Learning of the death of legendary former Stanford and Princeton Dean of Admissions Fred Hargadon made me think back to my one conversation with him, shortly before the end of his tenure as Princeton.  We sat next to each other at lunch at a conference, and he reflected on what the public didn’t understand about selective college admissions.

“Anyone who thinks we’re doing anything other than splitting hairs has no clue,” he observed.  “I can spend an entire afternoon in committee, ultimately admitting four of fifty applicants, and the next morning I can’t remember why we picked the four we did, because the others look just as good.”

He also talked about how being an admissions dean at a place like Stanford or Princeton had gotten more complicated.  At Stanford he had the flexibility to admit a deserving kid who had gotten shut out of acceptances to an Ivy caliber school.  That was no longer possible at Princeton, due to increases in application numbers and selectivity.

There is even more hair-splitting and less flexibility today, when admission rates have dropped to single digits, as cold and unpleasant as the temperatures in last week’s “Arctic Vortex”.  The increased number of applications and competition for admission to the most selective schools also increases the likelihood that kids with stellar credentials will find themselves, in the words of Vanderbilt Dean of Admissions Doug Christiansen, “superbly qualified but not competitive.”

Is that a good thing?  It depends on whom you ask (my friend Chris Gruber at Davidson says that “It depends” is the proper answer to any question about college admissions). It’s certainly good for colleges, as having a scarcity of invitations to “join the club” has proven a brilliant marketing strategy. Mirroring the economy as a whole, among colleges and universities the gap between the 1% and the 99% is widening.  Higher education writers can phone in right now their stories for April about how the Ivies and near-Ivies have had record admission years.

It is not as good for college counselors on the secondary side, especially those of us in independent schools where the marketing strategy, sometimes overt and sometimes subtle, is the promise of “better” college options.  I used to have a good sense of what an Ivy League candidate looked like; not any more. 

Earlier this week my public speaking students turned in their list of colleges for the informative speech I use as a way to get them to think about and research the things that are unique and distinctive about a college’s personality and culture.  The lists were ambitious, and I found myself conflicted, excited to see them setting their sights high but also wondering how many will end up disappointed by the realities of selective admissions.  I also wonder how it will change my job as my career winds down.  Will I be pressured to become a strategist rather than a counselor?  Will I be the college counseling equivalent of Jimmy Carter explaining why $1 per gallon gasoline is a thing of the past?  Will it shorten my career, and will I have any say in that?

And what about the impact on the public?  While it is true that many highly selective institutions are private and have the right to admit whomever they choose, there is also an implied social contract that higher education has with students and parents. That contract promises that a college education is a pathway to the American Dream, serving the public interest, and that investing in a college education will pay off with economic success and personal happiness.   If college graduates, especially those who have gone into debt, find that their degrees don’t lead to employment, trust in the system is eroded.  Trust will also be eroded if the other promise contained in the contract, that students will find an appropriate fit, is no longer true at the top end.

Today admissions committees at highly-selective institutions are splitting hairs even more finely than in Fred Hargadon’s day, with many admitting that they could fill their freshman class three times over with qualified candidates. The application numbers provide immunity to criticism and also allow institutions to engineer a class that meets numerous and complex institutional goals.  But does splitting hairs produce a better educational environment, and is it a good use of admission officers’ time and energy?

Today many college counselors compare earning admission to a highly-selective college or university to winning the lottery. More than 25 years ago, in my first published article dealing with college admissions, I took the lottery analogy one step further.  I argued in a Chronicle of Higher Education back-page op-ed that selective colleges should admit their freshman classes using random selection from among the pool of candidates identified as qualified for admission.  My premise was that selective admission is an example of distributive justice, where the ethical imperative is finding a fair means of distributing a scarce good or service.  Rather than splitting hairs, making fine distinctions among highly-qualified applicants, admissions committees should determine which candidates are qualified for admission, then award places randomly from among all those who are deemed qualified.

You will not be surprised that it was an idea whose time had not (and has not) come.  The article garnered lots of attention, including being republished in the Parents League of New York Review and a textbook of rhetoric and logic (I couldn’t figure out if it was seen as an example of good or bad logic).  It was reported to me that my name taken in vain in admissions offices across the nation, referred to in terms beginning with “ass” and ending with “hole.”  Most interesting was the fact that the Chronicle received several letters from students who wanted to believe that they had been admitted to the Ivy League because they were better and more deserving, not because they were fortunate and even lucky.

I am not foolish enough to make the same argument today.  I understand the argument for admissions officers having the professional expertise to measure merit and predict potential among similar candidates, and would make that same argument if I worked on the admissions side, but the truth is that I don’t really believe I could split hairs in a way that’s meaningful rather than arbitrary.  I understand that selectivity and social engineering is in the self-interest of institutions, but given the increase in application numbers without corresponding increase in staff,  I wonder whether the current system produces better results, better classes, than random selection.  I doubt we’ll ever find out.