Monday, August 28, 2017

"Fair" College Admissions

Getting hired:  "It isn't what you know, it's who you know."   "Good luck is better than brains."

I remember my father telling me both of those comments above.    "You never can tell when there is an opportunity," he said, so "always be good and working hard.  Someone might notice."

Some were in.  Some were out.
The great searing experience of my father's life was not World War Two, in which he served in the Battle of the Bulge.   It was the depression.   He was born in 1919.  His teen years were spent on a farm that struggled. There was work needing to be done neighboring farms and orchards but little money to pay people.  He watched grown men unable to find work.  That was the great fear: being unable to find work.

Jobs that paid money were a big deal.  You got the job because you knew somebody who "got you on."  Then you worked really, really hard to keep that job.

I just finished my 50th High School class reunion activities.  I asked people about their careers.  One person who bounced around after high school and college said that his big break came because he sang in a choir.  An soprano in the choir's husband worked in HR at a federal agency.   That got him an interview.

I visited with several people who brought their spouses to the reunion.   I asked how they met.   "We were both in English class junior year and we sat next to each other.";  "I played football with her brother."  Happy circumstance.

In my own case, having returned to southern Oregon from Boston without a job or any particular prospects, I was the beneficiary of an unsolicited letter sent to Congressman Jim Weaver from the mother of a girl I dated a few times in high school and college.  The mother wrote that a bright young man had come to town and might be of use to him.  His office called me, we met, I was hired to help his campaign.  Good things led from there.

I learned from earliest childhood, and confirmed from observation throughout my life: there is a lot of luck, serendipity, being in the right place at the right time, in the course of all the important things in life, ones friends, spouse, career.   Everyone has a web of contacts and life experiences and abilities.  It helps to have parents with connections with rich friends with jobs and opportunities.  The people you know can open doors.  Some doors are better than others.

Donald Trump has spoken to that anxiety and found a villain and then a solution.  The problem is foreigners, both abroad and immigrants, who are taking those jobs, plus the unfair advantages given through affirmative action efforts.  He said the premise that white people have a tailwind of advantage is factually untrue and is unfair.   Struggling whites without a college degree certainly do not feel privileged.  Middle class whites who are attempting to give an edge to their children feel that they earned that right.  Why else have some money and influence if you cannot give your children an edge?

We live in a political and cultural environment in which some institutions serve as gatekeepers and filters into worldly success.  Highly selective colleges are among them.  This exists within a culture that praises equality of opportunity--except that everyone wants an edge for their own kids and people like their kids.  The current economy has created winners and losers and entry into the middle class has been squeezed for non-college people.  There is a great deal of anxiety and frustration generally.   There is particular anxiety about who gets into college, and which college.  Some colleges create a better tailwind of network.

Donald Trump raised the issue of college admissions.  Are white men being discriminated against?  The issue is a winner for Trump since it nurtures that feeling of white resentment over being picked on by politically correct nags in the coastal elites.   It is divisive and it works politically for him.  Democrats rise to the bait.    A key value for Democrats is fairness and equality, but in a complex world of who-you-know the solutions to equalizing opportunity inevitably involve an implicit accusation that the entire lifestyle of people who "have it made" is illegitimate.   There is an implicit accusation of racism and bias and privilege.  People resent being accused of being privileged.   It is a huge loser issue for Democrats.

A careful blog reader, Herbert Rothschild of Talent, Oregon gives an interesting point of information about the problem of gatekeeping and privilege, with a close look at the Louisiana Statue University School of Law.   Their workaround created imperfect results, but the results were supposedly objective because they were numerical.  They numbers didn't look at who you knew.


Field Report by Herb Rothschild: 

When I was on the LSU faculty, the law school had a faultless admissions policy (it may still; I've been gone since 1987). Here's how it worked: The applicant's college cumulative grade point average, with the decimal point deleted (so as to produce a three-digit whole number), was added to his/her LSAT score (a three-digit whole number). The resulting numbers were ranked from largest to smallest. Then, the number of places in the entering class was used to cut the list--above it, in; below it, out.
Everyone at the law school knew that this so-called "objective" procedure was a poor predictor of achievement in legal studies. It took no account of which college the GPA was achieved at or what courses went into the GPA. It looked at no evidence of obstacles to success that had been overcome.

The first year was used to separate the wheat from the chaff, which made for a competitive and anxiety-ridden experience for many of the students.

Why was this procedure adopted? Because so many of the elected officials in Louisiana were lawyers, and they wanted their kids to be lawyers. So they regularly tried to interfere in admissions decisions. The law school adopted the procedure to defend itself from such interference. Because of its appearance of objectivity, it was impossible for a politician to argue that the process wasn't fair.
Professional schools are more exclusively focused on sheer mental power than undergraduate institutions, which rightly consider many factors that make for a great learning experience for the class as a whole as well as serve the larger public good.

Actually, the questionable bias in the admissions policies of the Ivy schools used to be--and probably still is--a bias toward athletic excellence. Outstanding high school athletes had (have?) an arguably unjustifiable edge.

1 comment:

Joe Charter said...

Herb: The 'sterile' formula you describe is no longer in use: "The Law Center no longer manages an admissions program on the basis of a sterile
GPA-LSAT formula. Today, the Admissions staff—up from one to a five-person team—works with a five-person Faculty Admissions Committee to consider an array of academic and work experience indicators, including letters of recommendation to decide which students will be accepted into an
increasingly diverse law school." Poised for Greatness, LSU Law, Vol. 11, p. 35

Accordidng to the article, the prior formula resulted in "one of the most severe attrition rates in the country at nearly 40 percent, as compared
to the American Bar Association law schools’ norm of approximately 10 percent." The rate was 6% in 2003 (Id.), and has hovered around 3-10% in the last 5 years:

While I understand the prior policy purpose to thwart 'good ol' boy' interference, so much for 'objective' predictors of subjective human performance ...