Values and Higher Education Policy

by Harry on September 10, 2007

A fine piece by Michael McPherson and Morton Schapiro in the Chronicle of Higher Education (registration and possibly subscription needed). They start by pointing out that for the most part college officials treat ‘values’ as pieties to be brought out when the parents and dignitaries visit, and not very seriously dealt with the rest of the time; and then demonstrate the moral dimension to a a range of management and leadership issues: enrollment management, early admissions, student aid, college rankings, and admissions decisions. It’s an agenda setting piece, not a series of answers. I’d like to see philosophers giving more detailed thought to these issues (so, I know, would McPherson and Schapiro); I hereby encourage bright philosophy PhD students out there to take their agenda and base a dissertation on it. (You might want to look at Levelling the Playing Field before you start). To give a flavour, here’s what M&S say about early admissions:

Early admissions. Last year both Harvard and Princeton Universities made high-profile announcements that they would no longer admit students early. What are the arguments against early decision? You can’t expect a needy student to commit to attend a college or university before knowing the price. Asking a student to decide where to attend college by early November, the typical deadline for early application, increases the frenzy accompanying selective admission. Students admitted in December of their senior year may take the rest of that year less seriously than one might hope. And, given that economists calculate a sizable admissions advantage to applying early, certain students are able to game the system.

There are plausible responses to most of those objections. A college that gives generous need-based packages might be able to assure low-income applicants it will be affordable without requiring the student to collect competing offers from other institutions. Also, wouldn’t it actually heighten the frenzy if every student who is currently admitted in December instead applied to a dozen colleges in the spring? Finally, for some students, declaring victory in December might mean a more relaxed but more intellectually engaging senior year.

But debating the social benefits of moving away from early admissions isn’t our point — rather it’s that value judgments have come into play. Some colleges clearly think they are serving the public good by dropping their early-admissions programs. They are acting on their convictions even though it may threaten their comparative advantage against rival institutions for top students, and when individual goals are sacrificed for social ones, it deserves notice.



Aaron Swartz 09.10.07 at 1:25 pm

Actually, could you link to the direct url instead — the current link asks one to log in, even if you’re reading it from inside a paying institution (e.g. your university).


harry b 09.10.07 at 2:19 pm

Done (I think).


Matt 09.10.07 at 3:41 pm

_”Some colleges clearly think they are serving the public good by dropping their early-admissions programs. They are acting on their convictions even though it may threaten their comparative advantage against rival institutions for top students”_

Is there that much evidence for thinking this is true? I wonder if Harvard and Princeton just didn’t think that they needed early admissions- that they could get anyone they wanted anyway, and that they’d get a good PR boost for doing something that didn’t hurt them anyway. I’d be more likely to believe it if schools that had more to lose did it. These schools are big businesses, after all, so I’d think that the first interpritation of their actions should usually be that they are acting in what they think are their business interests. (I could certainly be persuaded otherwise here, though.)


M. Gemmill 09.10.07 at 5:09 pm

Students from “underperforming” schools do NOT know that they can get an advantage for applying early. In fact, without a knowledgeable guidance counselor, they may think that applying early is harder than applying late. That’s what I thought–my guidance counselor’s reaction to my interest in top tier schools (primarily Ivies) was to ask me if I was “aiming a little high”. I received no helpful advice on college applications, and presumed that “early admission” was only for those who were certain to be admitted, like legacies and people from fancy private schools. Turns out that I was sort of right, just not for the reasons I thought.


Jake 09.10.07 at 5:11 pm

I remember reading a game-theoretic analysis about early admissions that showed it was mostly useful for allowing not-quite-top-tier schools to get “better” students than they otherwise would, and that removing it would advantaged the tippy-top-tier schools – i.e. Harvard. So #3 is right.


Slocum 09.10.07 at 5:16 pm

The arguments about whether early admissions increase or decrease the frenzy are completely beside the point — early admissions are designed to increase the U.S. News ranking by increasing the ‘yield’ (the fraction of student offered admission who actually attend). The early decision students have promised to attend if admitted — that is the critical feature of the programs, not the date.

Why would Harvard drop early admissions? Oh, that’s easy one. There are two reasons:

1. Harvard doesn’t have to worry much about yield. Students accepted to Harvard tend to show up.

2. In an open admissions environment, Harvard’s yield exceeds the others by a greater extent in an early-decision environment. Think about it. The benefit of early decision to the lower level Ivies is that a student who might (or might not) be admitted to Harvard could be persuaded to play it safe and apply exclusively to Brown. Harvard doesn’t get a chance to admit the student OR (and this is critical, too) a chance to reject that student — since the US News ranking also is enhance by rejections (the greater the percentage of rejections, the greater the selectivity). Which brings to mind the phenomenon of ‘safety schools’ rejecting students who are overqualified–since if the student rejects the safety school, the safety school’s yield is impaired, whereas if the school rejects the student first, then the schools gets credit for being more selective. Sick, isn’t it?

Anyway, this action by Harvard, like the early admissions programs themselves, are driven by institutional self-interest and the discussion of what’s better for student’s is pure sophistry.


DavidS 09.10.07 at 7:01 pm

Unless something changed since I applied to college (1998), Harvard was an Early Admission school, not Early Decision, meaning that students were not bound to accept Harvard’s offers. I imagine this means that Harvard got even less of a yield increase from their early offers than binding schools did. (There would still be some, a lot of students who would apply to both Harvard and (say) Chicago won’t want to complete that second application once they are already into Harvard.)

Comments on this entry are closed.