Some thoughts about transparency in college admissions

by Harry on February 25, 2020

I gave a keynote speech at the annual conference of the Center for Enrollment Research Policy and Practice last month, and it occurred to me that some of you might find it interesting. The following is the text I talked from (with one joke that I extemporated added to the text because I remember it – there was several others that went down well, but they are lost to posterity).

I should start by saying I’m not an expert on the admissions process or on enrollment management, although thanks to my association with the Center and attending this conference a few times I know much more than a normal professor would. Or should. I’m not an administrator.. I’m a college teacher and a philosopher, and those roles each give me different reasons for humility when addressing the people who take real responsibility for managing our institutions. So please don’t take what I am going to say as criticism or as telling you how to do your jobs. It’s neither. (I know when people say that you shouldn’t take what they are going to say as criticism that usually means they are going to criticize you but…. well, I’m not). What we try to do as philosophers is offer intellectual resources to people to help them see problems slightly differently, and thereby perhaps to find better solutions – not to tell them what the solutions are. And it’s a good thing our job isn’t telling people what the solutions are since I don’t know what they are. As you’ll see.

I was asked to talk about transparency in admissions, and I’m going to do that, but I am also going to talk a little bit about transparency in other areas of our shared enterprise.

One of the immediate triggers for the theme of this year’s conference was the Varsity Blues scandal. On the one hand the scandal was… scandalous…. On the other, it involved behaviors that, while they fell the wrong side of the line we draw between legal and illegal behavior, reflect an underlying view, held not only by the perpetrators, that the line is kind of arbitrary. What the frauds wanted was to be able to buy places at the colleges their children wanted to attend. Most things can be bought, and the rich are used to being able to buy them.

One, tempting, riposte to their thought would be ‘Places cannot be bought; they can only be earned through merit”. But our existing practices already violate that principle. To some extent, subject to some threshold of “merit”, and only at high price, places can be bought, directly. But, also, to some extent, with a certain level of probability, so can “merit”, as it is standardly understood: you can buy high quality tutoring for the SAT, expensive places in private high schools, expensive piano, violin and acting lessons, and, even if your child attends a public school, off-season participation in the sports success in which helps in admissions. Whatever talent you have, money helps you make the most of it. It helps quite a lot. I’m not asking you to be especially sympathetic, but it is surely not surprising, in the current social and political environment, that highly privileged and entitled people who are used to buying what they want feel slightly miffed when the college place of their choice isn’t directly purchasable. Maybe they think that fudging a bit on the application forms isn’t so different from fudging a bit on their taxes, which they are confident that many of their friends are doing, and quite possibly, some of them do occasionally. (When I say ‘fudging’, by the way, I mean…lying. And when I say ‘a bit’ I mean…a lot.[1]

Most of you were not shocked by the scandal. But a lot of people who don’t know our industry well were shocked, not just because the behavior was scandalous, but because the scandal highlighted some of the many ways in which individual “merit” is superseded by other factors in admissions, factors that we take for granted but, to others, seem surprising at best and shocking at worst. I was struck last semester by the excitement a group of my freshmen, one of whom had acquaintances caught up in the scandal, displayed as they shared stories of the various, they think nefarious, ways that candidates gain preference in the admissions system.

In other words – it shone a light on our industry in a way that made us, briefly, more transparent than we usually are.

Let’s talk a bit about transparency. Transparency’s not an all-or-nothing matter, but it comes in degrees. Suppose your windscreen is fogged up on the inside, and a bit dirty on the outside. Put on the defogger, and it becomes less opaque, but not fully transparent. Clean the outside and you have something approaching full transparency. Paint the window black, and you can’t see a thing, even if your defogger is great.
Transparency not only admits of degrees, but is relative to the observer. It’s more or less difficult to see through something depending on where you are in relation to it and how good your eyesight is. And, we see anything better if we’ve have seen before, and if we’ve been trained to look at it. The glass covering the Mona Lisa is just as clean for me as it is to an art historian, but even so we register different things. To me, it’s just a picture of someone with an unnerving smile. We’ll see why this matters soon.

One of the most opaque features of selective higher education is its mission. It’s opaque partly because there is real disagreement among the stakeholders, and even within each group of stakeholders, about what our purposes are; partly because ‘mission statements’, which have numerous purposes apart from stating what the mission is, try to paint the institution in the best possible light; and partly, because ideology plays a convenient role of rationalizing behaviors that aren’t entirely honorable. There’s a cultural assumption, for example, that higher education is a means to equalizing opportunity and facilitating social mobility. For individuals, selective higher education is indeed a valuable way of moving up, but as a whole we do not seem to play that role for society. To have any chance of doing so the socio-economic profile of our student bodies would have to be the exact inverse of what it is, because we’d have to be moving massive numbers of students up the ladder that wealthier families have all sorts of ways to prevent their children from falling down. Our enrollment practices would have to change drastically. If you tried to do that, you’d be stopped, by leaders, by alumnae, and, let’s not forget, by professors, who, at least those that do much undergraduate teaching, are quick to complain if their students have nor already received the kind of massive investments that, in our society, are not available to most middle and lower income children.
I’m not complaining about the fact that we do not facilitate social mobility. We could do more good in that respect, and less harm, than we do, but not much, because we are not ivory towers insulated from the real world; but framed by a social environment that has unequal opportunity built into its fabric. I’m just pointing out that the myth of social mobility fogs up the windscreen, making our mission itself somewhat opaque.

Others will say more about this tomorrow, but I’d like to propose that we try to be more transparent about one element of our mission: The duty we have to attend to the public good. At minimum, we are recipients of considerable public largesse — even private colleges receive large amount of public money, some of it opaquely in the form of tax credits and tax free growth of 529s and endowments. Selective public institutions enroll future public servants – nurses, doctors, police officers, teachers, social workers, counsellors – and, in particular, they enroll large numbers of the future leaders of those fields. The same is true of professions which, though mainly pursued in the private sector, have important impacts on the public good – human resource managers, accountants, and, depending on your viewpoint, maybe bankers and professional investors. Even if we understand how limited our capacity is to facilitate social mobility, seeing our mission as guided substantially by the public good helps us think a bit differently about merit – which, according the principle I entertained – but did not endorse! — earlier, should be the sole basis of admissions.

Because instead of seeing merit as something possessed by the applicant, we see it as something possessed by the cohort that we create, in relation to the institution they inhabit, and the public good to which, in concert, they can contribute.
Demographic changes are well under way in America that mean that increasing number of college enrollees will be Hispanic, increasing numbers will be working class, and increasing numbers will come from low income families. The public is changing, and our enterprise should be calibrated better to serve the good of that public.
This gives us two kinds of very good reason to seek to create access for members of these growing populations. One is so that the internal diversity of the class prepares all the students, including those who are not from those populations, better to serve them. The other is that we have reasons for conjecturing that, on average, members of those new populations are more likely to use the gains they make from higher education for the public good.

So that’s how we should redefine merit – not in terms of past achievement but in terms of the optimal prospective contribution that our educational resource can make to the public good. (Note, optimal, not maximal, because the public good isn’t everything we should care about).

Optimal prospective contribution is a property of the cohort not reducible to the properties of individuals, because of interaction effects. But also because, for all but the wealthiest institutions, their ability to enroll one kind of student is limited by the enrollment of other kinds of student. Specifically, students who can pay more than the cost of enrollment can cross-subsidize those who cannot pay as much as the cost of enrollment. Students who can afford to pay more the cost of enrollment will, on average, anyway, succeed in the competition for positions that affect the public good, so we have to enroll some of them so as to improve the quality of their influence. As well as because they contribute the resources that enable us to equip other students better to serve the public good.

With all that said, let’s return to transparency and opacity.

Opacity of at least three kinds works against the new populations. You’ve all thought a lot about the first two, but my guess is that you’ve thought less about the third.

i) In admissions processes – they need to know what they need to do, and need to know that, in fact, the institutions are actually accessible to them, otherwise they won’t apply. And transparency is not just a matter of stating average SAT/ACT scores, GPAs, etc, and saying that we seek diversity, and stating that legacies, and athletes, get preference, and publicizing the price at which admissions standards are lowered. There are other ways of being opaque. Consider this Columbia admissions question which a counsellor vented about on twitter a couple of weeks ago:
“what exhibits, lectures, theatre productions and concerts have you liked best in the last year?”

Now, I know that you can all think of excellent counter-cultural answers to that question that you would reward with lots of admissions points. But many of those we need to enroll see that question and think – wrongly, but not absurdly – that it requires them to have gone to exhibits, lectures, theatre productions, and concerts, because, although it is transparent to us, it is not transparent to them. They look at the question the way that I look at the Mona Lisa, whereas we look at it the way that an art historian looks at the Mona Lisa. And the way I look at the Mona Lisa is entirely sensible!

ii) Financial aid. What someone with the relevant background sees as a discount-able sticker price, a student from a low-income family see as the price they’d have to pay. I regularly teach students who should have gone to SLACS where I know they’d have incurred less debt than at UW Madison: when I ask why they didn’t, they just say ‘my family couldn’t afford it”. The net price calculators improve matters, but they are challenging to use: for many prospective students the net price calculator is a defogger for a windscreen the outside of which is really filthy.

iii) Third, and this is what you’ll have thought less about, though I obsess about it: The quality of instruction. There’s a lot of bad teaching, and avoiding it requires institutional knowledge that more advantaged students have more access to (and less advantaged students have less access to). “Take the teacher not the class”. “Take smaller classes” ; “Find professors who like teaching” “Go to office hours” (‘what do I say there?”). “Take classes you’ll enjoy”. If your parents or siblings or uncles or aunts attended a selective college, or if you’re in the Greek system, or if you have had the right advice in high school, or if you aren’t too worried about getting a major that enhances your earning power, you are much better placed to navigate the problem of instruction than otherwise. High quality instruction is a scarce resource on a campus. I’m convinced that the worst instruction has negative effects on enrollment, especially of the more vulnerable students¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬, at least in the Midwest, because, especially for less advantaged students, the response to poor instruction is, too often, a sense of personal failure, rather than of justified anger.

Would transparency improve things? Greater transparency of the kinds I’ve described in admissions and financial aid would enhance our ability to enroll new populations, by enhancing their ability to see opportunities that they really want. And I have complete confidence that if we could achieve a modicum of transparency about the quality of instruction, low quality instruction would become less common and high quality instruction less scarce. This is because it would be easier for all stakeholders to hold faculty accountable to a standard that all stakeholders think they should meet and that even faculty themselves, when they talk about these things in public, endorse (even if they resist being held accountable).

Is transparency generally better for accountability? I think the answer to this is yes. So the scandal that broke last year made vivid all sorts of admissions practices that, despite the resentment of some of those who engaged in fraudulent behavior, enhance access for people like their children: preference for athletes, legacies, the existence of Chancellors or President’s discretion, even (though not at UW-Madison I am glad to say) the children of faculty. To the extent that powerful stakeholders (which for my institution, includes legislators and the general public) disapprove of these practices, transparency will hold them in check.

But transparency – like the accountability it facilitates – is a double edged sword. If the public disapproves of preferences on the basis of race, transparency around those preferences, by making us more accountable, makes it more difficult for us to do. And then there is cross-subsidization. Think of university budgets in which colleges and units cross-subsidize. University budgets are remarkably opaque, and it is their very opacity which helps prevent net revenue-producing units, and colleges, from lobbying effectively to undermine the units and colleges that are net consumers of revenue. Of course, some of those cross-subsidies are indefensible. But others — in my institution I’m pretty sure that Philosophy subsidizes less frequently taught languages, and I know that it subsidizes the School of Education — which are extremely valuable, might not be accepted by whole faculties that really understood their extent. They might! But transparency is risky.

Let’s finish by returning to transparency in admissions. Now we understand that transparency facilitates accountability. Whether accountability leads to better outcomes depends on the will and the competence of the principals who are able to enforce it. Some admissions practices that work against the public good are, probably, dependent on opacity, because the people with the power to hold us accountable would frown on them: for example, preference for faculty members. Others – I’m reasonably confident that legacy preferences work against the public good – may be less vulnerable when light is shone on them. But we should also be concerned about the admissions practices that do serve the public good, and whether they would survive the glare of transparency given the will and competence of those in a position to hold us accountable. To give my own institution as an example: I wouldn’t want to make the extent of racial preference in admissions too vivid for our legislators, because I’m not confident they’d support it to the extent they should; similarly, I’m happy for the faculty – and the suburban population – not to understand fully the extent to which we give preference to rural students (and, by extension, that we deny opportunities to students from Madison itself).

I wish I had a conclusion! Admissions should be holistic, and largely geared to the good of the public – because that is the core of our mission. Transparency is good insofar as it helps us to do this, and not insofar as it inhibits us. It is, like all swords, double edged: maybe we should just be careful which edge we sharpen!

[1] This was the joke I extemporized. A young African-American woman in the audience, an undergraduate who works in the Office of Admissions at her college, and had been brought along by her Dean, shouted out “Lying” and “a lot” in unison with me, which I thought was bold, but rather magnificent, in a room of 100 or so senior professionals.



Paul Reber 02.25.20 at 8:01 pm

There’s a lot to like here and a good topic to be thoughtful about. As a university professor, I have also been moved previously to wonder what exactly a ‘university’ is and found it surprisingly hard to unpack. I came to the question inspired by yet another round of conversations with administrators about how the university was ‘broke,’ i.e., couldn’t afford staff or faculty raises, couldn’t invest in research infrastructure, etc. And yes, that conversation happens a lot even at a private non-profit “tier-1” university with a multi-billion dollar endowment.

It struck me that as a business model, a university is some sort of ‘human capital factory’ in that the students coming out should know more, be able to do more for the world, and likely earn better for it. The phrase ‘human capital’ is complicated and even problematic in some contexts, but here I was thinking that they have not just learned a few facts in college, but also learned a lot of general skills (critical thinking, reading, writing, presenting, explaining, analysis, etc.) and built a lot of social connections. The latter two parts are sometimes a bit underappreciated as where college has a lot of value, I think.

But as a business model, the admissions process is kind of a weird thing. In theory, you have a service with a greater demand than supply, so admissions tries to distribute it in some useful way. Perhaps with an idea towards equality and social justice (they often claim and we’d hope they would) but maybe also with an idea that since the students are quite valuable to each other in their college experience, the admissions should seek to maintain/preserve that, hence things like SATs. From that perspective, you’d certainly want motivated and high-achieving students in general who will inspire and encourage each other as well as providing contacts later in life for career development, etc. But I think you can also speculate about some other motivations, e.g., letting in some less motivated rich kids who will not only pay full tuition but might actually provide useful social contacts for other students.

Finding a way for administrators to be more transparent about admissions and more realistic about the ‘mission’ that the college/university is actually achieving would be very valuable. I’ve also spoken with Deans who wished for this and were simply unsure how to do it. I think it’s hard.

Also, better information spread about true costs of college in the US. My son-in-law had the same experience mentioned here in that he elected not to go to Brown thinking it was too expensive even though full aid and scholarship were available to his working class family. Instead racked up a lot of debt at less prestigious schools. OTOH, he met my daughter, they are happily married, successful and the debt is mostly cleared, so his route was a fine one for him (luckily).


Orange Watch 02.25.20 at 9:31 pm

partly because ‘mission statements’ […] try to paint the institution in the best possible light; and partly, because ideology plays a convenient role of rationalizing behaviors that aren’t entirely honorable.
In admissions processes – they need to know what they need to do, and need to know that, in fact, the institutions are actually accessible to them, otherwise they won’t apply.

This seems peripherally on-topic, but as far as transparency in admissions goes, I had a recent disheartening discussion with a relative who works in admissions for a graduate program. As their own child was applying to undergrad programs, they mentioned that they had been quite upset when a school (where we had mutual relatives working as staff, so we have a reasonable understanding of the school’s caliber and selectiveness) sent their child recruitment material telling them they were a good fit and encouraging them to apply with a fee waiver. The problem was that by raw academic admissions criteria and standardized test scores, their child was not a good fit and was sure to be rejected. This led my relative to lament that this sort of setting applicants up to fail was a common-but-unaknowledged practice in admissions to boost selectivity at both selective schools and particular graduate programs at unselective schools.

It may be painfully obvious that such gaming of admissions ratios occurs – I’ll admit that after I heard it described it seemed obvious that it would happen, and I can think of more than a little recruiting material I’d received myself when looking at schools that seemed to be at a higher tier than what my qualifications felt sufficient to attain – but it also seems like the sort of thing where it would lead to confusion and a sense of personal failure on the part of the duped applicants (full disclosure: I’m Midwestern, and not from a particularly advantageous economic background who attended undergrad at an unselective state school, and did grad work at both that school and a selective school – and yes, your comment about feeling like a failure in the face of bad teaching hits home).


christian_h 02.26.20 at 1:28 am

Thanks, very interesting. I have long felt that the idea of admissions as an exercise in ranking individual applicants against each other – A is more meritorious than B – is quite absurd, so I like your point of “merit” being attached to the cohort not the individual applicants.


Matt_L 02.26.20 at 4:46 pm

Thanks for sharing this Harry, there is a lot to think about here. I do like your idea that “merit” is a reflection of university’s mission to serve the public good and that it is a quality that belongs to the cohort of students rather than any individual student or even the university itself. I also like what you said about transparency in teaching. I am not sure how I would hold up under scrutiny. Probably not failing, but I am probably also not as effective as a I think (hope?) I am.


Slanted Answer 02.26.20 at 6:13 pm

Excellent post, Harry.

I do have a couple of questions regarding financial aid and discount rates. (I’ll note that everything you’ve said in the post was completely true of my case: I chose a SLAC over an on-paper-cheaper state college and ended up paying less and getting better quality of instruction.)

(1) I had thought part of the reason SLACs charged higher prices on paper was as a way to signal prestige and their competitiveness with other schools (i.e., if you want people to think that you are providing a first-class education, you’ll need people to think that you are charging first-class prices). If this is true, how transparent can they be about that without undermining their claims to providing a good education?

(2) Concerning discount rates: how much longer is that going to be true? The SLAC I attended charged around $20K when I was there and now charges upwards of $60K. Even with discounting, that seems like it would have to be more expensive than it was when I was there. I will note that I’ve gone online and seen reviews of the college where students are complaining about the expense. That never happened when I was there. I would think there could only be so much discounting these schools could do and stay financially viable.


John Quiggin 02.26.20 at 6:35 pm

“Merit ought to be about optimal prospective contribution that our educational resource can make to the public good. ”

Taking that point further, the contribution would be maximized if every young person got the education best suited to their needs. But that would imply an admissions process that was essentially one of matching students and schools, rather than a struggle for one of a very limited number of desirable places. That in turn comes back to the stratified nature of post-school education systems, which is extreme in the US, but excessive nearly everywhere. School education is also excessively stratified, but not nearly as much so.


JanieM 02.26.20 at 6:54 pm

@Slanted Answer: “I will note that I’ve gone online and seen reviews of the college where students are complaining about the expense. That never happened when I was there.”

That’s must have been an unusual place, or era, or cohort of students. At the very least, it’s nothing like my own experience.

I started college at MIT in 1968 when the tuition was $2150 a year. It went up the following year to maybe $2250, and I saw my first, but certainly not my last, “tuition riot” — where people hollered, “twenty-two-fifty-is-too-damned-much.”

People complained about the expense a lot.

Also, what JQ said at #6.


J-D 02.26.20 at 9:33 pm

‘What does SLACS stand for?’ was my question as also asked by The Free Dictionary, which answers ‘Sloan Lens Advanced Camera for Surveys’, disregarding the appearance in other search results of the Southwest Leadership Academy Charter School.

I figured it out for myself eventually without assistance from Web searches, but I fancy mentioning that I did not find the initialism immediately (I hope you’ll forgive the reference) transparent.


eg 02.27.20 at 12:56 am

“One of the most opaque features of selective higher education is its mission. It’s opaque partly because there is real disagreement among the stakeholders, and even within each group of stakeholders, about what our purposes are”

Having spent over 30 years in K-12 education, most of it around administration and governance, I can assure you that this problem of identifying purpose is eternally contested and an endless political football at every level of education. I have come to the conclusion that it will always be so. While in some ways this is frustrating, it’s also hopeful, since it suggests a resistance to a potentially dangerous rigidity.


Harry 02.27.20 at 2:11 am

Orange Watch — that is a reasonably common, and scummy, practice. Deans have been fired for refusing to do it. One Dean of an eminent college found out his college was doing it about a month into his job and told his President he was going to stop it, so the President should decide, that minute, whether to fire him (he didn’t). It’s a very straightforward response to the incentives contained in the US News rankings formula, which does a lot of harm.

Slanted Answer — why the sticker price is so high is a complicated story, but I don’t think that signalling prestige is a big part of it. Most private colleges with high sticker prices don’t charge everyone the sticker price, and a good many charge hardly anyone the sticker price. There’s a lot of cross-subsidization from one kind of student to another. I’m not (at all) an expert on college costing/pricing, but one factor is anti-trust law — about half way through this piece in the Atlantic explains the way anti-trust law drove the increased use of merit aid starting in the early 90s.

Paul Reber — thanks! I’m thinking along similar lines, and have a post in formation (ie, not yet written) that’ll talk about this…


Sam Tobin-Hochstadt 02.27.20 at 3:07 am

I like this discussion a lot, but I think it’s not strong enough (perhaps wisely, given your immediate audience). The biggest problem with college admissions is the general incoherence about what the point of the selection process is. In general, “everyone” agrees that if a student from a disadvantaged background works her way up, gets too grades and test scores, and wants to go to UW Madison (or to IU, where I teach) they are an obvious candidate for acceptance, over someone who has bad grades, low test scores, and no particular outstanding attributes. But why is this the case? It’s often discussed in a way that makes admissions sound like a reward, but that’s clearly not what’s going on. Also it’s not at all clear that the first student would benefit more from the educational resources available. But how to articulate actual reasons here is very hard.


Alan White 02.27.20 at 4:16 am

Harry, great post and speech. I always saw myself as a public servant as part of the same UW system you serve, and as embodying service in the public interest. But as you know, our Badger state has for many years moved toward viewing the university as just another business, and what we need now is effective political strategy to reverse that trend. Unless we do, all that you say–and you say a lot of good things here–will be ignored as some sort of liberal rant by those who hold the purse strings. Our new governor is a start in the right direction, but we face huge barriers with larger issues like the extreme gerrymander we have here that favor the legislative business-modelers remaining in office.


SusanC 02.27.20 at 10:28 am

Well, I’m from the UK, whete -to pick a promonent example – Boris Johnson can get into Balliol College, Oxford. Which surely says something about admissions criteria…


Harry 02.27.20 at 1:42 pm

J-D — I guess that kind of proves my point about transparency being relative to the viewer! (Actually, in the talk I probably didn’t actually use the acronym, but everyone in the room would have understood if I did — but, eg, if I used it among colleagues many, including those who attended SLACs, wouldn’t understand it).

Sam T-H and JQ — there’s yet another dimension to that which is that what the college does (what the the educational resources are that it contains) is not exactly fixed; so you could ask of a cohort whether it is the one that will benefit most from what we offer, or you could ask whether it is the one that will benefit most from what we could offer if we changed what we do (within whatever limits there are to how we could change). Ie, in John’s terms, it wouldn’t just be matching the students to the school, but the school accommodating itself to get the best match.


Harry 02.27.20 at 1:47 pm

I am confident that Johnson met the standard admissions criteria, and that a contemporary equivalent would meet today’s criteria. All it says is that universities admit students who’ve already had huge amounts invested in developing their human capital, without regard to their moral character or the likelihood that they will do good or harm to the world (both hard to gauge in a systematic way, but presumably his teachers at Eton were fully informed and would have been regarded by an Oxford college as reliable witnesses).


LFC 02.27.20 at 7:48 pm

One of the key points in the OP is that universities, certainly in the U.S. and no doubt in other countries in varying degrees, operate in and are “framed by a social environment that has unequal opportunity built into its fabric.”

Operating in an unequal society means that universities, almost irrespective of whether
they want to or not, will be partly (not entirely or solely) engines for the reproduction of existing inequalities. No amount of affirmative action or similar initiatives in admissions will completely get rid of this. For instance, I favor the abolition of legacy preferences in admissions, but abolishing that preference will not abolish other ways, less obvious perhaps, of reproducing or reinforcing pre-existing advantages.

The good news (to the extent there is any) is that where one goes to college, while it’s not irrelevant to future “success,” has, I think, less of an impact on that than is often commonly assumed (at least in the U.S., at any rate). If you want to get into a prestigious grad program (particularly in certain fields) it probably helps, at least all other things being equal, to have a bachelor’s degree from a selective or elite school. But it’s not a make-or-break requirement: there are many who did well as undergrads at less-selective colleges and universities and went on to successful careers either in academia or outside of it (in “the real world”). And once in the workforce for a while, performance tends to count more than prestige of credentials, though the latter does make a difference at the entry level before one has shown what one can (or can’t) do outside of an academic setting.

Lastly, and as a side point, certain concerns about transparency or opacity in admissions apply more to public universities than private ones. Harry says at the end of the OP that he doesn’t necessarily want UW Madison to be overly transparent about the preference it gives to, say, rural applicants (or, say, race-based affirmative action) because it depends heavily on funding from state legislators who may not like these policies. But private universities do not depend on the favor of state legislators in this way and thus have no real excuse for not being as transparent as possible about how their admissions policies work.


Collin Street 02.27.20 at 11:43 pm

All it says is that universities admit students who’ve already had huge amounts invested in developing their human capital

For “invested”, read “sunk”, throughout.

[strikes me that how much effort it takes to educate a person — to put it more neutrally, instruction/learning elasticity — is a big part of the admissions assessment, and that “how much money/effort has it taken them to get where they are now” is a pretty damned good proxy for instruction/learning elasticity. And that therefore people who have had expensive educations — whether paid for by the state, by community members or privately — should have their marks derated in some way in the selection process.]


hix 02.28.20 at 1:33 am

Sometimes, live is so much easier when you´re German. No fuss, just go wherever you want and pay no fees.
(this is ofc not strictly true for the children of those in a similar social group as the typical crookedtimber reader, as those will make a big fuss about the best, possibly anglo-saxon University anyway, but the stakes are so much lower if one just ignores it all and goes to the next best place with the prefered distance to ones parents)


ph 02.28.20 at 4:36 am

Good post, Harry. Thank you. I see no need for transparency on admissions beyond those outlined in the application process.

My interest is in fudging. Fudging is rampant in many parts of society and is nothing new. We see it in budget requests, etc., etc., etc. I participated in a colloquium in Europe recently. The most reliable data results from labor-intensive research. Yet, the highest profile public intellectual in the field produces opinion, rather than data-driven analysis. Why is this accepted? Because data-driven analysis produces precisely the kind of incomplete picture you’re describing here. People, publishers, audiences prefer a hook, a story with a bow on the top, a clear answer rather than the ability to ask a better set of questions, which is what data-driven analysis provides. That’s in my research discipline.

Education? What a mess. We provide our students with so many mixed-messages it’s a miracle any complete assigned tasks without fudging. Those who do not resort to cheating, and or regurgitating one of the templates du jour are effectively penalized for playing by the ‘rules.’

Your posts on education remain a real bright spot at CT. I’ve been open about my own practices and have been asked (again) to sit on a panel to discuss best practices. (Cue the shrieks!). My own experience suggests that most university instructors are ruled by the well-grounded fear that they know little about teaching, and know practically nothing about the practices employed by successful teachers. That’s the major difference separating universities from other institutions, and K-12 education. Times change, most teachers I know are terrified of the changes. We need to quickly recognize that these young people are living in a world radically different from the one in which we ‘matured’.

So, what’s the solution to fudging? Insist every student provide a handwritten copy of every note taken in the process of completing an assignment, dated, with place I/C in-class O/C outside of class, and sourced with page numbers/urls. That takes care of most of those inclined to cheat.

What about the better students? A group of first-year seminar students asked in the fall term what they ‘had to do’ to earn a high grade on a major assignment. I explained they didn’t ‘have to do’ anything. But if they planned on earning a grade above a C, I’d need to be impressed by their work. (Groans, they too wanted the pretty picture.) The next class I presented them with twenty or so examples produced during previous years for which I’d awarded very high grades. I then explained that nothing delighted me more than awarding high grades, and that I was absolutely indifferent to mediocre work. Nobody would be punished for doing little – a pass is always available. But to be awarded a higher grade A, or above, the work would have to be clearly very superior to the work produced by the less motivated.

One student plagiarized. Most excelled. Seventy-five percent of that seminar’s students received the highest grades. One student produced one of the best pieces of work I’ve ever seen. Each year, the quality of work I receive from students improves, as they strive to improve upon the best work done by those who came before. If we permit/encourage mediocrity in our students, we’re letting them and everyone else down. Fortunately, pride and and the desire to compete remain deeply ingrained in most of us. That’s the part that hasn’t changed. And supporting students by engaging with them as people, finding their strengths, and encouraging them to do the work which produces their best makes teaching profoundly rewarding. The students feel proud of their own efforts and successes, and can pass these lessons along to others.

That’s the mission. We become better people by doing the work. That’s a fact all students understand.


Rob Chametzky 02.28.20 at 10:26 pm

Once upon a time and a pretty good time is was I did what we called “selection” at an Ivy League school—Cornell. Some details of first-hand experience in this untransparent activity might be of interest for readers and posters to this thread.

At Cornell, the central “admissions office” did no admitting of anyone; selection was a prerogative of the constituent schools/colleges, one jealously guarded. In our college, the College of Liberal Arts (“Arts”), selection was done by Deans (basically people with PhDs whose academic careers had, in one way or another, gone bad, but who were not, for whatever reasons (yet) soured on academia as such) and by faculty, for whom selection was an avenue for discharging the “service” requirement of their appointments. This was before the recent orders-of-magnitude explosion of numbers of applications, so we had only in the thousands, not tens of thousands, to read and pass judgment on. I do not know whether or how procedures have morphed in response to this change.

Faculty did not, on their first read, see the ‘academic’, part of an application; that is, they did not see or know test scores or high school grades. They read only the “written” parts of an application–the formal essays and the short answer sections.—and extracurriculars. After discussion, they did then see the academic parts. Sometimes there would be a second faculty read, ordinarily by another faculty member, though the faculty members could request doing a second read themselves.

Faculty responses, especially when strong, were to be taken very seriously, for otherwise their continuing involvement was thought to be unlikely, and their participation was a point of pride. Strangely, it was not something widely trumpeted, though it was never hidden. If prospective students/families came to campus for information sessions, it was pointed out, and if anyone asked (by phone/email/whatever) about the process, this aspect was duly noted, even highlighted.

Here are just two instances of very strong faculty responses which were decisive for applicants.

One, by a faculty member whose name I expect would be known to many CTers, said “NO! Under no circumstances would I want this person in my class . . . or on my campus!” This about an applicant whose ‘academic’ record was immaculate, an ultra-1%er. The “implied author”, if I might, of the writing involved, was, the professor argued, an arrogant, nasty, self-satisfied, and entitled male the type of which there were more than enough (say, one) on the campus at any time. The professor made a strong and compelling case, and the applicant was duly rejected.

The second, a sort of flip-side, came across as both disarming and admirable, a high school student doing actual good in a small community in “fly-over” America, in writing that was movingly naïve-sounding. Did this person meet the (somewhat vague) thresholds of “admissibility”? Yes, but not by much. The (different) faculty member again argued cogently: if this applicant is rejected, then we are saying that effectively no one with this admissible academic record (and no special hook—being a recruited athlete being about the best one, even, yes, in the Ivy League) can be accepted to Arts. And that, said the faculty member, is what is not acceptable, I shall not take part in this process again, and I shall tell others they should not. The applicant, unsurprisingly, was offered admission.

I would note, too, that outstanding essays, ones that could (though didn’t always have to) make a difference were passed around, both to reassure that such gems existed and, no small thing, for the pleasure they gave amidst all the reading and discussing of so much that was drearily predictable in its ‘excellence’.

Here’s something that we were not transparent about. Applications were read geographically. Arts means to be a National College, not one drawing on only a few regions of the US. Arts could have been academically as selective as it wanted to be with students drawn from 5 or so states, but that was not to be allowed. So applications were grouped by where in the US they came from, and, for the states with extremely large numbers of applicants, there were quite fine-grained geographic groupings. And then there were target numbers of “accepts” for each grouping, based in large part on the historic “yield” from that place—if you accept them, do they come? So from some groupings one might in fact accept virtually all the admissible applicants because the number of them might be relatively small and/or the yield might be relatively bad, and so applicants who would have basically no chance were they from somewhere else were admitted—and vice versa, of course.

Were there other special hooks besides recruited athletes? Yes. Were we transparent about them. No. Did they include legacies? Yes. Faculty/staff offspring? Yes (though this was nowhere officially stated).

Here’s another status no one knew about: ‘guaranteed transfer’. This was something offered to an applicant to whom it was felt admission could not be offered due to something in the academic record that just didn’t (quite) measure up, but whom, for other reasons, Arts would like to admit. So: applicant, go to another school for one year, take a full schedule of (real) classes—we’ll work with you if you like on where and what—do well—we’ll work with you on that too—and we GUARANTEE that you can transfer to Arts after that first year. Arts NEEDS to know that you can handle college level work as we THINK you can. Who might get such as strange decision? Faculty offspring; underrepresented minorities; STRONG legacies (they come in gradations).

Did I ever have to change a negative decision on account of family pull (viz., money)? No. But that was because the College would take such a possible reversal out of the hands of those at the lower levels and move it up into the higher levels of Deaning, and possibly above. At those higher levels, the ‘wider interests’ of the College and the University could come into play, while those down below could honestly, if somewhat misleadingly, say that they never were pressured to change an admission decision for such reasons. How did Highers Up know when to take over such a case? Those applications were noted and notated before selection decisions began.

Did we worry about and discuss these aspects of what we were doing. Yes. Did we do anything? No,—but then, we could rationalize, we weren’t in a structural position to do anything, except, perhaps, try to admit applicants who didn’t have applications that generally enabled admission. But the first lesson I learned from the Dean-in-charge, and not when doing selection, but rather when doing “actions” (viz., dealing with students who were floundering or failing academically) was that Arts did NOT admit students not able to do the work. The point here was that academic problems were NEVER academic; they were always something else, coming out as academic problems. So to admit applicants significantly different academically from those generally admitted could likely undermine commitment to this state of affairs, and Arts was not much into academic remediation.

With respect to “mission” Cornell claimed great transparency, having been given it by The Founder (Ezra Cornell): “I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study”. Of course, how an Ivy League institution fleshes out this motto is not so obvious . . . or done so transparently. One tactic was to emphasize that the first “any” is not “every”. . . .

But then, the OP’s “the duty we have to attend to the public good” is not really much more than another motto, either. How does “public good” get fleshed out? Presumably that is where transparency comes into play or could. Still, positions about “public good” range all the way down to various forms of skepticism about there being anything workable here (viz., nothing coherent at all; too many that are equally good/bad; incommensurable alternatives), so how would transparency help exactly?

Here’s one way, signaled by this from the OP: “instead of seeing merit as something possessed by the applicant, we see it as something possessed by the cohort that we create, in relation to the institution they inhabit, and the public good to which, in concert, they can contribute.” This goes along with what we did at Cornell in ‘building a class’. What we were doing, what OP is almost transparent about here, is that (for some purposes) the applicant is being treated as a means to an end that is plausibly not the applicant’s own in applying (or being a student). It might even be suggested that the OP, and our practices at Cornell, treated the applicants, as applicants, only as a means to ends not (obviously or perhaps at all) their own. And while that might well be something to be transparent about, might it not be an example where, in OP’s words, “transparency is risky”?

This has evidently gone on too long already, so I’ll make one last, unrelated point. Right now, among (highly) selective institutions, the University of Chicago is by far the most transparent with respect to costs. It says straight out on its website that if your household income is $125,000 or less, you will pay no tuition, that if it is $60,000 or less, further room/board aid will be added, and that it does its aid without any loans. If you apply for financial aid, the application fee is waived. Moreover, it also points out that it has its own free, short Financial Aid Worksheet, basically FAFSA, so that no one need fill out the College Board’s CSS Profile, for which there is a charge, which is much longer and more intrusive, and serves only to allow schools to justify (to itself) reducing the amount of “assessed need” an applicant has.

Here’s a link should anyone want to look

–Rob Chametzky

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