Fair warning: This is an intellectual exercise in which you may have to throw out some of your most long-held beliefs. Be careful! Stop now if you’re unwilling to consider this modest proposal.
I’m a novice when it comes to the study of game theory. It’s always been very interesting to me, although even in its moderately advanced forms, it goes over my head in a hurry. Shakespeare said that all the world’s a stage; but the more I think about it, the more I believe that all the world is a game: An interaction between players attempting to get to the best outcome for themselves. Game theory studies these game interactions.
A most simple definition of game theory is “a study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation between intelligent and rational decision makers.” Every interaction that can be studied like this is a game. It can be football, or chess, or parcheesi, or dating, or trying to figure out whom you should ask to the prom. You have to decide what moves to make to get to your desired outcome, and you have to weigh the tradeoffs of each choice you make.
When I call college admissions a game, lots of people get upset, because they think it borders on the sacrilegious to compare something so important to something so trivial, like Monopoly or Clue. But it’s clear we have at least two, and maybe three or more, sides engaged in attempting to either win the game, or since admissions is really millions of games in one system, maximize the outcome of the games.
So, a simple admission that admissions is a game could go a long way toward fixing it, at least where it needs fixing, namely at our most selective institutions, where admissions rates are in the single digits and each admissions year leaves egos of previously perfect students fractured. It would also help at most other colleges and universities, too, however, even where the game is already pretty fair: The overwhelming majority of colleges admit well over half of their applicants, and yield about the right number to come close to making their class every year. Let me explain why an admission could fix admissions almost everywhere.
Two things happened this week that caused me to think about this. The first is the announcement by the Common Application that they would allow members to ask applicants to list the other schools to which they are applying. This set off an explosion of discussion on the NACAC e-list (from which I’ve now unsubscribed…I just can’t take the drama any more) and even in a Facebook group for college admissions people.
Those opposed to asking the question think it should be none of the college’s business, and that answering the question poses undue stress on students about “how to answer it.” (The answer to that last question would be, “truthfully,” in my humble opinion.) The overwrought reaction to one question on an application that some colleges ask seemed out of proportion, especially in light of some of the other things going on in the admissions process. But essentially, people are saying, “The rules of the game are unfair, and since I don’t understand them, I would like them changed.” And that’s understandable, albeit a tacit admission that admissions is, in fact, a game.
The second is an article posted on a Facebook group in which it was revealed that seniors at a Camden, New Jersey charter school averaged 45 applications each. One student applied to 70. Everyone thinks that’s way too many, but if kids believe their chances are slim, I don’t blame them one bit. They’re just playing the game, and attempting to get to the best outcome for them. Of course, now that the school has revealed their strategy, one has to wonder how the other players will react next year. I think they’ve made a mistake in this particular game by revealing this publicly.
So, I thought, how could understanding this game allow us to change the rules to benefit both sides. What if each side gave something up to get something it wanted more: Could the game be made better?
Consider: What if the question, “To which other schools are you applying?” was mandatory, or what if the information was available to colleges? At first, some people might think this is travesty, but play the game forward: If everyone provided, and all colleges collected this information, the ones who become advantaged are the ones are making more serious applications to fewer places; the ones who become disadvantaged are the ones who are applying all over the place, or those who are “trophy hunting,” theoretically taking slots away from those who want and perhaps deserve it more. Most colleges would be able to admit many more of the students who are serious about their college, while denying greater numbers of those who are not. (Harvard could probably not take any more, because their yield rate is already extraordinarily high. Others, even Stanford, perhaps could).
Maybe, just maybe, the annoying-to-everyone-who-doesn’t-use-them Fast Apps might go away, as they are no longer advantageous for colleges. And what if, a few years in, we do the research and determine that students optimize their chances for admission to a top choice when they apply to five or fewer colleges when cross application information is shared? Admit rates go up, which makes students happy. Yield rates go up, which makes colleges happy. It’s a better game.
In a game, both sides have the opportunity to play better with better information. Admissions is a special game, in which we try to get to the best outcome for all parties involved, while individual agents attempt to produce a maximum outcome. It can’t always work for every single student, or every single college, of course. But I think it could be better.
What do you think?