Sunday, September 14, 2014

University admissions at Ivy Leagues are unfair: wah-wah-wah

Lots of carping these days about university admissions processes. Steven Pinker had some article, then Scott Aaronson had a blog post, both advocating a greatly increased emphasis on standardized testing, because the Ivy League schools have been turning away academically talented but not “well-rounded” students. Roy Unz (referenced in the Pinker article) provides some evidence that Asians are facing the same quota-based discrimination that Jewish people did in the early 20th century [Note: not sure about many parts of the Unz article, and here's a counter–I find the racial/ethnic overtones in these discussions distasteful, regardless of whether they are right or wrong]. Discrimination is bad, right? Many look to India, with its system of very hard entrance exams to select the cream of the crop into the IIT system and say, why not here?

Yeah. Well, let me let you all in on a little secret: life is not fair. But we are very lucky to live here in the US, where getting rejected from the Ivies is not a death sentence. Aaronson got rejected from a bunch of schools, then went to Cornell (hardly banishment to Siberia, although Ithaca is quite cold), then went on to have a very successful career, getting job offers from many of the same universities that originally rejected him. It’s hard not to detect a not-so-subtle scent of bitterness in his writing on this topic based on his own experience as a 15 year old with perfect SATs, a published paper and spotty grades, and I would say that holding on to such a grudge risks us drawing the wrong lesson from his story. Yes, it is ironic that those schools didn’t take him as an undergraduate. But the lesson is less that the overall system is broken, but more that the system works–it identified his talent, nurtured it and ultimately rewarded him for it.

Those who look elsewhere to places like India have it wrong, also. The IITs are rightly regarded as the crown jewels of Indian education. The problem is that the next tier down is not nearly so strong, thus not nurturing the talents of all those who were just below the cutoff for whatever reason. So all those people who don’t manage to do as well on that one entrance exam have far less access to opportunities than they do here. Despite these exams, India is hardly what one would call a meritocratic society. So again, I would not consider India a source of inspiration.

I understand the allure of something objective like an SAT test. The problem with it is that beyond a certain bar, they just don’t provide much information. There are tons of kids with very high SATs. I can tell you right now that my SATs were not perfect, but I’m pretty sure I’m not that much less "smart" than some of my cohort who did get perfect SATs. I did terribly on the math subject GRE–I’m guessing by far the worst in my entering graduate school class–which almost scuppered my chances of getting into graduate school, but I managed to get a PhD just fine. At the graduate level, it is clear that standardized tests provide essentially no useful predictive information.

I think we’ve all seen the kid with the perfect grades from the top university who flames out in grad school, or the kid from a much less prestigious institution with mixed grades who just nails it. Moreover, as anyone who has worked with underrepresented minorities will tell you, their often low standardized test scores DO NOT reflect their innate abilities. There are probably many reasons for why, but whatever, it’s just a fact. And I think that diversity is a good thing on its own.

So scores are not so useful. The other side of the argument is that the benefits of a highly selective university are immense–a precious resource we must carefully apportion to those most deserving. For instance, Pinker says:
The economist Caroline Hoxby has shown that selective universities spend twenty times more on student instruction, support, and facilities than less selective ones, while their students pay for a much smaller fraction of it, thanks to gifts to the college.
Sure, they spend more. So what. I honestly don’t see that all this coddling necessarily helps students do better in life. Also this:
Holding qualifications constant, graduates of a selective university are more likely to graduate on time, will tend to find a more desirable spouse, and will earn 20 percent more than those of less selective universities—every year for the rest of their working lives.
Yes, there is some moderate benefit, holding “qualifications constant”–I guess their vacations can last 20% longer and their dinners can be 20% more expensive on average. The point is that qualifications are NOT constant. The variance within the cohort at a given selective university is enormous, dwarfing this 20 percent average benefit. The fact is that we just don’t know what makes a kid ultimately successful or not. We can go with standardized testing or the current system or some other system based on marshmallow tests or what have you, but ultimately we just have no idea. Unz assembles evidence that Caltech is more meritocratic, but so far there seems to be little evidence that the world is run by our brilliant Caltech-trained overlords.

What to do, then? How about nothing? Quoting Aaronson:
Some people would say: so then what’s the big deal? If Harvard or MIT reject some students that maybe they should have admitted, those students will simply go elsewhere, where—if they’re really that good—they’ll do every bit as well as they would’ve done at the so-called “top” schools. But to me, that’s uncomfortably close to saying: there are millions of people who go on to succeed in life despite childhoods of neglect and poverty. Indeed, some of those people succeed partly because of their rough childhoods, which served as the crucibles of their character and resolve. Ergo, let’s neglect our own children, so that they too can have the privilege of learning from the school of hard knocks just like we did. The fact that many people turn out fine despite unfairness and adversity doesn’t mean that we should inflict unfairness if we can avoid it.
A fair point, but one that ignores a few things. Firstly, going to Cornell instead of Harvard is hardly the same thing as living a childhood of neglect and poverty. Secondly, universities compete. If another university can raise their profile by admitting highly meritorious students wrongly rejected by Harvard, well, then so be it. Those universities will improve and we’ll have more good schools overall.

Which feeds into the next, more important point. As I said, it’s not at all clear to me that we have any idea how to select for “success” or “ability”, especially for kids coming out of high school. As such, we have no idea where to apportion our educational resources. To me, the solution is to have as many resources available as broadly as possible. Rather than focusing all our resources and mental energy into "getting it right" at Harvard and MIT, I think it makes much more sense to spend our time making sure that the educational level is raised at all schools, which will ultimately benefit far more people and society in general. The Pinker/Aaronson view essentially is that this is a “waste” of our resources on those not “deserving” of them based on merit. I would counter first that spending resources on educating anyone will benefit our society overall, and second that all these “merit” metrics are so weakly correlated with whatever the hell it is that we’re supposedly trying to select for that concentrating our resources on the chosen few at elite universities is a very bad idea, regardless of how we select those folks. The goal should be to make opportunities as widely available as possible so that we can catch and nurture those special folks out there who may not particularly distinguish themselves by typical metrics, which I think is the majority, by the way. A quick look at where we pull in graduate students from shows that the US does a reasonably good job at this relative to other places, a fact that I think is related to many of this country’s successes.

As I said before in the context of grad admissions, if you want to figure out who runs the fastest, there are a couple ways of going about it. You can measure foot size and muscle mass and whatever else to try to predict who will run fastest a priori–good luck with that. Or you can just have them all run in a race and see who runs the fastest. And if you want to make sure you don’t miss the next Usain Bolt or Google billionaire, better make the race as big and inclusive as possible.


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  2. The fair activities for the students can surely bring around the more successful chances among most of the graduate students and can certainly used to be a part of such kind of the institutions.