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September 04, 2011

Deconstructing the College Admissions Rat Race.

Posted by KT & JP


Getting into the college or university of your choice – especially if it's highly selective one -- has become more daunting and more stress-inducing than ever before. 

The odds are stacked against students from the start.  Consider Stanford.  This year we had just over thirty two thousand applications to fill about sixteen hundred freshmen slots.  So we accepted just seven percent of those who applied.

Those are astounding numbers.

And Stanford's not alone.  Harvard admitted seven percent of its applicants, while Yale admitted eight percent and Princeton admitted nine percent of the students who applied.

To be fair that’s not the whole story.  Many very fine colleges and universities admit a significantly higher proportion of their applicants.  UC Berkeley, for example, admitted twenty-two percent of the forty eight thousand who applied.   And the University of Michigan admitted just over half of its applicants.

It is a great thing about America, that if you want to go to college, there’s a school somewhere that’ll accept you, and it’ll probably do a good job of educating you.   But given that there’s a college out there for everyone and most colleges are pretty good, it makes it all the more puzzling why there's such intense competition over the relatively few spots in the so-called elite colleges and universities. 

The problem is our society is obsessed -- extra-ordinarily obsessed -- with pedigree and prestige.  Deep in their heart of hearts, many people believe that the prestige of the college you go to will make an enormous difference to the rest of your life.

Hardly anybody stops to ask whether that belief is true.  But whether or not it’s true, the bare fact of it gives selective colleges and universities a sort of perverse incentive to be even more selective.  Because people take selectivity as a signal of pedigree and prestige.   Which makes prestige-hungry students -- and their parents -- even more eager to apply.  And more crestfallen when they don’t get in.

It’s a vicious circle.  Increased applications means more selectivity, which means higher prestige, which invites more applications, which means…  well you get the idea.

It’s a costly circle too.  As the competition for admission has intensified, the pressure on students – pressure to be more and achieve more -- has intensified too. 

The pressure starts early -- as early as elementary school -- and continues without let-up, right up through high school.  I’m not sure it's an entirely good or healthy thing.

We’re  pretty sure it’s not a healthy thing.  It leaves many students, even highly successful students, stressed out and burned out.  

Or worse.  Here in Palo Alto, for example, there was a rash of student suicides a couple of years ago.  And while we don’t know that the relentless pressure to excel was a direct cause,  wewouldn’t be all be surprised if it played a role.

Somebody needs to stop and ask some tough questions.  We need to deconstruct the college admissions rat race.  What do we really get by subjecting our teenagers to such intense pressure to achieve in the first place?

Have we distorted their lives?  To what end?  Whose interests are really served by the way the college admissions rat race is currently structu red?   And is there a better way?    

We’ll ask these questions of our guest,   Mitchell Stevens, author of Creating a Class: College Admissions and the Education of Elites


September 4, 2011 | Permalink


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I have been railing against the prevailing idea of over-qualification for years. But it is a self-perpetuating circle of compulsion. I'll be interested in seeing comments on this post---they should be enlightening.

Posted by: Paul D. Van Pelt | Sep 4, 2011 12:39:48 PM

"Rat race" is an old characterization, possibly as old as the late 1950s, when it began to occur to a few that keeping up with the Joneses was the new capitalism's ploy to get us to spend more and more on less and less. But, by-and-large, the consumer public was beguiled and those Joneses weren't going to beat us out of our due.

I read today that the world population will reach 7 billion in October of this year. That 7 billionth baby will be born in India. Hooray. But, I have digressed...

The rat race led to increased competition in the education sector. The pressure to excel was a natural(?) outgrowth of a pressurized world, therefore, educational standards had to keep up with their own family of Joneses: elite schools became ever-more elite---Van Pelt's circle of compulsion notion holds at least some water.

We have brought this upon ourselves and there are no scapegoats that I can see, as of this moment.There is only one thing wrong with the idea of perpetualism: whether it deals with the laws of physics or those of economics, there will be friction of some sort to impede the machine. That is where we are now. And may heaven, providence or something else help the hapless college graduate. Because you cannot work at a job which is not there. May as well try to haul smoke in a wheelbarrow...
Let's see what someone else has to say.

Posted by: Harold G. Neuman | Sep 4, 2011 4:48:12 PM

Higher Education

The highest form of education has neither applications for admittance nor any tuition at all. It is the school of life the self-taught, which is truly the better Way to learn to be.

We've made our institutions of education with brick walls; to give them some kind of structure some strength. And sentence our poor children behind those walls for some 12 to 20 plus years.

Inside our children’s schools of confinement are the complex lessons of uncertain theories and faiths and all that is known. We show them the shadows of knowledge back lit by artificial light alone. Outside those walls that divide them is the true light of answers to the entire unknown.

There is a better Way to teach them, the Way of simplicity. It is the Way less traveled that has made all the unity, nature’s truth, simply me.

We have taken away our children’s freedom and it is time to give it back, we can’t take them to the Promised Land, but we can free them and allow them to find it, to find our own true selves.

“Let Freedom Ring!”


Posted by: Michael J Ahles | Sep 5, 2011 10:41:43 PM

I left, waited and came back. For a moment. I don't understand how you can tolerate unilateral, metaphysical morons, while rejecting thinking,rational beings. No matter, really. I'll miss you---some.

" And, oh, Mama---can this really be the end---to be stuck inside of Mobile, with the Memphis blues again."

Don't get it? Do your history. Hint: what do Kansas City, Washington, D.C. and New Orleans have in common?
Answer: they all have statues of Winston Churchill. The edifice in KC, I am told, includes Churchill's wife, Clementine. Oh, my darlin...

Posted by: Heisenberg's Eyes | Sep 7, 2011 6:03:04 PM

The comment was made by Mitchell Stevens that in the past 25 years "priviledged people" have worked harder than ever, which condescendingly insinuates that the rest of laborers, who make up the majority of the work force, do not. It also insinuates that 'ordinary' people who graduate with a 'lesser' degree from a non- ivy league school do not, which is nothing but hyperbole because it is the 'average' worker who works so hard to make the things people either need or want. It is an understatement to say this is disingenuous at best, and reeks of elitism at best. And it leaves me asking, when one considers how pathetically greedy and corrupt the system has become, what is it the priviledged have been focusing so hard at 'making'? Money, not tangible things that benefit society. I challenge anyone to debate this in today's current Friedmanesque capitalistic climate.

Case in point? In this same program, John Perry appears to exclaim proudly that one of Ken Taylor's past
students "made $50 million dollars in one day", emphasizing again that that is what is most important in our culture, money over what really matters. As if those high school students haven't already been taught the capitalistic mantra of 'money brings happiness', which we all know is BS.

This program was preaching to the choir of 'chosen' students by an elite school that has everything to gain by preaching Elitism...and the shallow money mantra.

Posted by: sean | Sep 9, 2011 4:10:08 PM

Surely this is, at least in part, an example of the winner-take-all phenomenon that Robert H. Frank and Philip J. Cook popularized in their book, The Winner-Take-All Society. Indeed, Prof. Frank points out as much in a working paper, "Higher Education: The Ultimate Winner-Take-All Market?" (http://inequality.cornell.edu/publications/working_papers/RobertFrank1.pdf). (By the way, Profs. Frank & Cook weren't the first to develop the key ideas of winner-take-all markets. See Moshe Adler's 1985 American Economic Review paper, "Stardom and Talent.")

Posted by: Daniel M. Rosenblum | Sep 9, 2011 7:18:44 PM

We’re pretty sure it’s not a healthy thing.

Posted by: Coach Bags Outlet | Sep 13, 2011 1:08:37 AM

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