College Guide


April 09, 2013 9:25 AM Pushback from the Elites

By Andrew Gelman

A reform can sound very reasonable, but when it comes up against the interests of powerful people, there can be a lot of resistance.

For example, in recent years there’s been a lot of talk about affirmative action for based on social class, to reserve some fraction of college admissions for people from low-income families, or kids who are the first in their family to go to college, or that sort of thing. It sounds like a good idea (potential difficulties of implementation aside), but as Mark Palko reminds us, such a plan will not make everyone happy. In particular, it would alienate privileged high school students with mediocre test scores.

Palko recounts the story of a high school senior who happens to be the sister of a former Wall Street Journal features editor, and published an article in that newspaper expressing how upset she was to get rejected from some colleges, even though she did not have “killer SAT scores,” “two moms,” or other attributes that she feels is necessary for acceptance at a top school.

I have some sympathy for this student. After all, my application to Harvard was rejected even though I did have killer SAT scores (but only one mom, malheureusement)—-I think the problem was they’d already filled their “nerd quota” that year.

What interested me was this bit from the student’s letter to the newspaper:

Like me, millions of high-school seniors with sour grapes are asking themselves this week how they failed to get into the colleges of their dreams. It’s simple: For years, they—we—were lied to.
Colleges tell you, “Just be yourself.” …

Of course there are a lot more applicants to Harvard than there are slots, so at some level this student and the millions of others in her cohort must have realized that “be yourself” can’t really be what you need to get into the college of your dreams.

The problem, I suspect, is that this student thought that the rules of scarcity didn’t apply to her. And if you spread that message to kids who have powerful relatives, you’ll start getting some pushback.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science and director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University.


  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on April 10, 2013 3:51 PM:

    Hmmm... Methinks that the problem is that many unexceptionally exceptional students like her feel, for whatever reason, entitled to attend a Ivy League/Flagship university, or anything that reeks of exclusiveness.

    I don't mean this in a bad way. Unfortunately, our society puts way too much emphasis on brand name colleges, and, even more unfortunately, these students are judging their self-worth through the prism of the college admissions process. Chances are, these kids, are surrounded by Ivy League alumni, and even worse only see success in politics, business, the arts, etc., as emanating from the Ivy League. In the beginning God created Princeton and Harvard!!!

    There is no meaningful positive reinforcement that not attending an exclusive college is perfectly fine and does't mean they will be left to fight for the scraps amongst the flea-ridden masses (which is probably true nowadays). They are not being encouraged to perhaps look at other colleges that probably would "fit" their scholastic/career goals better. And none of the adults advise these students that acceptance isn't a done deal as soon as they apply (perhaps because they, too, have something at stake at seeing their youngin' go off to the Ivy League). Nobody considers the possibility that success can be achieved via other routes. A feedback loop of sorts.