Passages to Meritocracy

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.

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8 Responses to Passages to Meritocracy

  1. David Chudzicki says:

    Wouldn’t an applicant who came off as “already intellectually complete” be rejected out of hand? So maybe I’m just idealistic, but I’d like to think that even if it’s still just about acting the part, the admissions process (at least at, say, Swarthmore) already asks for what you want.

    And even if the curiosity would be an act, shouldn’t there be a flip side to your comments about the damage done by incentivizing applicants to present themselves as “finished, accomplished adults”? That looking for “curiosity, humility, openness to exploration” could actually shape people to those qualities? And I would guess that selecting for people who can act them well does a better-than-chance job of actually getting people who have them.

    As an aside, the rhetoric about ‘matching’ institutions to students always seems kind of overblown. Sure there are (and should be) some differences between institutions, but (for example) it seems like “curiosity, humility, openness to exploration” should be pretty universally valued by undergraduate institutions, even if they aren’t presently.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    I’m sure that most selective institutions say that they’re looking for curious, exploratory, and so on. And yeah, when it comes down to it, mostly they’re looking for the same thing, not a perfect ‘match’ to the imaginary cultural niche each institution supposedly inhabits.

    But at the same time, the whole process powerfully incentivizes applicants to stress their distinctiveness from other applicants and to give an account of themselves as unusually accomplished in some important respect. Which in fact many applicants are, and continue to be as undergraduates. But I really do think we push applicants to imagine a story of their lives at 18 in which it’s not sufficient to say, “I’ve done very well in school up to this point, I’m a strong writer and thinker, I’m interested in literature and history, and on weekends I go orienteering with my parents”. Because that’s not enough to give an admissions officer a reason to admit you over the many others who could give a completely identical description of themselves. And yet, probably there are lots of 18-year olds with that description who would flourish perfectly well in a highly selective college or university. So parents who have either the most knowledge of the process or who have the money to hire a consultant who does end up helping an applicant shape themselves to look more distinctive, more accomplished, more “finished” than someone else. And I really do see that process carrying over with a small constituency of students who continue to narrate their projects and commitments that way, sometimes to the detriment of the project and the student.

  3. AndrewSshi says:

    This business kind of leads me to wonder what the point is of the private college and university is other than maintaining the class structure. In most state universities, a student will get access to faculty who are just as good as those at a private institution, but with the added benefit of not having the financial aid officer tell one’s parents, “An education at [elite school] is worth taking out a second mortgage.” In addition, most have a decent enough placement system that outside of the good ol’ boy network of the Ivies, you’ll still get the kind of job you’d like after graduation.

  4. Western Dave says:

    “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.”

    You would be surprised how many parents, even at an independent school like mine, where parents tend to be rich in real and/or intellectual capital, haven’t even made it this far. I help kids all the time as part of my job, and that elusive quality of fit is hard to figure out. Parents, for the most part, rely on where their friends’ kids are going and often have no idea about schools beyond those they attended and their rivals. Trying to sell a family to at least look at Lewis and Clark/Reed/Pomona/Colorado College as a viable options to East Coast liberal arts colleges. The familiarity that folks like us take for granted (having applied for jobs at every institution imaginable), is simply not widespread.

    Kids are also very confused about essays and interviews. When I mock interview my students, they all say as their defining characteristic, that they “are hardworking.” I’m talking about kids who have: made brilliant movies on their laptops integrating academic work and an usual outside interest, participated in and documented photographically in a stunning art piece a habitat for humanity women’s build over the course of a year, independently researched Catholic theology by taking seminary classes, and so on. Yet when asked “what sets you apart?” They all say, “Well, I’m very hardworking.”

    That said, some college consultants, particularly in NY, play on fears to charge outrageous fees. But even those folks are often being paid simply to manage the expectations of parents who seem to think Bs and second team all-city wrestling are good enough to get Johnny Whitebread into Yale. For some reason, hearing the college guidance counselor say, “you know there are some wonderful options beyond the Ivies” doesn’t cut it but paying $5,000 or more (often beyond the private school tuition of 40k) to have the consultant say “I’m good but no miracle worker” the message gets heard.

    Then again, are these college consultants all that different from a crooked mechanic who keeps not quite fixing your car as you spend good dollar after bad trying to locate the problem?

    As long as the range of options is so huge, there will be a need for college consultants. And as long as there is a need, there will be people preying on the rich and gullible. Insert Madoff quip here.

  5. Western Dave says:

    Re: AndrewSShi’s comment about private vs. public colleges and unis. It’s not the quality of the faculty that sets them apart, it’s the structure of the classes, access, and skills work that private colleges often demand. It’s no accident that almost my whole graduate cohort at Midwestern U had attended small liberal arts colleges and private unis like Hopkins. And almost all of us were more successful than our comrades who came from the UC system. And almost nobody was from Big 10 type schools. Those schools simply don’t do a good job with teaching undergraduates much of anything except for the very few who are in the equivalent of Michigan’s Residential College, MSU’s James Madison etc..

  6. AndrewSshi says:

    Dave, I can only tell you my observations from my own graduate program, but over the last six years, I haven’t really noticed a substantial difference in quality between folks who’d been to state schools and those who’d been to elite schools. And this took a while for me to notice, especially because when I’m around folks from the Ivies/Oxbridge, my forelock-tugging, I-am-in-the-presence-of-my-betters instinct kicks into overdrive. But once I finally got to the point where I *could* notice such things, the quality spread tended to be fairly even. There certainly didn’t seem to be a special something that would justify a second mortgage’s worth of difference in the price.

  7. G. Weaire says:

    “You would be surprised how many parents, even at an independent school like mine, where parents tend to be rich in real and/or intellectual capital, haven??t even made it this far. I help kids all the time as part of my job, and that elusive quality of fit is hard to figure out. Parents, for the most part, rely on where their friends?? kids are going and often have no idea about schools beyond those they attended and their rivals.”

    I’m glad Dave posted this. I couldn’t agree more – I think it’s true of very many middle-class Americans that

    a) the college admissions process is a black box. It’s part of the general non-transparency about how higher ed. works.

    b) parents tend to draw on their own experience when they went to college – at a time when things worked very differently.

    c) there are still significant numbers of Americans for whom “going to college” is the goal in itself, without thinking too much beyond that. I know at least one very talented and capable person whom I’d say was positively disadvantaged by that – this person’s parents weren’t equipped by their background to think beyond the nearest, most familiar, option. It may not have made too much difference in the long run, but I’m sure that it made some.

    More generally, I’ve been bothered by “Judging the candidate as a person” element in admissions since I moved to the US – it was so radically different from the way things worked in Ireland and seemed too subjective and manipulable. But I’ve come round to the view that American society isn’t in a position to muster consensus on what constitutes “merit.”

  8. north says:

    But I??ve come round to the view that American society isn??t in a position to muster consensus on what constitutes ??merit.??

    I think this is pretty accurate.

    As far as fit goes: Swarthmore strikes me as a clear example of a school where fit matters, but where the admissions office isn’t perfect at picking it out. There were a number of students I knew there who went because it was the ‘best’ school they got into, but they didn’t care for the [nerdy, obsessively intellectual] culture, and so they disliked the whole expensive, difficult experience. These people were mostly wealthy/upper-middle-class and from the East Coast, and it really did seem to be a matter of reproducing their class role: they couldn’t go to UConn or Rutgers or whatever because they wouldn’t ‘get the same opportunities.’ Whatever. I think that was a supremely dumb way to make a decision, but I’ve always privileged the quality of an experience over the status markers involved, so that’s my bias.

    About what Western Dave and AndrewSshi have been discussing: I’m not in grad school (yet), but I have friends who went to a variety of institutions. My view is that small liberal arts colleges with good teaching (like Swarthmore) offer a far more reliably awesome education (in terms of pushing students to be able to participate intelligently in discussions, write interesting papers, think on their feet, etc) than either high-status Ivies or state schools. At larger schools, the critical variable for the education is the student in question: the guy I knew who went to Harvard and was a serious go-getter got some opportunities he never would have gotten at Swarthmore, and has really gotten what he wanted out of the experience; my friend at Harvard who is fairly shy and felt at odds with the culture there would probably have done better somewhere smaller and less status-conscious. I have friends who got amazing educations at state schools, but it’s because they were very proactive and really sought out learning opportunities.

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