College admissions voodoo

Posted: Apr 15, 2005 12:00 AM

Every year about this time, high school students get letters of admission -- or rejection -- from colleges around the country. The saddest part of this process is not their rejections but the assumption by some students that they were rejected because they just didn't measure up to the high standards of Ivy U. or their flagship state university.

 The cold fact is that objective admissions standards are seldom decisive at most colleges. The admissions process is so shot through with fads and unsubstantiated assumptions that it is more like voodoo than anything else.

 A student who did not get admitted to Ivy U. may be a better student than some -- or even most -- of those who did. Admissions officials love to believe that they can spot all sorts of intangibles that outweigh test scores and grade-point averages.

 Such notions are hardly surprising in people who pay no price for being wrong. All sorts of self-indulgences are possible when people are unaccountable, whether they be college admissions officials, parole boards, planning commissions or copy-editors.

 What is amazing is that nobody puts the notions and fetishes of college admissions offices to a test. Nothing would be easier than to admit half of a college's entering class on the basis of objective standards, such as test scores, and the other half according to the voodoo of the admissions office. Then, four years later, you could compare how the two halves of the class did.

 But apparently this would not be politic.

 Among the many reasons given for rejecting objective admissions standards is that they are "unfair." Much is made of the fact that high test scores are correlated with high family income.

 Very little is made of the statistical principle that correlation is not causation. Practically nothing is made of the fact that, however a student got to where he is academically, that is in fact where he is -- and that is usually a better predictor of where he is going to go than is the psychobabble of admissions committees.

 The denigration of objective standards allows admissions committees to play little tin gods, who think that their job is to reward students who are deserving, sociologically speaking, rather than to select students who can produce the most bang for the buck from the money contributed by donors and taxpayers for the purpose of turning out the best quality graduates possible.

 Typical of the mindset that rejects the selection of students in the order of objective performances was a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education which said that colleges should "select randomly" from a pool of applicants who are "good enough." Nowhere in the real world, where people must face the consequences of their decisions, would such a principle be taken seriously.

 Lots of pitchers are "good enough" to be in the major leagues but would you just as soon send one of those pitchers to the mound to pitch the deciding game of the World Series as you would send Randy Johnson or Roger Clemens out there with the world championship on the line?

 Lots of military officers were considered to be "good enough" to be generals in World War II but troops who served under General Douglas MacArthur or General George Patton had more victories and fewer casualties. How many more lives would you be prepared to sacrifice as the price of selecting randomly among generals considered to be "good enough"?

 If you or your child had to have a major operation for a life-threatening condition, would you be just as content to have the surgery done by anyone who was "good enough" to be a surgeon, as compared to someone who was a top surgeon in the relevant specialty?

 The difference between first-rate and second-rate people is enormous in many fields. In a college classroom, marginally qualified students can affect the whole atmosphere and hold back the whole class.

 In some professions, a large part of the time of first-rate people is spent countering the half-baked ideas of second-rate people and trying to salvage something from the wreckage of the disasters they create. "Good enough" is seldom good enough.