Dec 4, 2012

Why We Should Care about Admission Policy at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton

Ron Unz has a fascinating read in The American Conservative about the admissions policies of elite schools. It's an extraordinarily long piece, and I hesitate to summarize it (it badly needed a heavy edit, but it's still really worth a read), but mostly it documents at length evidence of an anti-Asian and pro-Jewish bias in elite school admissions and discusses several possible solutions. It's uncomfortable in spots, especially the parts making a case that there has been a "collapse in Jewish academic achievment," meaning that according to Unz American Jews have gone from tremendously academically successful, with massive over-representation in educational awards, to something like about the average for all Americans. Here's a taste:
The U.S. Math Olympiad began in 1974, and all the names of the top scoring students are easily available on the Internet. During the 1970s, well over 40 percent of the total were Jewish, and during the 1980s and 1990s, the fraction averaged about one-third. However, during the thirteen years since 2000, just two names out of 78 or 2.5 percent appear to be Jewish. The Putnam Exam is the most difficult and prestigious mathematics competition for American college students, with five or six Putnam winners having been selected each year since 1938. Over 40 percent of the Putnam winners prior to 1950 were Jewish, and during every decade from the 1950s through the 1990s, between 22 percent and 31 percent of the winners seem to have come from that same ethnic background. But since 2000, the percentage has dropped to under 10 percent, without a single likely Jewish name in the last seven years.
His explanation for this is pretty stark:
Several possible explanations for this empirical result seem reasonably plausible. Although the innate potential of a group is unlikely to drop so suddenly, achievement is a function of both ability and effort, and today’s overwhelmingly affluent Jewish students may be far less diligent in their work habits or driven in their studies than were their parents or grandparents, who lived much closer to the bracing challenges of the immigrant experience. In support of this hypothesis, roughly half of the Jewish Math Olympiad winners from the last two decades have had the sort of highly distinctive names which would tend to mark them as recent immigrants from the Soviet Union or elsewhere, and such names were also very common among the top Jewish science students of the same period, even though this group represents only about 10 percent of current American Jews. Indeed, it seems quite possible that this large sudden influx of very high performing immigrant Jews from the late 1980s onward served to partially mask the rapid concurrent decline of high academic achievement among native American Jews, which otherwise would have become much more clearly evident a decade or so earlier.
Meanwhile, says Unz, Asians have done about the opposite, but the Ivy League has instituted a strict Asian quota even as Asians' percentage of the population has grown and they have come to completely dominate the most competitive academic awards for the young, much as what happened with Jews back at the turn of the 20th century.

I obviously don't have the background to critique this evidence, and I also wouldn't build a national policy around it without a lot more study, but I wouldn't dismiss it out of hand either. Liberals have trouble with frank discussions of race sometimes, and I think here we can assume good faith.

Anyway, Unz's solution for all this is a lottery system for most of the slots for the top schools:
(say) 300 slots or around 20 percent of each entering class are allocated based on pure academic merit (the “Inner Ring”), with the remaining 1300 slots being randomly selected from the 30,000 or so American applicants considered able to reasonably perform at the school’s required academic level and thereby benefit from a Harvard education (the “Outer Ring”).
My colleague Daniel Luzer is not impressed by such schemes:
In truth it doesn’t really matter who goes to Yale or Dartmouth. Such people, to extend Unz’s (somewhat debatable) claim, get a chance to enter the American aristocracy. Good for them. But admission to the elite is necessarily unfair.
The important things here is how most people live and are educated. It’s true that a Yale degree might help a great deal with securing a good job at Goldman Sachs. But all we need to worry about from a policy perspective is what you need to be a bank branch manager in suburban Atlanta.
Admission to the upper class is, for all societies and throughout all time, unfair and based on some combination of talent, luck, and favoritism.
I do like the bald assertion here that "meritocracy," at least regarding who gets to join the elite, is for now and all eternity impossible. That seems true. I further agree that the policies of super-elite schools don't matter a lick for the education of the broad mass of people—your average schlub isn't even going to think about applying to Harvard, and it's far more important in any case to have enormous, good-enough public schools to educate the masses. (And this line is great: "it’s very important what Goldman Sachs does; it’s not at all important who works there.")

But I also think Daniel sells Unz's idea somewhat short. He says that it doesn't matter who goes to Yale or Dartmouth. But consider: six of the last ten presidents went to just Harvard, Yale, or Princeton at some point in their careers. That speaks of a whopping great influence those institutions have on the production of the elite class. And one of the biggest problems of the last few decades is the piss-poor quality of elites we've produced. In his book Chris Hayes proposes that societies based on meritocratic ideals eventually become corrupted, and imagines what that might look like:
It would be a society with extremely high and rising inequality yet little circulation of elites. A society in which the pillar institutions were populated and presided over by a group of hyper-educated, ambitious overachievers who enjoyed tremendous monetary rewards as well as unparalleled political power and prestige, and yet who managed to insulate themselves from sanction, competition and accountability; a group of people who could more or less rest assured that now that they have achieved their status, now that they have scaled to the top of the pyramid, they, their peers and their progeny will stay there.
Such a ruling class would have all the competitive ferocity inculcated by the ceaseless jockeying within the institutions that produce meritocratic elites, but face no actual sanctions for failing at their duties or succumbing to the temptations of corruption. It would reflexively protect its worst members; it would operate with a wide gulf between performance and reward; and it would be shot through with corruption, rule-breaking and self-dealing, as those on top pursued the outsized rewards promised for superstars. In the same way the bailouts combined the worst aspects of capitalism and socialism, such a social order would fuse the worst aspects of meritocracy and bureaucracy.
It would, in other words, look a lot like the American elite in the first years of the twenty-first century.
It's true that the few elite schools that monopolize the American ruling class are not perfect; there are lots of schools that would do a fine job of turning out potential presidents. But as it stands Harvard and its ilk have the inside track to elitedom pretty much monopolized, and changing their toxic admission policy could make a real difference towards improving America's elite pipeline. As Unz writes:
But the remaining 1300 Outer Ring [students who won admission in the lottery] students would represent a random cross-section of the tens of thousands of students who applied for admission and had reasonably good academic ability, and since they would constitute 80 percent of the enrollment, Harvard would almost certainly become far more diverse and representative of America’s total population in almost all ways than is the case today, when 30 percent of its students come from private schools, often the most elite and expensive ones.117
Furthermore, the vast majority of Harvard graduates—and everyone who later dealt with them—would know perfectly well that they had merely been “lucky” in gaining their admission, thereby tempering the sort of arrogance found among too many of today’s elite college graduates. And our vast and growing parasitic infrastructure of expensive cram-schools, private tutors, special academies, and college application consultants would quickly be reduced to what was merited by their real academic value, which may actually be close to nil. A general armistice would have been declared in America’s endlessly growing elite admissions arms-race.
Daniel is probably right that Harvard etc. would fight this proposal hammer and tongs. But it still seems like a good idea to me.

PS: This piece comes to basically the same conclusion as Chris Hayes did in his (very good) book, but starting from a very different place with very different assumptions. That alone makes it worth reading. But more broadly, The American Conservative is that rare magazine ostensibly on the right that has a great deal of challenging and worthwhile material, something which is badly needed these days.

1 comment:

  1. The thing with all of this is that, in making the Jews=Asians comparison, we ignore the real way the elites decided to remove the Jewish quotas. It didn't have anything to do with the Jews, who would have been fine without Yale, and it had everything to do with the elite schools. The longer they continued to exclude the Jews, the more they'd risk ceasing to be a training ground for the elite. If they continued to exclude the smartest people in America, eventually all smart and talented people would desert. I believe the argument the admissions officer made to the Yale board was "do you want to become a finishing school on Long Island Sound?"

    The Jews didn't need Yale. Yale needed the Jews.

    But that's simply not what's going on here; the elite schools have enough applicants that they can admit the smartest people and also make sure the class is diverse and full of leaders and athletes and rich people. It's simply not in their interest to go to the random admissions plan proposed. And that's why it will never happen.