Sunday, October 21, 2012

No Country for Young Children

The Harvard Admissions Office is this way.
“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.

If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

— Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

I admire Gillian Tett, I really do. She is a fine, perceptive, and aggressive financial reporter and writer who has contributed a great deal to our understanding of the origins of the recent financial crisis, as well as many other things.

But apparently she needs to stick to her knitting, because this recent piece on the influence of legacy on college admissions in the United States is rubbish.

Reading between the lines, Ms Tett recently returned from a clutch of cocktail parties and dinners with American friends whose children were admitted to elite U.S. universities this Fall. From her remarks she seems to have heard the sort of alternately smug, self-serving, paranoid, and neurotic bullshit and misinformation that I have been subjected to for the past several years as the parent of a high schooler recently off to college and one in the chute. In my experience, middle and upper class parents with children of college-bound age in Manhattan and other socioeconomic pressure cookers are the worst sort of frantic, hypercompetitive cynics you can encounter, and they will grasp at the flimsiest and most ridiculous of straws to support their desperate hope little Susy or Billy will get into a top university.

Hence you get nonsense—unsupported in Ms Tett’s piece by any citation or reference (and no doubt made up by some bug-eyed X-ray socialite over Cosmopolitans in a Park Avenue co-op)— that “educational researchers estimate that... having a family link [to the school she is applying to] increases a mid-level student’s chance of entry by about 60 per cent.” Since when? Says who? And how the fuck did they figure out that differential admission statistic? Did they sneak into the Harvard Admissions Office after hours and steal the ULTRA-TOP-SECRET-ON-PAIN-OF-DEATH-NEVER-SHOW-TO-PARENTS-REAL-ADMISSION-CRITERIA folder?

It is just that sort of made-up, silly statistic or “secret” to guaranteeing Bif or Muffy a spot at Yale that I have had thrown at me for the last several years by people convinced of its veracity. The same sort of secret that charlatans use to dupe desperate parents into paying tens of thousands of dollars for “college admissions consulting” services. Let me give you the real scoop: all those secrets are bullshit. How do I know? Easy: nobody has the data to figure it out.

* * *

Annnyhoo. Enough of my ranting.

Of the Holy Trinity of Higher Education in North America—Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, known succinctly as HYP—only Yale is indiscreet enough to make the percentage of its enrolled freshmen from the Class of 2016 who are legacies easy to find: 13%. This aligns neatly with the 15% estimate from the unidentified “educational researchers” Ms Tett cites. One would be surprised if Harvard, Princeton, and other pretenders to the triple throne like Stanford were much different.

But let’s examine just how damning this statistic really is. One measure is that Yale also reveals that 12.1% of its current freshman class are first-generation college students; that is, students who are the first members of their family ever to attend a four-year college or university. You can’t find an antidote to the perpetuation of entrenched elite privilege more effective than this: the sons and daughters of high school graduates (or worse) comprise almost as large a percentage of the anointed New Haven elite as do the scions of Elis past. There’s nothing like an uneducated janitor’s daughter with perfect SAT scores and a 4.0 GPA to rattle the security and worldview of Winthrop P. Witherspoon IV.

A second reassurance can be drawn from the academic records of the students these institutions admit. Ninety-five percent of Yale’s enrolled freshmen were ranked in the top 10% of their high school class; 96% of Princeton’s were. If the Ivy League is admitting the idiot sons and daughters of alumni in preference to striving young geniuses from the wrong side of the tracks, they sure are some smart idiots. Similar conclusions can be drawn from the admission statistics based on board scores and GPAs. In comparison to its overall admit rate of 7.9% last year (2,094 admits out of 26,664 applicants), for example, Princeton offered a spot in its pantheon of privilege to only 10.4% of students who applied with a perfect grade point average and 18.7% of applicants with SAT scores 2300 and higher (out of 2400). On an overall basis, Harvard and Yale were even stingier with their golden tickets: only 5.9% and 6.8%, respectively. Let’s face it: no matter what your qualifications are, your chance of getting into one of these three schools is vanishingly small.

* * *

Ultimately, you must understand that the most elite institutions of higher learning in this country are looking to build and cultivate student bodies that are vibrant and diverse in almost every dimension: background, ethnicity, geography, interests, and extracurricular talents. They do this because they want to—diversity attracts the best students and polishes their institutional reputation—and because they can. Students from all over the world submit almost 90,000 applications for admission to less than 4,400 slots at HYP alone. In this dynamic, superb intellectual and academic ability is simply table stakes. If you don’t have it, you probably won’t even make it past the first round.

Yale makes this very clear on its admission site:

We estimate that over three quarters of the students who apply for admission to Yale are qualified to do the work here. Between two and three hundred students in any year are so strong academically that their admission is scarcely ever in doubt. But here is the thing to know: the great majority of students who are admitted stand out from the rest because a lot of little things, when added up, tip the scale in their favor. So what matters most in your application? Ultimately, everything matters.

Including whether you are a legacy. Perhaps, if you are competing against an otherwise indistinguishable applicant, one with intellectual abilities, ethnicity, and extracurricular interests identical to your own, being a legacy will tip the scale in your favor. But, more often than not, you will likely be competing for a slot with someone who has another set of qualities seductive to the university. Princeton discloses the admissions criteria it uses to the federal government: “Very important” = academic capability, talent, and character; “important” = extracurriculars; “considered” = legacy, first generation student, geography, race/ethnicity, volunteerism, and work experience. Being the child of an alumnus or alumna is in no way a lock.

It is also worth noting that the children of privilege, the elites we are so worried about perpetuating via access to our most hallowed educational institutions, often come from the least “diverse” and hence least attractive racial and ethnic groups to these leading universities. Ceteris paribus, how much does ticking the legacy box weigh against the diversity agenda?

* * *

I have witnessed up close and personal the rank cynicism which Ms Tett has imbibed from her friends. A substantial number of the Manhattan parents I socialize with repeat with absolute conviction the belief that a huge donation is the price of guaranteed admission for their child to an Ivy League school. Stories circulate on the Upper East Side whisper circuit of a $5 million check to one school, a $10 million one to another. Unspoken is whether the children in question were talented and interesting enough to get in on their own merits. For some reason, this seems to be considered beside the point, which is immensely sad in its own right.1

In some respects, the leading universities’ refusal to be more transparent about their admissions process perpetuates this belief. A cynic might say they prefer it this way. After all, a parent desirous of sending Junior to Harvard cannot change her status as an alumna, but she certainly can change the frequency and amount of money she donates to her alma mater. The trick is there is no explicit quid pro quo. I know several alumni who donated generously to their university only to see their children rejected.

But frankly, the connection between legacy admissions and donations is spurious. Very few alumni can write the sort of check that would retrieve their son or daughter from the reject pile at HYP. Most alumni simply don’t have that much money. Many of them are successful, true, but not all of them are, and very few qualify as truly rich. And the truly rich can write a check to Harvard, Princeton, or Yale for their kid whether they went there or not.

The real issue which Ms Tett does not address—the real way elites perpetuate themselves—is they do whatever they have to to make sure their children are prepared to compete head to head with other children on the primary criteria for college admission. They send their kids to expensive private schools, they hire tutors to buff their performance in school and on standardized tests, and they work their extensive social networks to get internships, enriching extracurricular experiences, and letters of recommendation to bolster their resumés, transcripts, and college applications. This is the true advantage educated elites have in the college admissions game: it’s not so much that they game the system—the system is less gameable than people think—but they spend whatever it takes to win according to the existing rules.

Is this fair? I don’t know. But I will say this: it is far more likely that the children of the elite compete more with each other than they do with applicants from other diversity buckets (ethnic, geographic, extracurricular). In this way, the developmental arms race among elite parents ends up looking more like a sociological version of the Red Queen Effect than it does unfair competition against the weak and underprivileged.

Harvard, Princeton, and Yale can take care of the latter. Nobody helps the elite but ourselves.2

“Do you mean, sir, that these birds are cannibals?”

“That’s an odd question, young Master,” the banker said. “I merely said the birds drink blood. It doesn’t have to be the blood of their own kind, does it?”

“It was not an odd question,” Paul said, and Jessica noted the brittle riposte quality of her training exposed in his voice. “Most educated people know that the worst potential competition for any young organism can come from its own kind.” He deliberately forked a bite of food from his companion’s plate, ate it. “They are eating from the same bowl. They have the same basic requirements.”

— Frank Herbert, Dune

Related reading:
Gillian Tett, The price of admission (Financial Times, October 19, 2012)
The Red Queen Effect (Farnam Street, October 14, 2012)
Et in Arcadia Ego (November 11, 2008)

1 Not frequently enough discussed in this whole topic is the emotional and psychological cost to our children of such shenanigans. First, the debilitating suspicion that, without Mommy and Daddy’s money, influence, and machinations, the child herself could not accomplish what her parents so desperately expect of her. Second, the loss of childhood freedom, lack of care, and play to relentless careerism and resumé polishing. In my position as a father of teenagers and an interviewer of recent college graduates, I see far too many astonishingly accomplished young people who never seem to have had a childhood.
2 This is not a complaint. Simply an observation.

© 2012 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.