Eye of the needle, again (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

The US college admissions scandal is rolling on, seemingly endlessly. There’s been a lot of discussion of moral decay, hypocrisy and more. But no one seems to have mentioned the central point. The number of places in the Ivy League and similar schools has remained almost unchanged for decades, even as the demand for those places has been swelled by a wide range of factors, most notably by the growth in all forms of inequality, which is mediated in part by unequal access to education. Parents who want their children to maintain their position in the scale, or climb upwards, need to facilitate that access if they can.

There’s no fair way of allocating that limited set of places*, and, even if there were, the existing system is full of arbitrary roadblocks to some and loopholes for others. The standard way of allocating scarce goods in a market system is through willingness to pay, and that plays a big role in the process. But since an open market isn’t an option, willingness to pay isn’t enough on its own, and can’t be tied to directly to the admission decision. What you want, as this story says of Harvard is “well-off, multi-generational Harvard families [who] pay higher tuition and give more money” (ideally over a long period). Unsurprisingly, parents with money, but without the required social access have sought more direct methods of buying a way in for their children.

Catching and prosecuting a few parents isn’t going to change this, and neither is any reform of the admissions system. The problem can only be resolved by reducing inequality in society as a whole, and particularly, by increasing access to high quality post-school education. I have no clear idea how this goal should be pursued in the US, given the stratification entrenched in the system. Given the numbers involved, there’s a strong case for focusing on free access and more funding for community colleges, ideally with a transition path to four-year institutions. But I don’t understand the system well enough to know whether this would work. Regardless, the US case provides a warning for countries like Australia, where the leading universities (the so-called “Group of 8”) are keen to put more distance between themselves and the rest.

  • An system based solely on test scores, such as the SAT, would not be as obviously arbitrary as the current one. But it would clearly favor those with the resources to get test prep tutoring and so on. The Japanese example is not encouraging, at least from a distance.

11 thoughts on “Eye of the needle, again (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

  1. How will promoting free access increase the supply of positions? Entry presumably reflects both financial costs and a student’s academic CV. Increasing financial costs means less weight can be placed on academic record and visa versa but the issue of inequality of access – which I guess should be addressed – doesn’t seem to have much to do with increasing supply.

    Why the obsession with going to the very top schools even for the best students. There is evidence that sending good students to second tier institutions and compensating them with valuable scholarships has large externality benefits for other students and leaves the excellent students no worse off. And second-tier in the US system is still very good. You don’t want all the best students feeding into a few Ivy League schools.

    I wonder too if charging very high fees to second tier students for entry into top schools would do damage net. The fees could be used to provide scholarships to less wealthy but more able students at these institutions. The better students would still get the best grades.

  2. The number of places in the Ivy League and similar schools has remained almost unchanged for decades, even as the demand for those places has been swelled by a wide range of factors, most notably by the growth in all forms of inequality, which is mediated in part by unequal access to education.

    I believe the best thing to do in those circumstances is to reduce inequality and to tax the wealthy much more heavily.

    As someone who worked in various government offices for 30 years with a large number of tertiary educated folk with irrelevant and pointless degrees (myself included, I have a social science degree that was nice to get but pointless in terms of usefulness to the economy) I strongly oppose any further expansion of the tertiary education sector. To my mind, much of the tertiary sector is already little more than **warehousing** caused by too many folk chasing too few jobs.

    Ideally, Australia and the US would have an extensive Scandinavian style welfare state and high taxes. This would mean we could all have a decent life even if we lack the smarts, connections, money or luck to score a tier one or tier two university spot followed by a high paying job.

  3. Germany does just fein without elite universities. More importantly no society needs to have resources misallocated by the population locked in an educational arms race to prevent some people from being left behind economically. A reasonably run society needs to have a proper balance of chiefs and indians. Sorry if that sounds racist but I think in a language which just happens to express itself in this manner.
    If it to achieve this balance that I support a government job guarrantee. To start from the beginning I propose that education at a government (public) school be mandatory starting the first Sept. after a child has turned 7 years old. That education will last for 10 years. it will be equal to the 12 years that Americans get now. Or be equivelent to a German Realschule Abschluss. After that the goverment will guarrantee a job to everyone who graduates the pays at least 25 Real Oodles per hour. But if a person does not like the type of jobs that are available after 10 years of schooling they could go to an additional 3 years of schooling free. This would be the equivelant of a current bachelor degree in the USA or a Gymnasium Abitur in Germany. After that a graduate would be guaranteed a job at 20 Real Oodles per hour. Yes that is less money for going to school longer. Any further free (certified) education will be only at the invitation of the government.
    Some people may object to being forced to send their children to a government school where they will be taught things that the parents may object to. If parents object to having their children taught that the world is round, or that pregnencies can be prevented with condoms, they can send their kids to private schools AFTER normal school hours. These schools will also be monitored by the government to insure that they do not teach unreasonable things like homosexuals should be killed. But they would be allowed to reasonable things that might otherwise be left out of a standard education like in 2019 it would be perfectly reasonable to kidnap an Army General and torture him/her for weeks with things like electrical shocks to the nipples and after the two weeks are over to douse them in diesle fuel and set them ablaze. If a school feels slighted by not being able to teach that homosexuals should be burned alive then they can challenge the government in an open court in which jury nullification rules apply.
    Some people might complain that this vision of education does not conform to how an economy actually operates. The thing is there is no automatic way that any economy operates. It is up to a government to decide how an economy will operate. The government needs to design the economy around the education system not design the exucation system around the economy.

  4. Hugo, good comment.

    Harry Clarke says in a respectable manner something like Curt is saying.

    Curt’s International examples are useful.

    Curt’s rhetoric imho is not worthy of an old white bigot aho8uting at clouds and…

    JQ Curt – at a minimum – needs to be red carded – as Hugo and I have both pointed out previously.

    If this oasses as acceptable rhetoric here “like in 2019 it would be perfectly reasonable to kidnap an Army General and torture him/her for weeks with things like electrical shocks to the nipples and after the two weeks are over to douse them in diesle fuel and set them ablaze” … the JQ, your worthy contributions to the greater good will be diminished an opened up for attack.

    If we were at the pub Curt, as I have personal experience of kidnap, or at the wake, your fire balls would fall on you. So you are I believe an online only troll of the weakest order of commenters with or without worthy useful examples to clothe your incendiary rhetoric..

    Many here are just too polite to hold the mirror to you ugliness.

  5. Somewhat relatedly, Emmanuel Macron has proposed the abolition of ENA, the ultra-elite post graduate institution whose graduates go on to become leaders in the French civil service, business and politics. (Macron himself is a alumnus). If you think the Ivy League or Oxbridge are exclusive, they are nothing compared to ENA, which admits just 100 students per year. But unlike them entrance to ENA is based on competitive examinations that anybody can take. (Of course the chances of anyone who didn’t receive an elite school and university or grand ecole education succeeding in these exams is next to zero.)

  6. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/apr/16/calling-bullshit-college-class-news-information

    places available or not, any chance of having something like this in Oz?

    and also,maybe a bit of attention given to status/respect/realistic appreciation, of the people who individually and collectively keep the joint up and running.

    personally, the “money trumps skills” banner is, to me, a tattered dusty rag fit for nothing but the compost heap.

    (not in a good mood(oh dear))

  7. Yes. What the US needs is an expanded system of free, or near free, community colleges, so that any kid who shows the talent and inclination can go to college. Community college already offer a straightforward path to good four-year degrees for the students who do well (e.g. transfer to the UC system for community colleges in California). The argument about admissions to Harvard is really beside the point, since attending a top selective college like Harvard gives only a very small advantage over attending any decent four-year college like the nearby Brandeis, Boston University, and Boston College (let alone MIT, which has ability based admissions). The real issue is that talent is spread roughly equally across income groups and geographic area, and currently a large proportion of possible Nobel prize winners and tech entrepreneurs have no realistic path at all to go to college. Once they start in a community college, the road opens. It’s that first step that has to be made easier.

  8. I forgot to mention that for those who are to physically or mentally handicapped to be employed. Or for those who are to socially disfunctional to be employed, but have not committed a crime, is where the Universal Basic Income should come in. Of course unemployment payments should not be abolished for those who just need a temporary helping hand in between jobs.
    If someone raises fears of inflation due to “coddling” the workers of society, my response is that the governments concern for preventing poverty should vastly outweigh the governments concern for inflation.
    No society needs people with an MBA or a macro economics degreee driving a dump truck. In fact the dump truck drivers are more important. Hell, I should get an economics Nobel prize for my proposed income tax rates. But I will not even get a mention in any Parliment. That shows how worthless a degree in macro economics is. Sociologists make better economists than economists, collextively speaking.
    Speaking of Nobel Prizes, I should get one for my proposal of the overhall of world court systems too, But that was so easy that no one in the world’s legal system has the balls to bring it up. It is just to embarrassing for them.

    PS considering the time differences I think that I should delay my post about Jury Nullification until Friday Morning German Time so that it will be Friday evening Australian time.

  9. JQ you said: “But I don’t understand the system well enough to know whether this would work.”
    If you want to understand… links below by locals who use US colleges on “increasingly competitive college admissions much more than you wanted to know”.

    Really – more detail than you want to know…

    … the highlights from 340 comments from above…

    Plus reddit discussion of discussion…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s