions won’t always be the same as the ones preferred by the gatekeepers themselves.