Thursday, April 10, 2014

The best percent, and the rest of the percent

Like Phoebe, I was vaguely troubled by the annual NYT announcement that selective college admissions grows ever more selective. Unlike Phoebe, I'm at the U of C right now (in the Reg even!), and I can attest to the devastating effects of this stringency first-hand: the undergrads, especially the women, have become a lot more attractive, or at least, cleaner since we were there. They were always more hygienic than the men, but now, whoa. Also, they all wear the same casual-but-actually-calculated side-flip hairstyle. It is a travesty.

However, the question this raises for me is: can you design an experiment that tests the quality of decision-making that goes on under conditions analogous to current high-prestige college admissions? These admissions counselors are always saying that they're turning away thousands of "qualified" applicants. But since they're human beings, their choices among this overflowing pool of the qualified cannot be or even approximate random selection. They're also consciously trying to select the best of the qualified. And, indeed, the casual inference to be drawn from an 8% acceptance rate is that the accepted students are in some kind of 92nd percentile and up of awesomeness out of the available options. Is there some way to test whether people making choices that they assume will have an enormous impact on people's life outcomes under such high-selectivity constraints results in their making, on average, better or worse choices?

I realize that the vagueness of what constitutes a correct choice in this case might present problems for such an experiment. But, I suppose you could use a sample of the applications of recent graduates who ended up doing very well academically at a school for your baseline of correctness and applications of students who fared worse for incorrectness. This is subject to some difficulty of course, since some students do poorly at a school for reasons that could not possibly be predicted by their applications, but maybe there is a way to correct for that? If so, then maybe mix these two sets of applications together, impose a drastically low selection rate on one set of deciders and a much higher one on another, and set them to work to see who picks more correct applications? Or, something else?

My suspicion is that, on the whole, the dull but solid applicants are more likely to get passed over under conditions of extreme selectivity where the stakes are high (that is, those deciding believe that admitting someone will substantially improve his life outcome), but that they are also more likely to be successful in college than colorful iconoclasts (and also might become more colorful later as the precociously colorful get duller), so that highly selective admissions processes produce slightly worse academic outcomes than moderately selective ones. But, having been a dull but solid admit in my day, I of course would suspect that. So I want this to be tested.


Phoebe said...

My guess would actually be the opposite - that "dull but solid" applications would fare better under 8% than 40%, because only students with uniformly high grades will get in. High school grades, meanwhile, tell you some mix of how smart/talented/interesting a student is and how good that student is at conforming/being obedient. While - as you know - I don't subscribe to the idea that doing badly in school makes someone a secret genius, or that the mark of brilliance is being too bored in school do turn in assignments, a certain amount of "colorful" is eliminated if you're only looking at straight-A students. It's not that "colorful" kids are too smart to do well in school, exactly, but there are always going to be *some* high school teachers who find excessively interesting students threatening, uppity, whatever.

Miss Self-Important said...

By dull, I meant not straight-A valedictorians but just good students: the people with good but not amazing SATs, a B+ or A- average in advanced courses, a sport maybe, and a couple of mundane extracurriculars - demonstrative of academic capacity but nothing unusually accomplished. Often from boring, big suburban schools. I think that was about 60%-70% of the Chicago student body in the era of 40% admissions. The colorful ones were those with unusual accomplishments (started own charity, published book of poetry, designed own fashion line, plus more tedious but still uncommon things) or just unusual life stories.

The reason I think colorful could get more play under conditions of extreme selectivity is b/c admissions counselors could think several things not possible under a looser regime:
1) We are artists. We are "shaping a class" and we have every kind of raw material to choose from, so why would we make a sculpture entirely out of ugly wood planks, even though that stuff weathers well? We shall use silk and lace, steel and rubber! Our final work can shine forth as the beautiful whole of its varied parts.
2) We are social engineers. We are selecting the Future Leaders of the Free (and Unfree) World in all respects (mainly non-academic), so we need to create a delicate crucible of those particular individuals whom we most desire (and to some extent, predict will be) our future overlords. We will bring them together early, they will "learn from one another," and they will create lasting bonds that will propel them into a (socially just) world domination.
3) We are rescue workers. A Harvard/Yale/Princeton education will save anyone who gets its imprimatur on his resume, whether or not he actually does all that well there, and this person has had so many sad obstacles in life that he could really use this boost. Let's save as many of these unfortunate souls as possible from the perdition of future small-town middle-management.

Maybe there are others too, but I think all of these thoughts would be less plausible when you have to admit just less than half the applicants anyway. Maybe you'll try a little rescuing, art, or social engineering, but mostly, you're going to admit most of the people who look on paper like they could succeed academically. Your beautiful artwork would have to be full of wooden boards b/c most of your material is, your crucible of future world leaders full of followers, and your rescue efforts will be impeded by sense that your relatively unselective school is really not such a great bet for someone who's troubled and might not end up at the top of his class. You will not think you have such life-altering powers at your disposal. Maybe you'll then conclude that college is mostly about academic aptitude, and your job is just to find the more apt third of your applicant pool.

Anyway, these are just hypotheses. I have no idea what admissions counselors really think. But I do wonder if high selectivity combined with a high sense of personal efficacy (my choice will change this kid's life!) skew decision-making.

Phoebe said...

I also have no idea what admissions counselors really think. But, because I'm cynical, I wonder if rescue plays into it quite so much. Is 'barriers overcome' about a do-gooder mission, or are kids who've overcome barriers the only ones we *know* are capable/worthy/smart/hard-working? Because kids who've led easy lives (or whose admissions packets give this impression), for all the school knows, their parents did their homework for them. Kids who are basically hand-held throughout high school may flounder in college. Or, even if they don't flounder, there's this sense that kids for whom college is the obvious next step don't really have measurable merit, because all they've had to do is not screw up.

Miss Self-Important said...

Well, do we know that they're more meritorious b/c they're also academic stars, or are they people who did fine under the circumstances which they've reported to us by way of explanation for not having done better? As for solid dullness arising from hand-holding, I'd think that 1) the hand-held would appear better than just dull and solid b/c their hand-holders will have pressured them into cultivating unusual skills and 2) college is not the Hunger Games. You don't need a history of overcoming obstacles in order to do well in college, you just need to be a steady, hard-working and - for a really selective school - naturally academically able person. Having been homeless once, or come from an abusive home, or overcome drug addiction might make you more resilient on the whole, and better able to deal with future difficult life situations, but college coursework is mostly not a difficult life situation.

But the attitude you describe - that those for whom college is the obvious next step b/c they've done everything necessary to take it are those who least deserve to take it, while those who look less well-suited on the surface should be given a chance - that is a do-gooder mentality. You're looking at someone for whom college does not appear to be a logical next step and saying, this person will be benefited by my changing his course. He is otherwise doomed, but I can lift him up into the highest echelons with a wave of my wand. Isn't that a rescue effort?

Phoebe said...

It strikes me as being less about do-gooder than about wanting to find the officially, objectively smartest/most impressive people. Not in a moral sense as in deserving, but in terms of ability.

And I do think there's a genuine fear, esp. in this age of helicopter parenting, that certain upper-middle-class kids *would* find college daunting. It's one thing if kids internalize whichever values. It's another entirely if they're in the parental panopticon until they're not. If you were only ever doing your homework in high school because your parents were breathing down your neck, college coursework may well be tough to complete.

Miss Self-Important said...

That would be something the experiment would test, b/c you'd have the results, at least in terms of actual college performance (summa and magna honors, PBK inductions etc.), to compare against "potential" demonstrated by application. That seems like something colleges would want to know even outside of the selectivity question - how are the rescues faring relative to the hand-held, or the dull but solid (whom I still don't think are the same as the hand-held)?

I'm not sure I've ever really come across someone - either at Chicago, or among my students - who couldn't handle college due to overbearing parents. Or maybe I just don't know what that would look like as distinct from other sorts of failure to launch? Drug addiction? I think I knew a suburbanite to whom that happened, but it did not seem at all likely that he had pushy parents. Some people at Chicago became unhinged b/c they set out in search of pure Platonic being or something like that, but I don't know what prior cause to attribute that to. It seems plausible that parental helicoptering could be damaging, but what would its damage look like?

Phoebe said...

First off, agreed that solid-but-dull and helicoptered are two different if overlapping sets of people.

As for what happens to helicoptered kids in college, this is new territory. I grew up in exactly the milieu where one would expect helicoptering, but it hadn't started yet back then. There were one or two families with this approach, and I didn't really keep track of what happened to these kids once they got to college, esp. since I'm thinking mainly of people I knew before high school. Meanwhile there are students I had whom I suspect had this sort of parenting, but how could I know?

Miss Self-Important said...

According to David Brooks, helicoptering already existed in the '90s, so it must've swirled around us. My school district was not so demographically conducive to this, so I didn't see much of it. I knew one girl with an ambitious mother who enrolled her in all the gifted programs and things, but the girl was so plainly intellectually average that none of these efforts could compensate for her decidedly meh grades and test scores, and she went to a decent state school where, as far as I know, her streak of mediocrity continued, though I didn't hear about any kind of dramatic collapse due to the absence of Helicopter Mom. N=1.

Phoebe said...

I'm going to have to partially disagree with David Brooks, then. I went to the public and private schools most likely to have this sort of thing, and hung out with a lot of different people, so I can't imagine I missed it. My sense is, helicoptering did exist in the 1990s, but as a really marginal phenomenon. I remember individual cases of overscheduling/excessive handholding, but I remember them precisely because they were so unusual.

My theory - and no doubt that of many others as well - is that what changed was the arrival of the smartphone. Before, parents on some level understood that they couldn't always know what their kids were up to. Whereas now, kids are always reachable (or can be punished if they don't pick up/text back), and everything they drink or smoke, every class they cut, is bound to end recorded on social media.

Back in my day (she says, from the ancient vantage point of 30), when there weren't these phones, the only parents who helicoptered used tremendous and really unusual levels of manipulation. Most parents - most people! - don't have that in them.