Reforming College Admissions

by Harry on February 28, 2011

An interesting piece in the Chronicle by Jerome Lucido is pretty damning of the college admissions system (especially among private very selective colleges, but not just among them). Last month I was at the conference he refers to at the end of the article (in fact I was a keynote speaker, and only at the last minute did I manage to suppress my inclination to channel James Stockdale, given that I basically know nothing about college admissions). I suppose the participants — about 175 people, almost all admissions or financial aid officials from a diverse array of selective schools, including the admissions deans of several Ivies and flagship states — were largely self-selecting, but still I was surprised how much consensus there appeared to be about what the problems are with the admissions system and how they are generated. Here is Lucido’s basic analysis:

College and university leaders—trustees, presidents, chief academic officers—have the unenviable responsibility of ensuring their institutions’ continued financial viability while pursuing increasingly ambitious academic missions. In this pursuit, their strong turn to the competitive marketplace is understandable. But it is also clear that more is happening here. There is an insatiable appetite for prestige and status that accompanies the drive for revenues. What we see now is that marketplace competition has escalated to the point at which it threatens to become the mission rather than to serve the mission. And for what gain?

An institution can achieve short-term market advantage through aggressive marketing, but in due time competitors will match and then surpass that edge. The escalating competition raises institutional costs, invariably resulting in higher tuition and a greater need to admit students whose families can pay full price.

While some institutions can handle the added expense, there are broader costs that no college can handle alone. As numerous scholars have documented, zealous pursuit of institutional interest has come at the expense of social goals and the public trust. Moreover, there is a loss of educational values, a loss that we cannot afford. One effect of our pursuit of rankings and prestige has been to change how students view college. No longer seen as the crucial capstone of an educational journey, a degree is now regarded as a ticket to economic advantage. Students and institutions alike, it seems, are branding themselves in pursuit of positioning.

My daughter having reached high school, and being surrounded by adoring juniors and seniors (don’t ask) I encounter a lot of kids who seem caught up in this world — applying to college seems to dominate an entire year of the life of upper middle class kids here, and, at least from my vantage point, does seem to discourage academic risk-taking, focuses attention unhealthily on grades over learning, and encourages them to partake in the proliferation of meaningless “awards” (my daughter was nominated for a “leadership award” from the American Legion while still in middle school, and was criticized by a friend for spurning the nomination on the grounds that the award would help her college applications (my daughter, as you might guess from previous references, says “I don’t want to go to some fancy east coast school. I want to go to a state college. In the Midwest”). I’ll take up the other part of Lucido’s article, concerning the metrics by which we should judge colleges another time (after I’ve read Richard Shavelson’s book explaining the CLA). The only advice I have if you are going through, or about to go through, this nightmare, is to peruse the Education Conservancy’s site for sane advice, or to read Lloyd Thacker’s collection College Unranked, which contains plenty of sensible advice mainly from admissions deans, to your kids when you tuck them up in bed at night.



Tim Worstall 02.28.11 at 4:05 pm

“An institution can achieve short-term market advantage through aggressive marketing, but in due time competitors will match and then surpass that edge. The escalating competition raises institutional costs, invariably resulting in higher tuition and a greater need to admit students whose families can pay full price.”

If it’s only the marketing then perhaps. Although you would hope that at least some of the money was spent on the actual things the college offers, thus competition raises quality over time.

A slightly unconventional solution is possible: recent research has shown that price competition in the NHS led to lower quality. But fixed price competition, where the only possible variable was the quality of care, led to a rise in said quality.

So, fix the price of college and insist that everyone compete on quality.


LizardBreath 02.28.11 at 4:08 pm

A problem with that is that quality, as perceived by high school students and their parents, is likely to heavily weight things like really spiffy student gyms and cafeterias, while more important qualities of a university are less apparent.


Harry 02.28.11 at 4:36 pm

Thanks for the link, Tim, interesting. I hope we have improved some of what really matters (either by spending more on it or getting better at it) but I think there is very little evidence that, for example, instruction (and the consequent amount of per-student learning) has increased in the period Lucido is concerned with (or longer — as a rather well-known former college president has once mused to me – “is there any other industry in which the skills and methods used by workers haven’t changed at all since the beginning of the 20th century?”).

On important qualities — lizardbreath is right, though for some reason “climbing walls” are what I hear people talk about a lot (not sure what they are but they sound terrifying). Whereas I would say the probability of being sexually assaulted is one of the factors relevant to the quality of a college (partly, but not only, because being sexually assaulted interferes a great deal with one’s ability to learn). Who knows the probabilities on any given campus, let alone how they vary across campuses? Its very hard to find out.


BenK 02.28.11 at 4:39 pm

As someone involved in the process, rather than a bystander, first let me state that discussions run by people generally dismissive and critical of ‘private very selective’ schools are usually not something I engage with. The pathologies are often palpable.

However, since this came up on my radar, let me state clearly: schools that get most of their funding from research overhead have very little reason to favor students who can pay high tuitions. They would, if anything, favor students who will support research efforts without appearing on the grants, and do so with the utmost devotion and talent.

On the other hand, schools that get most of their money from alumni donations to the endowment have very little reason to favor students who pay high tuitions immediately, except in so much as that correlates with future wealth. Even parental donations pale (usually, unless they are related to the parents as alumni themselves).

Frankly, the question of money with regard to future alumni wealth is much better asked with regard to how society rewards people for their choices. Presumably, wealth flows to people doing things that society values; so if applicants have talents that will flow into the good of society, they will generate wealth, and can gift it back to the school.

Similarly, money from government and charitable research grants (generally sciences, particularly bio/medicine, computing and physics) is supposed to be related to the values of society; so choosing students who can immediately support such efforts is also for the expressed good of society – although not necessarily for the long term benefit of the students… this is debatable, in that students who get good work experience in the sciences as undergraduates often go on to more successful scientific careers than any others.

So. You can’t simply ‘follow the money’ to find malfeasence. People who do so are usually pushing some questionable agenda via shallow rhetoric. There are certainly issues in the way educational opportunities are created, imagined, funded, provided, etc. However, those issues are so much larger than this little one, I think this contention about the elite colleges selecting students who can pay high tuitions should be put to bed as toxic nonsense. That isn’t how it is done, though every critic would love to think so.


Steve LaBonne 02.28.11 at 4:57 pm

BenK, are you claiming that every highly selective private college has need-blind admissions? Because any college that doesn’t IS giving preference to full-tuition payers, by definition.


Harry 02.28.11 at 5:07 pm

BenK, I’ve gone back and read my post and Lucido’s piece, and your response is incomprehensible to me (I mean, I believe everything you say, and believed it before you said it, and so, I presume, does Lucido, I just don’t understand how it is an engagement with what either of us said).


Lemuel Pitkin 02.28.11 at 5:21 pm

Presumably, wealth flows to people doing things that society values; so if applicants have talents that will flow into the good of society, they will generate wealth, and can gift it back to the school.

Harry, you say you believe everything BenK wrote, but do you really believe this? That, in effect, colleges *should* sell admission, since the students who can pay the most are in general the most deserving?

The larger point is that selective colleges are a very small part of the higher education universe. The vast majority of students going to college do not spend much time worrying about admission; the bigger problem is combining school and full-time work. So if we are worried about higher education in general, this whole question is a bit of a red herring — unless, like BenK here, we take the Randish view that income and social value are interchangeable, so only the rich (or to-be-rich) kids matter anyway.


dsquared 02.28.11 at 5:25 pm

On the other hand, schools that get most of their money from alumni donations to the endowment have very little reason to favor students who pay high tuitions immediately, except in so much as that correlates with future wealth

That’s like saying that Bouji’s nightclub doesn’t have any reason to prefer to admit people wearing designer labels, except in so much as that correlates with being able to buy a lot of expensive drinks. In other words “well, it does”.


Tim Worstall 02.28.11 at 5:29 pm

“(or longer—as a rather well-known former college president has once mused to me – “is there any other industry in which the skills and methods used by workers haven’t changed at all since the beginning of the 20th century?”).”

There are those who would argue that the essential technology, of lectures, classes and tutorials, hasn’t changed since the 15th.

I do tend to think that this ‘ere intertubes thing is going to be the disruptive technology that changes that. How quickly I think depends upon successful the colleges themselves are at protecting their monopoly of credentials issuance.

I’m not particularly thinking of U Phoenix style operations (disclosure, I’m sometimes paid to write bits for them): U London’s external department could also be used as an example.

I do get all three bits of a good college education: the rite of passage bit, the being (if you’re lucky) in an intellectually fevered atmosphere and environment and the actually getting taught some stuff. But it’s that last which seems to me to be ripest and likeliest fall from the tree.


Steve LaBonne 02.28.11 at 5:44 pm

But it’s that last which seems to me to be ripest and likeliest fall from the tree.

I will leave questions about other disciplines to their adepts, but I’d like to hear how this is supposed to work in hands-on science and engineering fields.


Harry 02.28.11 at 5:46 pm

I took BenK just to be describing the practices and incentives, and saying the practices align with the incentives, not to be endorsing that as a good thing (which I certainly wouldn’t agree with).

I agree that private elites are a small part of HE. I’m not sure they are such a red-herring though: what they do has an impact on state flagships, and on the environment of the high schools prospective students of both kinds of college attend. (and plenty of students in state flagships work 40 long hours for pay and have little to no parental financial support). And there are consequences less advantaged students — the more time that counselors waste on helping the 15-20% from my daughter’s high school destined for elite schools, the less they spend on the 35% kids on free and reduced lunch.

Of course, the vast majority of students attend non-selective colleges, and there are all sorts of issue there that cannot be understood by looking at the behaviour of elite colleges.


Harry 02.28.11 at 5:50 pm

Oh, and yes Tim, showing that our students learn something and we have something to do with that is not especially easy, and that makes it the ripest fruit. To Steve’s question: it is not impossible to combine elearning with some face-to-face and hands-on elements: and whoever figures out how to do that well (actually companies, perhaps?) will get a head start.


Steve LaBonne 02.28.11 at 5:58 pm

Re Harry @12: Well, I’ve been hearing that sort of thing for quite a few years, and have seen pretty much nothing effective come of all the talk. So color me skeptical.


Harry 02.28.11 at 6:24 pm

Oh, yes, same is true in general of what Tim refers to (though there are very interesting ways that computer-based learning has been integrated into classroom teaching and homework in physical and biological sciences). But 2 weeks ago I would never have imagined mass mobilizations in the heart of Wisconsin that look like something out of the 1930’s so I’m currently sceptical about my predictive abilities.


y81 02.28.11 at 6:53 pm

As the student of a high school junior, I agree with most of what Prof. Brighouse says, except I don’t see that the admissions process discourages “academic risk taking.” Most high schools, including my daughter’s, don’t offer lots of classes outside the core high school disciplines of English, history, etc., so there’s no question of students being discouraged from exploring something strange, since nothing strange is being taught. (It’s not like college, where you can take a flier on a sociology or linguistics or women’s studies course or the like.) And the students at my daughter’s school have thoroughly internalized the admissions office cant about hard courses being more respected than easy courses, so they are eager to take all the AP courses they can, and actively avoid what we used to call “guts.”


CP 02.28.11 at 7:04 pm

Is there any difference between the Education Conservancy and Harvard University Press editions of the Lloyd Thacker book, as I am trying to order the least expensive copy for use as a guidebook for my own adolescent. (Offspring provide the natural justice exacted upon us for our own adolescences.)


Harry 02.28.11 at 7:28 pm

No, I think the Harvard edition is a republication of the original (its the one everyone uses no anyway).


Harry 02.28.11 at 7:40 pm

That’s a parent, right, y81 (why did your comment get caught in moderation? — maybe “student of a high school junior” was a problem. Mystifying).

Even within the core risk-taking’s possible, though — taking an extra math class (at which you do not excel) rather than a high-level writing class (which you know you can ace). Or vice versa (As in more hard science classes are thought better than Bs in hard writing classes in which you actually learn something new). But I get your point — its closing down even the opportunities to take risks (Ed Conservancy talks about this as well).

A separate point, which BenK could respond to if he’s still around, is the extent to which college admissions officers ACTUALLY act as upper-middle-class high schools and parents think they do. College Unranked gives lots of hints to the contrary.

Btw Ben, the Deans of admission for Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Vassar, Michigan ….. were all present at the conference, and the dean of admissions for Yale played a leading role in it, — and most seemed to find Lucido’s analysis worth thinking about, and some seemed to embrace much of it (and, this is a bit embarassing to say, but its true — my presentation was the best received presentation I’ve ever done, and I am often pretty well received), so it is not as though this is an exercise in carping.


y81 02.28.11 at 7:55 pm

@18: yes, parent. Although I also study, in this my second intensive exposure to teenage girls, to try to figure them out.


Omega Centauri 02.28.11 at 9:22 pm

Steve @10. Regarding the sciences and engineering via intertubes. Having a somewhat autodidact going to such a school as we speak… I think it is more a matter of degree. For instance, I’d like to find one or two distance learning technical courses for him for the summer, hopefully ones that provide transferable credit. Lacking that, I’d be glad to teach him some stuff himself, but I’d prefer the greater incentive to do homework that comes with deadlines and grades…

In any case, I think it is a matter of degree. Some of the teaching/degree can come via the computer tech/communications route -even taking 10-30% of the cost burden away would be significant.


A 02.28.11 at 9:43 pm

Part of this discussion relates to the ever-increasing cost of college, which had been widely discussed after a study by Robert B. Archibald and David H. Feldman
which essentially justified this increase, echoed by a NYT blog post by Stanley Fish,
“There Is No College Cost Crisis”
attracting 437 answers (which often were anecdotal, fine, or IMHO misinformed about college economics).
I posted my take on that at
and the relevant part regarding admissions, and the pressures on parents and students to get admitted at a highest-ranked college stems from the fact that

…the product of the Ivies and such is not so much education,
but exclusivity and access (to other wealthy people’s offspring), and transforming wealth and privilege (tuition) into perceived merit (diploma from famous university). Middle-class parents perceive darkly, that (big) success in U.S. society depends on access and connections more than education itself. Your reasonably-talented student of accounting and business administration will end up with a well-paying job offer from a famous investment bank, hedge fund, or similar, with access to instant riches (the young traders, e.g. see ) or a career track to senior management/CFO, based on the friends he or she makes at Harvard; or, through his friends at community /state college, he/she becomes a moderately-paid accountant at a small local business, at the vagaries of the business cycle, which by now has even reached many former well-to-do. Hence upper middle-class parents want their children to go to the most famous university they can get admitted to, no matter the cost. That allows the elite institutions to charge more and actually requires them to do so as to demonstrate exclusivity.
And it clearly pushes them to become obviously “selective” in admissions, even if selectivity and yield are driven by advertising campaigns. With (non-Ivy) small-college finances always precarious, these colleges are pushed in this direction (more marketing, selectivity), even if the administrators and professors there deplore this trend. It is too sad, but a reflection of wider problems of a more stratified society, where more and more of the economic gains go to the uppermost 1%.


John Quiggin 02.28.11 at 10:15 pm

The other side of the story is that the number of places in the elite private colleges has remained unchanged since AFAICT, the 1950s (much the same is true for the top state universities, though they expanded until the 1970s). The combination of population growth, expansion of the share of professionals in the workforce and women’s participation in higher education means that the number competing for this fixed supply has grown massively.

In a non-profit setting with opaque pricing, pathological responses to such a situation are inevitable.


Harry 02.28.11 at 10:20 pm

A’s comment indicates why what the Ivys do matters for everyone else down the status heirarchy.

JQ – yes. Mike McPherson and Sandy Baum suggested in their presentation (as one reform) that the Ivys etc all double the number of undergraduates they admit (they have a blog post on it at the Chronicle that I can’t find, sorry).


dave_vader 02.28.11 at 10:31 pm

@TimWorstall I often hear about how education hasn’t changed in the past 1-5 centuries. Has farming? doctoring? mining? litigation? the music business? Certainly, technology has changed, but the essence–like taking materials from underneath the earth and then selling them–remain the same. A professor from 18th century Oxford would find that little has changed.

For some reason, this article reminded me of Emo music–an angsty author, sitting in his room, reciting cliches in manner that seems less convincing the more you listen to them, while making up some of his own. Was there a golden age of high school academic risk-taking? Are higher tuitions really the result of prestige-seeking institutions? This particular paragraph seems particularly blatant:

An institution can achieve short-term market advantage [in status] through aggressive marketing, but in due time competitors will match and then surpass that edge. The escalating competition raises institutional costs, invariably resulting in higher tuition and a greater need to admit students whose families can pay full price.

The more I think about this chain of events, the less sense it makes. Aren’t institutional costs/ranking boosting concurent with marketting? And weren’t (at least a few years ago), students providing more loans/scholarships to students while raising tuition?
More of the same twaddle…and a little disappointing that CT would link to this article.


EMG 02.28.11 at 10:55 pm

My only specific ambition for my child is that she attend a proper four-year college, not the undergraduate section of a large university. I attended a non-selective small college – so non-selective that I sometimes found the level of discourse a bit frustrating – yet had a richer, and in some respects more rigorous, experience (by mutual admission, after comparing notes) than high school friends who ended up sitting among hundreds in the lecture halls of the world’s most prestigious institutions. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to send their child to “college” at a state flagship or Ivy – particularly not at current rates of tuition – unless they were already quite sure in high school that 1. they really needed, and could profit from, access to top research facilities while still an undergraduate and 2. they could win, not just admission, but the subsequent and equally brutal competition for attention from actual professors.

Widespread willingness to spend $40,000/year (cash or credit) to have one’s child instructed by people who are themselves only five or six years out of high school indicates, to me, that the question of actual learning has already been quietly but decisively dropped. (Nothing against TA’s, of course – I’ve been one myself – but it’s ridiculous to think that their having won the prestige game in graduate admissions automatically puts them several ranks above mature Ph.D.’s of more modest provenance. Which is what a parent would have to believe in order to pay such a premium for their services.)


piglet 02.28.11 at 11:02 pm

“applying to college seems to dominate an entire year of the life of upper middle class kids here”

Cruel. Who would ever treat their own children like that. Aren’t there any child protection laws in this country?


Luis 02.28.11 at 11:18 pm

I often hear about how education hasn’t changed in the past 1-5 centuries. Has farming? doctoring? mining? litigation? the music business?
Seriously? What is teaching’s equivalent of mining’s extensive mechanization and transition from being hundreds of feet underground to many miles? Farming’s transition from 40 acres and a mule to GPS-guided tractors covering multi-thousand acre farms? From purely live music to CDs to iTunes and back to mostly live music, except for the detail of global touring with millions of dollars in special effects? In litigation, from small teams of local lawyers to global firms handling billions of documents in multi-year lawsuits that make Jarndyce look like child’s play? Scientific research surely has similar changes, but actual teaching does not- the biggest differences are that the students are taking notes on laptops instead of on paper, the whiteboard has replaced the blackboard, and…?


Sherri 02.28.11 at 11:51 pm

I’m a parent of a high school sophomore, and I’m trying to keep a level head about all the college admissions stuff, but it’s hard when everybody around you is losing theirs! There is tremendous fear and anxiety about college admissions, not just for the Ivies, but also for the state flagship, which (like most) is experiencing massive budget cuts and starting to preference out of state students for the higher tuition. Personally, I’m pretty disenchanted with the thought of sending my daughter to the state flagship so she can take classes with 700 other students and push little buttons in class to show she’s there and take scantron tests. (Don’t even get me started on scantron tests and their proliferation even in high school.)

As for risk-tasking with regards to classes, the number of state requirements has increased so much that there’s very little room for taking other classes. By the time you put in the English and history classes required each year, if you like science and math and want those every year, and are college bound and want a foreign language, too, there’s not much room left. Throw in an arts class (my daughter does choir), and she’s going to have to do the required health semester class on-line because there’s no room in the schedule next year. She’ll either have to drop a science, choir, or the 5th year of Japanese in order to take a creative writing class she wants to take senior year, and we’ll still have to get a waiver to get her outside karate training to substitute for her (3 semester) PE requirement.

The biggest surprise to me about high school today was the big increase in the requirements for graduation. In addition to the classes, in my daughter’s district there’s a Formal Lab Report, a literary analysis paper, a compare/contrast paper, a persuasive essay, a problem solving and reasoning requirement, and a culminating project. Oh, and the state high school tests in reading, writing, science, and math.

Sometimes, I think it would be simpler to just give her the GED and get on with the business of learning things, rather than jumping hoops.


Harry 02.28.11 at 11:55 pm

I don’t think there’s any golden ageism involved. What all admissions officials are aware of is that since the appearance of the US NEWS rankings, and the coincidental gains of growth going almost entirely to the very elite, competition for elite college has intensified as has competition among elite colleges, with wasteful effects (and waste is bad) and also bad effects (it seems) in high schools. Why is there suddenly a multi-billion dollar industry around college admissions? Why do prospective students apply to, and visit, 15 rather than 5 schools? This is social waste in pursuit of positional goods, and social waste that — as indicated in Tim’s comment and my response — has done nothing to increase the quality of teaching, which is what actually matters.


praisegod barebones 02.28.11 at 11:56 pm

You know, I used to teach back in the god-forsaken twentieth century (and I still do) and I’d say that things like email, being able to post discussion questions on the Internet before class, being able to update my syllabus online as the semester progresses, circulate handouts ahead of time etc have transformed not only the way I teach, but the way I think about teaching during the 20 years I’ve been doing the job. And I’d say the same was true of pretty much every single one of my departmental colleagues

Now these are all things that work to support face to face teaching, and it’s not as though any of the things I do couldn’t have been done by a supremely well-organised teacher before the internet. But I’m not supremely well-organised; and nor are most of the people I work with. And they do make a difference.

I also wouldn’t underestimate the impact that the photocopier had on university teaching a few decades back.


praisegod barebones 02.28.11 at 11:57 pm

I mean, I still teach – not that I have the prestigious position of visiting professor from the future in some twentieth-century institution.


Harry 03.01.11 at 12:55 am

Fair enough about photocopiers etc. I’m ambivalent about emails — it diminishes the number of face-to-face interactions that, though concerning trivia, would make it easier for students in large classes to connect with me. On the other hand it has been a vehicle for both intellectual and personal conversations that i very much doubt would have happened any other way and, in the case of the personal conversations, have enriched my life (and, I think, the lives of the students) tremendously. And, I’m pretty sure, has in one case saved a student from dropping out, a life-changing moment.


Tim Worstall 03.01.11 at 12:56 am

“@TimWorstall I often hear about how education hasn’t changed in the past 1-5 centuries. Has farming? doctoring? mining?”

Mining being the one I know about, the one I work beside, yes, I’d say there have been huge changes. I put this in another thread recently, that right now I think we’re going through a sea change. Instead of, when looking for a metal, trying to find a concentration of it under the earth we are now, at least I think we are, pondering whether there might be recoverable amounts of what we want in the wastes of what we’ve already dug up.

As an example, 50 years ago the US iron and steel industries depended almost entirely upon blast furnaces, things that could turn iron ore, limestone and coal into iron and then steel.

Today, all the companies that did that are bust, the largest US steel company makes everything from scrap that it reprocesses. The general consensus is that no one will ever build another blast furnace in an advanced country.

Yes, this is a big change. In my tiny corner, my specialty, there are still people claiming to have found a deposit of the desired metal. And the market as a whole is laughing at them. For there are thousands of tonnes of that desired metal in hte wastes of other proucts. We’ve (“we” meaning as an industry) finally realised that reprocessing, residuals extraction, is cheaper than diging another hole in the ground.

I agree, this isn’t exactly the same as e-learning taking over from human instructor in front of a lecture or class: but it does strike me as that sort of sea change which I think the intertubes are likely to bring to education (as it is advanced extration techniques which have changed mining).


Harry 03.01.11 at 1:05 am


Sherri 03.01.11 at 1:57 am

Harry – I read that post when you posted it, loved it, and immediately bought a copy of the book. It helps keep me sane, and gives my daughter some help in thinking about college.

The other thing I remind myself of to stay sane is getting into college shouldn’t be the high point of your college experience, any more than your wedding day should be the high point of your marriage.


Gene O'Grady 03.01.11 at 2:20 am

With respect to photocopiers, I still have a lot of my Amherst undergraduate stuff from the mid-sixties, and looking over some it a while back, particularly from the famous English 1-2, I realized that there was a whole educational culture of mimeograph (I think actually they had a slightly more advanced process, the smeary purple mimeographs were in grade school) that is very different from the culture of photocopiers and now e-mails.

Plus it put a great premium on someone being able to type very accurately. On the other hand, that was once a more prestigious accomplishment than legend has it. I remember that the most impressive of my father’s friends, a self-made multi-millionaire who had begun as a motorcycle patrolman with the CHP and been on a battleship at Pearl Harbor, saying with great satisfaction that he could type eighty words a minute even deducting for his few errors.


Marc 03.01.11 at 2:32 am

There have always been people who could teach themselves, or learn simply by reading a book. A good teacher can reach other people, or improve the insight of those who could get by without such interaction.

The irony, really, is that this is one area where a labor-intensive approach is very likely to be fruitful. You really do learn more when someone can work with you; by contrast, an awful lot of other tasks really can be automated to a high degree.

Where the web is already transformative is enabling people to quickly research things of interest, get powerful visualization tools, and automate routine tasks. That is a different matter, however, from trying to save money by pre-recording lectures and telling people to read a (slightly interactive) book, while setting up human interactions which compare with voice mail menus in dealing with normal intellectual stumbling blocks.


Harry 03.01.11 at 3:44 am

Oh I’m glad it’s useful, Sherri. The analogy between getting into college and wedding days is good, I’ll pass it on to Lloyd. It reminds me of my first day at Bedford College, London, hearing multiple conversations in which people discussed which Oxford and Cambridge colleges they applied to and didn’t get into. I found it depressing (and, I have to confess, felt a bit snooty about it, having been admitted to the Cambridge college I applied to, and chosen Bedford College instead).


Jonathan Gilligan 03.01.11 at 9:09 pm

I keep hoping that schools will take Barry Schwartz’s advice on admissions: Devise a reasonably painless test for who’s “good enough” to be considered for admission, and then draw at random from the pool who qualify rather than try to pick the very best:

[W]hile admissions people like to believe that they have the discernment to look at 8,000 wonderful applicants and pick, with high accuracy, the 1,600 “superwonderful” ones, there is a huge literature on decision making, much of it reviewed in a classic article in Science 15 years ago by Robyn M. Dawes, David Faust, and Paul E. Meehl, which makes clear that people in such positions are much more confident of their abilities than the data warrant. In other words, picking a fifth of the 8,000 at random might be just as good a way of producing a great class as the tortured scrutiny of folders that is the present practice.


Tom M 03.01.11 at 10:57 pm

the largest US steel company makes everything from scrap that it reprocesses.

Um, no. You may mean Nucor (and steel from scrap is all they have ever done) but they aren’t the largest in the US by volume, that’s still USX who makes steel from iron ore. USX still makes coke and has its own finishing and cold rolled plant.


Tim Worstall 03.02.11 at 9:27 am

@40: a righteous correction, thank you.

Comments on this entry are closed.