To say that college admissions are overhyped would be an understatement. There are literally many thousands of articles written on the subject each year (GoogleNews counts 2,000 in December 2012 alone), most of which have nothing new to say, except that it is very, very important… In my earlier post I discussed discrimination concerns and crude solutions by universities and the public (read: politicians) to deal with it. But truth of the matter is, these issues are so difficult in part because people value college education so greatly. While I am obviously a strong supporter of college education (also, it pays my bills), college admissions does not have to be that consequential. Here I argue for waiting a year or two, which would decouple the issues, shift decision making from parents to students, and hopefully ease the tension.
The way things are here
When it comes to college admissions, high school students and their parents are anxious and busy with this increasingly costly and time consuming activity. At the end, over 60% of them go to college. Of these, about 76% get into college of their first choice, and of those who don’t, most are happy anyway. Now, all this might seem like a case for “stay the course”, but in fact, lots of people agree on the need for change, but not everyone agrees on what the change should be. Let me present a particular aspect of the problem, which in my view make college admission so hot as an issue.
If you a faculty, you know that many students come to college morally unprepared. Many simply view college as a “high school without parents“. The universities worry about this extended adolescence, but in general are happy to take over this part of parental responsibilities in exchange for higher tuition. No wonder the college bureaucracy is expanding – the need is evident. This is very different from an old model of college as a place of higher learning where either usable skills or arts and letters, are studied by young adults, in preparation of lifetime employment.
It is not a surprise then, that at the end of their college years the students are lost and confused, unprepared for real jobs, and often choose graduate schools as a way to avoid hard decisions.
Why do parents do it?
That is, why are they willing to spend exorbitant amounts of money for a mixture of parenting and education, instead of letting them travel the world or work odd jobs etc., until their children are ready for the education? I it just peer pressure? Probably not. Mostly, because they can. At 18, american high school graduates are not considered adults yet, and with no savings are not in a position to make their own choices. But when parents choose, they are not necessarily governed with what’s best for the children. Paul Graham explains this well in the context of choosing a college major (ht. L. Positselski):
The advice of parents will tend to err on the side of money. It seems safe to say there are more undergrads who want to be novelists and whose parents want them to be doctors than who want to be doctors and whose parents want them to be novelists. The kids think their parents are “materialistic.” Not necessarily. All parents tend to be more conservative for their kids than they would for themselves, simply because, as parents, they share risks more than rewards. If your eight year old son decides to climb a tall tree, or your teenage daughter decides to date the local bad boy, you won’t get a share in the excitement, but if your son falls, or your daughter gets pregnant, you’ll have to deal with the consequences.
So naturally the parents are scared that a year or two outside of the controlled environment will lead to a lifetime of disappointment. They use the tuition money as the last tool they have to control their children, even if this bankrupts them in the meanwhile. This also robs children of potential financial support down the road, whether to start their own business or pursue literary dreams, or house down payment when they start a family.
Why do students do it?
Oh, of course very few children say no to candy (college tuition in this case). Deferred gratification requires a character, an adult quality. The point is not to put the students into position when they have to make a difficult choice between the education they are uncertain about, and the lifestyle they want while contemplating their life goals and risking all this cash their parents saved for college. Only later, some students drop out to pursue their dreams.
How do students fare?
That depends. Sometimes very poorly. They fail basic courses, study for 5 or more years to complete a college degree, drop out, and occasionally commit suicide. The ones who are lucky and realize that their college does not meet their goals, transfer to other schools.
This is not as rare as some people think. For example, Barack Obama transferred from Occidental College to Columbia. Dick Cheney flanked out twice from Yale and eventually graduated from the University of Wyoming. Sarah Palin famously attended 5 colleges before graduating from the University of Idaho. As Tim Noah reports, her grades were good, but she was in constant search of a school which would fit better her ever changing sports and academic interests.
Can things be different?
Of course. And I am not talking about New Guinea lessons. If college was free or nearly free, this would greatly diminish parents’ influence. The knowledge that cheap college will wait while they grow up, would allow many students take a year or two off before they start college. This would allow them to grow up, discover themselves, learn what they really want to do with their life, and become motivated.
Western Europe, of course, has inexpensive education, but is misleading as an example, since most universities are public and tend to be equal in funding and opportunities (within each country). Also, things are slowly changing. But in Eastern Europe, the universities are often very different in quality and offered majors, while still inexpensive enough to allow students to ignore parents’ advice and enjoy several years of travel and self-discovery. Occasionally, a foreign born celebrity laments on the lack of that in America, but is never taken seriously. Too bad.
Really different models
Let us count the ways other societies and subcultures change the above equation to allow 18 year olds to grow up before they join college. While I don’t specifically advocate for either of these, the list does show that a few years away from the studies can be beneficial, or at least does not harm teenagers as much as their parents tend to think.
The most common is the military service, which varies in length may include civil service. It is required even in some of the most developed countries such as Finland, Norway, Switzerland, and South Korea. Until relatively recently it was required in virtually all countries. AmeriCorps (not to be confused with PeaceCorps) is the US civil service pre-college alternative to serving in the military, but with only about 10-15 thousand people joining each year.
In Israel, both men and women are drafted, although at different lengths. At the end of the service it is customary for former soldiers to travel the world for six months to a year, in destinations ranging from Bolivia to Sri Lanka, doing various experiments considered illegal at home. These overseas trips are commonly viewed almost as the rite-of-passage. Virtually all of these former soldiers later come back to Israel and become law obedient productive citizen, many with college degrees.
Religion is another source of lengthy travel and civil commitments, which range from Rumspringa (Amish adolescents’ leaves to explore the world) to Mormon missionary work. Famously, Mitt Romney spent 2.5 years in France, while Jon Huntsman was a missionary in Taiwan.
Both military and civil service tends to make students more mature and goal oriented, if only because they are older. For example, after a 5 year service in the IDF, current Israel Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu became a freshman at MIT at the age of 23, and earned two degrees (B.S. and M.B.A.) in four years (read why in the article).
Two personal anecdotes
After high school, I did not enroll at the university (not by choice, as I explained earlier), but went to work as a C++ programmer at a bank (no, you don’t need a degree for that). At the end of the year, I learned something about myself. Turns out, I really dislike working all night to meet a deadline, providing mountains of documentation accompanying the code, or dealing with ever more demanding managers who understood little about the actual work. So I promised myself to never ever do any programming again, a pledge that was easy to keep in my current vocation.
In another story, one of my distant relatives (let’s call him Mr. X) asked me what to do about his son suddenly being accepted to an Ivy League school. With a high 5-figure salary he was rich enough not to be eligible for financial aid, and poor enough to afford the tuition. After reading the rules, I told X that things are easier than he thinks. All he had to do is defer enrollment for a year (this is allowed by many schools), send the kid to Russia live with a grandmother, and let him file his own taxes. At the end of the year, X’s son can declare “financial independence” by signing a piece of paper in front of a notary public, that he is “abandoned by parents”. Then, as a pauper, receive all financial aid available in such cases. This trick would undoubtedly have saved Mr. X an upward of 100K. But parental instincts are way too strong – instead he took a second mortgage on the house. (Some minor details are changed to protect the identity of X’s family).
What can be done?
In general, rather little. Changing the culture is hard, and rarely possible top-down without financial incentives. Ideally, after high school the students should travel the world and explore different professions until they settle on what they want to do. But as long as the colleges are expensive, the parents will continue to control the process sending the children to college immediately after high school, without giving them such opportunity.
Fortunately, there is a crisis in university education, with the offering of large scale online courses, and I mean “fortunately” in the same sense as Rahm Emanuel. It has long been suggested by the advocated of inexpensive public education in California that most students should spend the first two years in local community colleges and then transfer to an appropriate UC or CalState school depending on their achievements. Then schools such as Berkeley or UCLA would essentially become 2-year “finishing schools”. The parents tend to revolt at this suggestions due to inherent uncertainty of the outcome. I propose a variation on this approach, essentially bribing all the parties involved.
1. Make available online all standard introductory classes.
2. Allow an off-campus registration for at most 2 years, and charge only a fraction of the tuition for it. Require B- average to maintain it.
3. Encourage more student transfers, both in and out, based on these grades.
Under there conditions with a guaranteed college spot, I believe many more students would choose to save on the tuition and travel the remote parts of the world, perhaps working part-time teaching conversational English, while taking the required few online classes to maintain college eligibility. In a long run, this is also a good deal for the universities, as this would lead to smaller classes and more personalized attention to students who come back and enroll on campus. The students themselves will be more mature and motivated, improving the graduation rate.
Hopefully, with time this will also reduce the temperature of college admission on all sides. As the early online experience is equalizing and there is always a possibility of transfer later on, the potential admission mistakes become much less costly. Baby steps…
Recent reports on alleged discrimination of Asian Americans at Ivy League schools (read a discussion here and view this graph), brought a lot of disgust in me, as well as some ambivalence. Here and in the next post I will try to deconstruct these feelings.
In this post I mention my family and my own history of dealing with discrimination. I then briefly review and make parallels with the current discussion of the issues, and make some recommendations. In the next post, I will explain why the whole issue is overhyped and what does that say about american culture.
Russian Jews go to school
Well, this is a really long story, but when it comes to educational opportunities, things were always pretty bad. By 1880’s most universities and gymnasiums in Imperial Russia instituted a 5 to 10% Jewish quota, which remained in effect until the Russian revolution in 1917. Read more on the history in this book (part III), and in amazing personal memoir (in Russian).
Communists abolished Jewish discrimination replacing it with anti-religious discrimination, often having similar effect. In the 1930s, my grandmother was expelled from college after communist officials discovered that her father (my great-grandfather) was a rabbi. A local newspaper went all schadenfreude about her, and published an anti-clerical article “The wolf in sheep’s clothing”, apparently missing the irony of the origin of the title.
By the early 1960s, Israel became a super-enemy of USSR, and things were slowly getting hotter for the Jews. For example, despite high exam grades, my father and few dozen Jews was denied admission to Moscow University (МГУ) on account of “lack of dorm space”. Some scandal ensued and he was accepted a month later. By the late 1960s, after the Six-Day War, the Mathematics Department of Мoscow University settled on 0.5% quota (about 2 Jewish students in a class of 450-500), which typically went to children of the university faculty and occasional party officials. When I applied in 1988, I was rejected as the quota remained in effect. In 1989, things were starting to change, and the quota was raised to about 4%. I got in. In the meantime, I became somewhat of an expert on “Jewish problems” (see also here and there), once even holding a seminar on them.
Curiously, the officials had supported the quota very openly, justifying it as follows:
1. We need to maintain proportion of Jews the same as in the country, so as they don’t take space from ethnically Russian students.
2. Jews are already privileged by the virtue of living in large cities, but Russians from small villages need extra help to get quality education. Of course, Jews in Ukrainian, Lithuanian and Belorussian villages were mostly killed in the WWII as part of the Final Solution.
3. Future Russia needs an educated workforce. There is no point of preparing “cadres for Israel“. Thus the “diploma tax“.
My little brush with discrimination in the US
In 1994, already a first year grad student at Harvard, I applied for NSF Graduate Fellowhip, which was highly selective but much less generous back then. I mailed my proposed plan of research, letters of recommendation, transcripts, and the required GRE, both General and Subject. I was rejected. Since I received a more selective Hertz Foundation Fellowship (see my discussion of it here), I wasn’t too upset, but I was curious what did I do wrong. So I filed a FOIA request, and got a reply a few weeks later.
What I learned was remarkable and made me really upset. I discovered that the NSF reviewers rated A all my materials, both the transcript, all the letters, and plan of research. I had a maximal GRE Subject score. But you see, me being Russian and all, I had a mediocre to poor GRE General score on the Verbal Section. The paperwork indicated that the committee then took weighted average of all these grades, made a list of top scorers and I didn’t make the cut. Since I could not fathom why would I need a top GRE Verbal score for Math Ph.D., this seemed clearly discriminatory, on the basis of my native language.
So I found a lawyer (tiny Cambridge, MA is full of them). He patiently explained to me that my Russian native language is not defining me as a member of protected class, and I have no case against NSF. He said that even politically, there is no such thing as “Russian language lobby” (despite our large numbers), and given that there was no harm done (my Hertz), I should go home and learn to be happy. Naturally, I did.
Jews at Harvard and the geographic distribution
The story of Jews at Harvard has been described in great details at a variety of sources. In short, Harvard instituted a 15% quota, which was later softened, substituted with geographic distribution preferences, having same effect on Jewish enrollment. The following quote about the evolution of Harvard President James Conant (1933-1953) is revealing:
Conant’s pro-quote position in the early 1920s, his preference for more students from small towns and cities and the South and West, and his cool response to the plight of the Jewish academic refugees from Hitler suggest that he shared the mild antisemitism common to his social group and time. But his commitment to meritocracy made him more ready to accept able Jews as students and faculty.
While the quotas are both illegal and a thing of the past, the use of geographic distribution in admissions never went away. While not discriminatory in the strict legal sense, they were created with a discriminatory intent, and still have discriminatory effect, as recent immigrants, Jews and other minorities tend to concentrate in large population centers. Not unlike the Russian “village” arguments, this is a slight of hand, which first creates and then heavy-handedly destroys a straw man, all in an effort to deal with other issues which are kept out of sight. We will see this in other cases as well.
All students are somebody’s children
Legacy preferences is another example of misleading practices potentially having discriminatory effect. Universities are claiming that this creates a brand loyalty. But that is misleading of course. Do Ivy League schools really need to develop brand loyalty when they have 10-20 applicants per spot? The truth, of course, is that children of alumni have money and willing to pay a full sticker price of the tuition, and the admission officers aim to have about 20% of such legacy students in each freshmen class.
In fact, the honest market based solution would be to auction this portion of the freshman class to the highest bidder, charging tuition perhaps as much as 100K per year. This auction would raise significant funds which can pay for poor students’ scholarships and stipends, and open up these admission slots to everyone, not just children of alumni. As it is, legacy candidates get preferences in admission and, perhaps counter intuitively, have their tuition subsidized as others may potentially be willing to pay more for their spots. Now, I am NOT advocating for this, just showing how misguided and fundamentally unfair are the current admission policies.
Texas 10% solution
This rule was enacted in response to state losing in Hopwood v. Texas, as a novel legal way to introduce diversity in admissions. An ultimate geographic preference, this rule fills about 75-80% of the freshmen class at the leading Texas universities. Note that the Fisher case is about the affirmative action for the remaining spots.
But it is exactly the kind of rule which makes wrong priorities for the students and the society. In general, it is beneficial for the society when students have a choice which K12 school to attend. It is undoubtedly good when they study in the most challenging environment, work hardest on the most advanced courses available. This rule pushes students to take the easiest courses in the least challenging school, aiming to attain the highest GPA and enter the coveted 10%. And guess what – Texas students do exactly that (this in addition to other rule troubles).
A case for honesty
As it stands, the universities are on the brink of losing another affirmative action case in the Supreme Court. Perhaps this is not immediately apparent, but they are also on the brink of a giant PR disaster when it comes to their hidden quotas for Asian Americans. With good intentions, the admission officers and politician keep coming up with twisted, misleading, uncomfortable and occasionally self-contradictory rationale as to why they do what they do (see above). The problem is – with all the history, we’ve seen this all before, and nobody is buying it. With so much public pressure, they probably have to stop and own up to their choices.
I think it is clear what many top colleges are doing. They have a goal of a freshmen class which would have f(x)% students with property x, for many different x, which can be race, gender, wealth, political connections, geographic location, sexual orientation, sports, music, science and other achievements, etc. So they produce all these policies like the early action, and many rationalizations aimed at reaching that goal. One should have a lot of chutzpah to believe to know exactly the “right mix” function f, but of course they think that…
If it was up to me, I would give the universities a complete freedom to accept whoever they want without fear of lawsuits, in exchange for complete transparency. Education is really not like housing or employment, it is fluid and highly competitive. In exchange, make the universities publish the exact numbers of how many students with every property x have applied and got accepted. For the sake of anonymity, delete all the names and zip codes, and publish on the web the rest of the data from their applications. Let the future applicants, or nonprofits on their behalf, decide their chances of acceptance and make rational choice whether to spend their $75 and endless hours applying to that school. Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world, but you have to let colleges compete with each other, which is the most fair and offers the best model of education.
Finally, when it comes to Asian Americans – Harvard and the rest of the Ivies should just apologize, and starting next year accept twice as many as this year, to compensate for the real or perceived discrimination. Otherwise, a hundred years from now, somebody might still be writing how stupid and morally twisted were these old early 21st century admission policies.
Warning: Here I neither endorse nor reject the affirmative action, but rather advocate for some honesty, clarity and transparency.