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Why the best schools can’t pick the best kids -- and vice versa

Barry Schwartz is a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College. His most recent book is "The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less."

SPRING IS HERE, and along with the crocuses comes the annual admissions panic. High school kids get anxiety attacks as they approach their mailboxes. And in some parts of the U.S., parents stress as they await a phone call from their preschool of choice. The high school kids have tortured themselves to build up stunning credentials and then communicate those credentials strategically in a college application. And the parents of toddlers have struggled to find a way to distinguish their 18-month-old from all the rest.

To today’s high-achieving high school students, the future seems to ride on getting into selective institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Stanford or my own institution, Swarthmore, where almost every one of the applicants is good enough to succeed but only one in 10 will be given the chance. And so the competition trickles down: The road to Harvard goes through the “right” high school, the “right” elementary school, the “right” preschool. Thus the anguished “admissions essays” from the parents of kids still in diapers.

We all know this process has gotten crazy. I believe that it has bad effects on winners as well as losers. I’m not just talking about the financial strain on parents, who can spend as much as it costs for a year at these elite universities on SAT prep courses and personal tutoring, on private college counselors and now on “getting-into-college” summer camps, costing as much as $3,000 for two weeks. And I’m not just talking about the stress on students. It’s what the competition itself is stealing from our most talented youth.

Students choose classes that play to their strengths, to get easy A’s, rather than classes that might correct their weaknesses or nurture new interests. They sacrifice risk-taking and intellectual curiosity on the altar of demonstrable success. Moreover (as documented by a great deal of research), because students are doing the work they do in and out of school for the wrong reasons -- not because they are interested in learning -- the intense competition undermines their motivation to continue to learn for the sake of gaining understanding. As a result, even those who excel enough to get into Harvard, Stanford or UCLA are likely to be less inspired students once that goal has been achieved. By making themselves so competitive, our selective institutions are subverting their aims.

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And to top this all off, psychologist Suniya Luthar has found that the incidence of anxiety, depression and drug abuse is just as high among children of the affluent as it is among children of the inner city. Why? Luthar found that one significant reason is intense pressure to achieve.

The tragedy of all this selectivity and competition is that it is almost completely pointless. Students trying to get into the best college, and colleges trying to admit the best students, are both on a fool’s errand. They are assuming a level of precision of assessment that is unattainable. Social scientists Detlof von Winterfeldt and Ward Edwards made this case 30 years ago when they articulated what they called the “principle of the flat maximum.” What the principle argues is that when comparing the qualifications of people who are bunched up at the very top of the curve, the amount of inherent uncertainty in evaluating their credentials is larger than the measurable differences among candidates. Applied to college admissions, this principle implies that it is impossible to know which excellent student (or school) will be better than which other excellent student (or school). Uncertainty of evaluation makes the hair-splitting to distinguish among excellent students a waste of time; the degree of precision required exceeds the inherent reliability of the data. It also makes the U.S. News & World Report annual rankings of colleges silly for assuming a precision of measurement that is unattainable.

Now, it is no doubt true that, on average, students at the very top of the heap of outstanding applicants will be more likely to succeed than students near the bottom. But plenty of high school superstars turn out to be supernovas who burn out while at college. In my 35 years at Swarthmore, I’ve seen more than my share of “can’t miss” freshmen miss (not for intellectual reasons but for psychological ones including all those pre-college years spent becoming “can’t miss”). Surprisingly, there are no good studies on how ranking at the time of admission predicts college achievement, not to mention achievement in life after college.

There is probably a right answer to the questions “Whom should we admit?” or “Which college should I select?” But we won’t know until after the fact. Chance factors (roommate assignment, romantic successes or failures, or which English professor evaluates your first papers) might have a bigger effect on success and satisfaction than the tiny differences among applicants (or schools) within the range of acceptability. So once a set of “good enough” students or “good enough” schools has been identified, it probably doesn’t matter much which one you choose; or if it does matter, there is no way to know in advance what the right choice is.

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There is a simple way to dramatically reduce the pressure and competition that our most talented students now experience. When selective institutions get the students’ applications, the schools can scrutinize them using the same high standards they currently use and decide which of the applicants is good enough to be admitted. Then the names of all the “good enough” students could be placed in a metaphorical hat, with the “winners” drawn at random for admission. Though a high school student will still have to work hard to be “good enough” for Yale, she won’t have to distort her life in the way she would if she had to be the “best.” The only reason left for participating in all those enrichment programs would be interest, not competitive advantage.

This modest proposal may seem outrageous. Nobody likes the idea of important life events being determined by a roll of the dice. But college admission is already a crapshoot, and our failure to acknowledge this is a collective exercise in self-deception. Admissions people like to believe that they have the diagnostic acumen to look at, say, 8,000 wonderful applicants and pluck from them, with high accuracy, the 1,600 “super-wonderful” ones. But there is little evidence to support this claim. So picking a fifth of the 8,000 “good enough” applicants at random might be just as good a way of producing a great class as today’s tortured scrutiny of folders.

There are no doubt problems with my proposal (how to deal with diversity, athletes, legacies). But the system we currently use is badly broken, and no amount of minor tinkering (like the refusal of high schools to compute and provide rank-in-class data to colleges) will set it right. At the very least, colleges and universities should consider doing the following experiment: Put a random half of the applicants through the normal admissions process and the other half through a “good enough/luck of the draw” admissions process. Then track the performance of the students admitted from these two sets of applicants over the course of their college careers.

If there are no major differences in performance between these two groups, then by publicly adopting the “good enough” practice, schools can take a lot of the pressure off high school students so that they can be curious, interested kids again. The desperate efforts of high school students to climb to the top on the backs of their classmates could stop. Adolescents could once again devote at least some of their time to figuring out what kinds of people they are and want to be. Parents could relax a little about high school, middle school and even preschool placements. And the result, I’m convinced, would not be worse students at our top institutions but more interesting, more curious and better motivated ones. If nothing else, these data would make for a good assessment of current admissions practices.

There is another potential benefit that extends far beyond the confines of the college admissions game. We like to believe, in our least cynical moments, that the U.S. is a meritocracy. Success is about talent and hard work. Luck has nothing to do with it. This attitude may well contribute to a lack of sympathy, sometimes even bordering on disdain, for life’s losers. I believe that this attitude is profoundly false. It is not the case that people always get what they deserve. There just aren’t enough top rungs on the Ivy League’s (or life’s) ladders for everyone to fit. If talented and hardworking people are forced to confront the element of chance in life’s outcomes when they (or their kids) fail to get into the “best” college, they may be more inclined to acknowledge the role of luck in shaping the lives of the people around them. And this may make them more empathic toward others -- and a good deal more committed to creating more room at the top.


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