If nothing else, Sunday’s New York Times story on pricey consultancies helping well-heeled students get into the selective university or college of their choice was memorable for the juxtaposition of a quote from Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, who describes admissions consultancies as snake-oil salesman, followed several paragraphs later by the former dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania talking about his admissions consultancy.
The story makes most of the consultants look bad before there’s any need to consider the nature of their business, with their ridiculously high fees, shaky salesmanship and questionable credentials. Some of them, according to the Times story, at least imply that they can place clients through pulling strings and trading on personal connections. Given what we’ve heard about some public university systems in the last few months, that’s not a totally absurd thing to imply, but from what I know, selective private institutions don’t exactly work that way. The money and fame of an applicant’s family may influence the decision at some institutions and most places treat legacies as a privileged category as well, but for the most part that’s all done indirectly. A consultant who rang up an admissions staffer would probably come off as terribly vulgar and Not-Done in most cases.
Still, I think Amy Gutmann and her peers at other selective institutions might want to own up to their own responsibility for creating a market niche for snake oil.
A colleague of mine once suggested that we should just make admission to Swarthmore a pure lottery for any candidates who met high minimum threshold criteria for admissions. In his view, trying to build a class that is somehow perfectly engineered in terms of a mix of temperments, talents, life experiences, intellectual dispositions and the like is not just a Rube-Goldbergesque nightmare, but also involves a whole range of shifting, ad hoc and quite specific value judgments about merit and potential that get made in a very non-transparent way within the black box of the admissions process.
I didn’t like that idea when he suggested it, because I have some continuing investment in the machinery of selective admissions on the basis of various congruent and sometimes clashing ideas about merit. Giving up on the idea that we can evaluate the relative merit and particular suitability of an applicant pool for a given college or university feels to me like giving up on meritocratic advancement as a whole. Which I suspect is my colleague’s view as well, that meritocracy is a bogus veneer papering over the embedded power of social class.
Against that, I can only say that there are some jobs which are genuinely important beyond just paying a salary to the person doing them, and some people do those jobs far better than other people. Equally, there are students who flourish in higher education in ways that benefit their institutions as well as themselves. It may be that there is no best-practices process that can reliably predict who those people are, nothing that can beat a random selection. I’m not prepared to give up on the idea that we can do better just yet.
However, it’s important not to do worse, to so mystify the process of trying to identify merit that you spew collateral cultural and social damage out on the wider society. The admissions consultancies may be a symptomatic sign of that kind of damage stemming from the opacity of selective admissions.
A prospective applicant to a highly selective university or college can fairly readily “chance” themselves in terms of test scores, grade-point averages and preparation. Applicants who are well within the typical qualifications then often know what kinds of straightforward additional criteria might give their application greater weight: from underrepresented regions, from underrepresented identity groups, distinctive athletic experience, unusual degree of specific academic preparation.
Where it gets sticky, at which point some admissions consultants move in with their snake-oil, is that further distinctions of merit that may be used to admit one qualified candidate and reject another come to rest on an applicant’s life experiences, expressions and evidence of inner character, subtle evidence of suitability for a particular institution’s expressed culture, creativity of an essay and so on. Something that gives an admissions officer a “feel” for the individuality of a particular candidate.
All of that kind of evaluation is the devil’s playground. I really have met people who have a form of emotional intelligence that lets them size up another person pretty quickly and predict how much they’ll contribute to a project or team. I’ve met people who are really bad at doing that, and quite a few of the latter either don’t know that they’re bad at it or are never made accountable for being bad at it because it takes four or six or ten years to discover just how bad they are. Most of us, I think, are in between those poles: we guess right sometimes and wrong other times, and sometimes when we’re right, we’re right for the wrong reasons, and vice-versa.
It’s easier to talk about the visible effects that being judged on subtle signs of character and potential have on an incoming group of students. For one, it forces 18-year olds to pretend to be finished, accomplished adults, to narrate a life for themselves which is already full of accomplishment, already garnished with epiphanies. Which, if not an active lie, is usually at least an exaggeration.
For the applicants who know that this self they’re describing is an invention, the only damage is contributing to their cynicism about process. For the applicants who really come to believe in this presentation of self, the consequences can be more damaging. What do they have left to learn now that they’ve arrived at college? They’re already intellectually complete. What surprises does experience have in store for them that they’ve not already experienced? I see this sometimes especially with students who have a political or social project outside the classroom that they’d like to accomplish: they don’t approach that work as an open-ended exploration with uncertain ends because they’re still locked into a rhetoric that describes those commitments as already finished and known, already rooted in an orthodox style, where all consequences and processes are always already anticipated.
I think that kind of attitude is essentially taught by the selective admissions process, by trying to match up to the mysterious judgments about merit that circulate at its hidden core. I’d like to say that we should say instead that we’re looking for evidence of curiosity, humility, openness to exploration, maybe even a certain kind of ordinariness. But given the nature of the process, all that would produce is a wave of 18-year olds obediently producing an account of themselves as more curious, more humble, more open and more ordinary than other applicants, in a few cases with the help of expensive consultants skilled in advising applicants about the social semiotics of teenage humility.
So maybe my colleague is right: there’s no way to transparently or secretly match up our real institutional values and aspirations with applicants who are really going to flourish in terms of those values and aspirations.