Investment firms are also in intense winner-take-all-competition with each other for super-wealthy clients. Even if the relative reputational advantage of having an all-Ivy team is a slight one, if it nets even one more oil sheikh a year your firm wins big and other firms with more open hiring lose big. Hence if you control hiring for the firm you will continue to impose what you know is an irrational winner-take-all-market on job applicants because your division and your firm as a whole are themselves competing in equally irrational winner-take-all-markets.
Back to university admissions. Elite universities compete with each other in a constant neck and neck race for educational prestige, of which the omnipresent and in my view malignant US News and World Report ratings hang over all. Everyone knows those ratings are of questionable validity, but they also know that if their university is rated say 11th versus 9th it can have dramatic short-term consequences for their number of applicants for admission as well for faculty positions, and adverse long-term consequences to the university’s endowment. There are only 10 spots on the list of top ten national universities, and if you are 11th instead of 10th you might reap the same rewards as the school that is 50th (As the noted philosopher Ricky Bobby put it “If you’re not first, you’re last”).
I suspect therefore that the reason individual admissions offices at elite universities don’t unilaterally take the step that McArdle suggests is that they fear the relative reputational disadvantage that would result if they become the one soft touch university in the brutal winner-take-all-market of educational reputation. The reputational effect might be slight, but one of the defining features of winner-take-all-markets is that slight relative differences can have huge consequences.
Is it therefore hopeless and/or excusable? I don’t think so. What I have said to my friends in the admissions business is this: For the sake of the young people they will admit and the young people they will not, the most elite universities in this country (Including mine) should negotiate a positional arm’s control agreement regarding admissions. Many options are available. The elite universities could allow students to list two and only two extracurricular activities on their application regardless of whether they’ve done two or two hundred. They could agree that all high school grade point averages above 3.7 would be counted as equivalent. I am sure with all the brainpower and experience among elite university admissions officers, they will find wiser suggestions than these ideas off the top of my head, but the goal would be the same: Ending the arm’s race that is causing emotional misery in and economic harm to the countless families who want their child to receive an elite university education.
[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]
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