College Guide


April 09, 2013 11:37 AM Elite University Admissions in a Winner-Take-All-Society

By Keith Humphreys

Megan McArdle is surely correct when she notes how much is expected today of young people who aspire to attend elite universities. Her own experience as a teenager was different:

…the things that we achieved were basically within reach of a normal human being who was going about the business of growing up: playing a sport, perhaps badly; taking classes; occasionally volunteering as a candy striper. Most of us took the SAT without the benefit of test prep services, and the “test prep” we got in class consisted of–learning vocabulary and algebra. People like me, who were painfully unathletic and had hashed some early high school classes still had a shot at an Ivy League School
These days, a nearly-perfect GPA is the barest requisite for an elite institution. You’re also supposed to be a top notch athlete and/or musician, the master of multiple extracurriculars. Summers should preferably be spent doing charitable work, hopefully in a foreign country, or failing that, at least attending some sort of advanced academic or athletic program.

She then raises a provocative question:

“This entire thing is absurd. I understand why kids engage in this ridiculous arms race. What I don’t understand is why admissions officers, who have presumably met some teenagers, and used to be one, actually reward it.”

Robert Frank and Phil Cook’s Winner-Take-All Society was written almost two decades ago, but its acute analysis of situations such as this remains relevant and informative today. Admission to an elite university is a classic winner-take-all-market. First, competition is intense because the number of competitors has grown (i.e., there was a time when you competed for a Harvard slot only against a narrow sociodemographic segment of Northeasterners — now all manner of people all over the world apply). Second, rewards are distributed based on relative rather than absolute performance and even a narrow advantage over other market participants can have enormous consequences. Third, the rewards are concentrated in the hands of a small number of winners. That is, if 10 applicants are fighting for a single slot at Harvard, there is no scenario under which they can each come out with 10% of the reward they seek, or even a scenario where the best candidate gets 30% of the reward, followed by the next person getting 20%, third place receiving 15% and everyone else getting 5%. Instead one person gets 100% of the reward and everyone else gets nothing.

This situation has generated what McArdle decries: An arms race that families hate yet at the same time are afraid to retreat from unilaterally. If no parent signed their teenager up for SAT prep courses, interview training and essay coaches, and no adolescent invested thousands of hours in resume-stuffing extracurricular activities, all parents and all adolescents would be better off and no one’s chance of getting into an elite university would be affected (Recall that in a winner-take-all-market, it’s relative performance that matters). The problem of course is that in a winner-take-all-market such as elite university admissions, once even a few people engage in these competitive behaviors it costs everyone else not to engage in them also. Hence begins an arm’s race that the participants are damaged by but will not unilaterally exit.

Frank and Cook note that in organized systems of competition, “positional arms control agreements” are possible. For example, athletic leagues can agree to test athletes for steroids, removing the pressure for everyone to take steroids because they fear someone else will do so and thereby gain a relative advantage. But the world’s parents and their children are not an organized system and could never agree to much less enforce such an arm’s control agreement.

McArdle clearly recognizes this as she isn’t blaming parents or asking them to do anything differently. Rather, she wants college admissions officers to stop rewarding kids who have over-stuffed, over-burnished resumes. That seems logical on its face, but another lesson of Frank and Cook’s work is that the people imposing brutal competition on others are sometimes trapped in a higher level such system themselves.

Frank and Cook cite the example of investment banking houses that refuse to hire anyone who didn’t graduate from a handful of Ivies. That creates a winner-take-all-market for young people who want an investment banking career. Don’t the people at the firms realize that brilliant young people graduate from a wide range of universities and that some certified witlings have Ivy league degrees?

Of course they do. However, if you are overseeing a division at the firm that makes a bad investment and loses millions of dollars, you must insulate yourself against being blamed by higher up management. One way to do that is to say “Look, I hired the very best people - it’s all Harvard and Princeton grads in my shop”. In contrast, if the investment team you oversee is full of Michigan State University grads (my alma mater) you will be vulnerable: “Your lax hiring standards made the firm lose money — you should have hired Ivy League grads like all the other division heads” (against whom of course YOU may be competing in a winner-take-all-market for year-end bonuses).

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine.


  • Lee Gibson on April 09, 2013 2:42 PM:

    I stopped ereading at "Megan McArdle is surely correct."

  • Demosthenes on April 09, 2013 5:40 PM:

    I just lived through the whole demeaning college applicable process (for my son, a high school senior). It really sucks, as this article shows. I'd love to not participate in this, but as a parent I'm a guilty as the next person. Yes, we hired a private ACT tutor. Yes, we helped our son do a ridiculous amount of meaningless extracurricular activities. I would add the obvious that the system is rigged to help the wealthy, since their kids can hire tutors and engage in all sorts of silly activities to distinguish themselves. Actual merit is utterly lost in this process. Yuck.

  • M. Elite on April 09, 2013 6:23 PM:

    Now that HYPS are referred to as lottery schools, why not actually have a lottery? Pick the minimum requirements so that out of the 30,000 kids who apply maybe 20,000 are allowed to compete, then just give everyone who meets the requirements an equal shot. The real winners will be the losers, who will actually get a decent education, and won't regret not having attended an elite institution. Even the lottery winners will be a lot more humble about their so-called accomplishment of getting in.

    The other thing going on not mentioned in the article is that competition at any single school is driven by the ease of applying. This is the other way parents play the game, aided by the Common App. At some point it will get to the point of medical school, where the top 100 schools have 1-2 percent acceptance rates because everyone applies to 20 different schools. There's no reason why a top university couldn't see 100,000 applicants for 1000 spots in the next few years. At that point a lottery is going to look mighty attractive.

  • Walker on April 09, 2013 11:22 PM:

    The problem is that none of this accurately describes what is going on in the admissions process; I have some experience on the other side of the fence. Only key extracurriculars (usually something done over three or four years, limited to those activities identified at the top of the common app, or in the associated short paragraph) are paid attention to. Students who have access to less resources, but make the most of what they do have, are given priority over students with heavy preparation.

    Yes, there is a high bar for grades and test performance, but for the most part this bar is just "did the student take the absolute hardest classes his or her school had to offer and do reasonably well in them?" After that, admissions looks to see if there is anything that indicates whether the student has a particularly strong passion, and how well this complements the state interest of study. Admissions can spot the resume padders; they are not the ones getting in.

    Another thing that many people do not understand is that certain fields of study are more competitive. No modern university can survive with 95% percent of student body as pre-med (or even just Biology) majors, but that is the vast majority of applications these days. Admissions has to balance out the classes, so competing in this space is a lot harder; the student better have some research publications to get in. But on the other hand, language departments are desperate for majors, and a linguaphile has a much better chance of getting in.

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on April 10, 2013 10:46 AM:

    I do like to think that the admissions officers do see through the resume fluff. But I think Humphrey's suggestion for a fluff-proof admissions process could go a bit further, if we did want to get really radical about the matter. And a lot of the application padding can be nixed by simply changing how schools do or do not record student achievement and what not.

    A lot of more progressive colleges are simplifying academic transcripts to non-letter based grading systems and are consequently nixing GPA calculations/ranks for their student bodies. Of course, many of these colleges are already prestigious, so they don't have to worry that their students' success will be second guessed, as would a Middle of Nowhere State University with no claim to fame.

    Also, many schools like to record school based activities ,awards and club membership on student transcripts. I work in an records office at a grad school and their have been many a brouhaha over what kinds of things are appropriate for student transcripts. And recommending that any non-academic entry be removed will inspire a wrath of fury from whatever academic office/program/body that oversees the activity.

    The reason being that certain activity/program administrators use the student record as leverage to get students to participate. It's in that program's interest to have so many students participating. It's an efficient bribe when they know students need to pad resumes and transcripts for college admissions and such. And as mentioned in the article, the admissions process is relative, so the aim of any student is to have more activities/awards/honors the next student.

    So the wider problem is that for any school (secondary or post-secondary) it's in their interest as well to have so many super-achievers who were admitted to such-and-such Ivy League or state flagship universities. It's in every test prep tutor's interest to have pupil's who do very well and go off to the Ivy League. It's in every hired admissions coach's interest to have so many Ivy League admitted clients. There are a lot of people with an interest in maintaining this uber competitive admissions race. None of these parties are going to just step back and say: Hey, maybe we're too involved.

  • AMS on April 10, 2013 10:54 AM:

    I, too, am a product of the era when the teachers' message about the SAT was, "you can't study for it, so just get a good night's sleep." My daughters found this declaration to be flatly unbelievable.

    An overlooked but insidious product of the arms race for admission is the way it disadvantages kids from rural and small town backgrounds. I am one such myself, and I know what a difference attending a top-flight liberal arts college (followed by two Ivy League graduate degrees) did for me. I doubt if I would have been admitted under today's critera. Kids from the country and small towns are usually white and don't fulfill ethnically-based diversity goals. They are often from modest economic backgrounds and require financial aid. For the same reason, they frequently have to work part-time at the sort of unglamorous jobs available in their communities, with limited time to engage in extra-curriculars. Even if they had the time, they do not have access to the same glitzy resume-enhancing opportunities available to urban kids. Many would never consider applying to an elite national institution, nor would their school counselors encourage it. Those institutions aren't even on their radar screens; they are assumed to be out of reach.

    The elite universities are now the province of privileged white kids, super-bright Asian American kids, a certain percentage of other kids of color, and a small group of talented athletes whose academic qualifications are frequently marginal. The overwhelming majority of the above will be from cities or suburbs. With all their pious talk about diversity, have America's elite schools made any effort to recruit promising students from non-urban backgrounds? Both groups---the city kids and the country kids---would benefit from mingling with each other in a college setting. I believe such mingling would help bridge the Red America/Blue America divide that is poisoning us from within.

  • Anonymous on April 10, 2013 11:13 AM:

    Re: AMS: Yes, they do. in fact being from a small, poor, rural town will give you some points in the admissions race. The reason fancy colleges have so few students from such backgrounds is because small towns are by definition low population; there actually aren't that many students from such places.

  • AMS on April 10, 2013 11:29 AM:

    Anonymous: I have spoken with the President of my alma mater about this and he acknowledged that it is a problem that they don't know how to address effectively. There are millions of students from these places but they're widely scattered geographically. It's not cost-effective for colleges to make recruiting trips to dozens of rural or small-town high schools over a wide geographic area.

    I realize there is an attempt at geographic diversity which could give some of these kids a few extra points in the admissions process. I'm not convinced it's enough to make up for other factors. And their numbers in the applicant pool are going to be disproportionately small because many of them do not even think of applying to national institutions unless someone makes them aware of the opportunity.

  • tsts on April 10, 2013 12:02 PM:

    "That is, if 10 applicants are fighting for a single slot at Harvard, there is no scenario under which they can each come out with 10% of the reward they seek, or even a scenario where the best candidate gets 30% of the reward, followed by the next person getting 20%, third place receiving 15% and everyone else getting 5%. Instead one person gets 100% of the reward and everyone else gets nothing."

    This would be true if the 9 rejected applicants would then go and jump off a bridge. In reality, these 9 students will most likely attend other highly selective schools, and even if the unthinkable happened and some of them were to attend a top state school such as UCLA, Penn State, or Wisconsin (oh, the horror) they would still end up with an education with (conservatively) at least 80% the value of a Harvard education. So overall this is not a winner takes all situation unless people make it one by obsessing about getting into one particular school. And that is a choice.

  • Demosthenes on April 10, 2013 4:20 PM:

    tsts -- I agree with your comments. For those of us who did not attend the Ivy League schools, but had to settle for state schools, most of us are doing just fine. (I'm a fan of Illinois, for selfish reasons). For the upcoming generation, given how much more difficult it is to get into the top schools nowadays, I suspect the same result will occur. The difference, of course, is how crazy the process is nowadays than a generation ago, when we all did very little to get into really good schools. (It was just much easier to get into excellent schools back then). So, because of the greater hassle of getting into decent universities, people go crazy if they do not get into their preferred choice, since it seems like money down the drain.

  • Douglas^ on April 11, 2013 1:32 AM:

    A big part of the problem is that today's super rich are not doing what they should be doing with their wealth. The beneficiaries of the last great wave of wealth generation created numerous tier one universities (Carnegie-Mellon, Chicago, Stanford, etc.) with their wealth. Today's equivalents have created none. There is no Buffet U., no Gates U., no Ellison U., no Soros U., no KKR U, no Jobs U., no Page U. Had another ten tier one universities been founded in the past 20 years (or had the existing schools increased class sizes to keep pace with population growth), the competition for admission to the top tier would not be such a rat race.

  • on April 11, 2013 8:19 PM:

    This is silly. Most professions require post-graduate work.

    Getting into one of these post-graduate programs will depend primarily on your college grades and your score on the relevant credentialing examination (MCAT, LSAT, GRE, etc).

    If two students have a 710 on the LSAT and one got a 3.5 at Harvard and the other got 3.8 at UMass, guess what? The student from UMass is getting the spot. You know why? Because US News doesn't report the percentage of your incoming class that went to Harvard, but it does report the median GPA of the incoming class.

  • Sean on April 11, 2013 10:17 PM:

    For all we know, investment banks might be hiring Ivy-league grads for their brown-nosing skills.