Fixing the Problem That Isn’t


We continue to read more each day about SAT score reporting irregularities at some of the nation’s most prestigious colleges and universities.  And now that another has joined the crowd, there are calls from people to fix the “problem” and suggestions about how to do so.

Only one problem: There is no problem.

Don’t get me wrong: I think it’s unethical to report false scores.  In general, it’s not a good thing to lie (before you accuse me of moral relativism, to which I’d plead guilty anyway, philosophers seem to agree that it might be acceptable to lie when faced with a threat.  And the Dutch philosopher and lawyer Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) taught that a lie is not really wrong if the person being lied to has no right to the truth.) But in this case, it’s wrong.

Before I go farther, an aside: I know people at most of the places where these reporting irregularities occurred.   And I don’t think for one minute that any of them did this solely of their own volition.  Google College and University Strategic Plans and read a few that you find.  Notice how many talk about “increasing academic quality,” or “becoming more selective” or even the explicit “raising test scores in the freshman class.”   Some even say they want to move up in the rankings.  Right there.

So while the buck stops in the admissions office, it almost certainly didn’t start there.  And if the pressure wasn’t explicit, you can bet it  was implicit; there is no office at the University that gets measured and evaluated more than the admissions office.  It can be a pressure cooker at some places.  I’m grateful I don’t deal with that in my job, but if my mortgage depended on it, I’d think long and hard.

And a second aside: The test scores don’t matter.  Want proof?  No one on the faculty at these places, as far as I can tell, ever raised a hand and said, “You know, we publish mean SAT Scores of 1370, but somehow these freshmen seem more like 1330 to me.” You’d think they’d know, wouldn’t you? Anyone who picks a college based on test scores probably chooses a prom date based on teeth. You have every right to do so, but don’t blame anyone but yourself when you’re disappointed.

The test scores have only become important because magazines like to publish them and use them to calculate quality.

Having now said there is no problem, I’m going to offer a solution anyway:  I think it’s time for us to consider creating a National Clearinghouse for Undergraduate Admissions.  Everybody gives up something in exchange for something else in an attempt to make everything better overall.  It’s a simple application of game theory.

Here’s how it would work: All transactions would be managed through a central location.  Students submit one application with biographical data.  High Schools submit one transcript.  Testing agencies send scores.  The students submit their essays or supplements.  Recommenders submit their recommendations.  The student sends it all to the college he or she wants to apply to with a click.

All acceptances, all aid, and all student responses are managed through the Clearinghouse.

First benefit: Colleges get the whole application package at once  No more missing documents.  And every file is complete. No more counting Part I as applications; no more Fast Apps that inflate numbers.  In the race to look more selective, colleges lose the stealth tactic of counting things differently. This is good for students.

Second benefit: Colleges know where the student is applying, and maybe even the order of preference.  This makes decisions easier and allows us to offer slots to students who are more serious about us.  This is good for colleges.

Third benefit: All the data is available to the public (in aggregate, of course, not at the student level).  If you live in Wyoming and you’re applying to HYP and you want to see the stats on students from Wyoming, you can do that.  If you’re first generation Latino and want to see how students like you fared, you can see that.  If your parents want to know how much aid families with two in college and in your income band got, they can see that.  And they can see how much of it was based on need and how much of it was based on merit.  If you work in Congress and want to see how much of an advantage athletes or legacies get, you can see that.  Want to see the real, actual SAT or ACT average of every member of the freshman class last year?  It comes right from the data, not a university administrator.  This is good for students.  And in the longer term, good for colleges too.  How? The data available for research after the admission cycle is over includes information about the student you already have, but also information you currently don’t, like where they attended, how much aid the institution awarded, and you can use this information to get better.

Fourth benefit: Students can only deposit one place at a time.  No more depositing three places and deciding after orientation. This is good for colleges.

Ultimately, it could back up farther: Imagine a world where colleges recruit students they want, and they actually disclose that.  No more whining about not being able to find smart poor kids.  No more buying hundreds of thousands of names of kids to recruit so you can deny them; the buy and the admit profiles have to line up.  Student information in the Clearinghouse can serve as the new way in which colleges find out about kids.  And perhaps the way kids find out about colleges.  This would be good for everyone.

There would be lots of things to think about, of course: ED and EA cycles, different ways of reviewing applications, pre-admissions offers, and other things we can’t yet anticipate.  But if we believe the system is currently serving no one well; and if we believe that this system is essentially based on the paper-and-pencil application process many of us grew up with, doesn’t it make sense to think about changing it?

I think so.  But let me know what you think.

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3 thoughts on “Fixing the Problem That Isn’t

  1. Just started reading your blog – I enjoy your perspective! (even though I am a year late!)
    As regards “reporting irregularities” I think the colleges forget one aspect of this: the students.
    To the outside world, this looks like cheating to me, and many people I know. Pumping up scores, and manufacturing false scores out of thin air is really deceptive. Students use this as one (of many) factors in choosing a college. Granted, it’s not the only thing to look at, but the point is that it matters, and cheating on this sends a clear message: “it’s okay if you cheat on scores”.
    What does this tell me about the schools which do this? A lot – their academic honesty is tattered, and I wonder what else they will do to improve their image. Clearly they are willing to act in their own self-interest above that of their students. “You cannot make a good deal with a bad person” (Buffett). So my kids will NOT be attending any school who are dishonest or lack integrity.
    Kudos to schools that understand integrity and honesty. Something I want my kids to see, learn and do.

    Like

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