It’s time to do away with selective college admissions for undergraduate education.
Now, let’s get the caveats out of the way. When it comes to specific training that requires particular skills (as with engineering or the performing arts) or courses of study where social benefit makes the case for some screening (as with nursing programs or the military academies), there’s an obvious case for performance-based selectivity. These are instances where prerequisites and demonstrated performance have an obvious, discernible import. Likewise, when it comes to professional schools or graduate training, that’s a different conversation.
But should we embrace selectivity in undergraduate education writ large? Nah. It’s time for the Stanfords, Swarthmores, and state flagships to show that they’re actually effective at educating students and not just at vacuuming up high-achievers, parking them in lecture halls and TA-led sections for four years, and then handing them off to consulting firms and graduate schools—all while charging students massive sums for the privilege of being selected.
It’s time for colleges to show that they’re effective at educating students, not just vacuuming up high-achievers.After all, what’s the rationale for allowing these heavily subsidized institutions to pick and choose their student bodies? There are at least four claims that commonly get made, but none are especially persuasive.
One argument is that good teaching is a scarce, valuable commodity, and the best teachers should therefore work with the students who will benefit most. This sounds compelling until you realize that there’s little evidence that selective institutions employ the best teachers or care about teaching. Indeed, an analysis by scholars at Columbia University and Yeshiva University compared teaching at elite institutions with instruction at less selective colleges and found no evidence that teaching was better at the former. That ought not to surprise. After all, the caliber of teaching at selective colleges is famously mediocre, as faculty are hired and celebrated for their research acumen, ability to win grants, and star power—with teaching widely regarded as an inconvenient afterthought. (And, even if these were the best teachers, this raises the question of which students actually benefit the most from such tutelage.)
Another claim is that selective colleges can identify which students will benefit most from their offerings. But it’s not at all clear that admissions staff make such judgments fairly and responsibly. Recent affirmative-action lawsuits have shone a bright light on the pathologies long familiar to insiders. Litigation has documented the preferences enjoyed by connected applicants, the reductionist caricatures that dot admissions files, and a gross bias against Asian-American applicants. At Harvard University, for instance, an analysis of 160,000 files found that Asian-American applicants outscored every other racial group on metrics like test scores, grades, and extracurriculars, but had their admissions rate capped by brutal ratings from admissions staff on subjective traits like personality and kindness.
A third argument is that only high-achieving students are equipped to meet the rigors of selective colleges. But there’s little evidence that selective colleges are exceptionally rigorous or demand a more intensive workload. On the contrary, grade-inflation has exploded at selective colleges in recent decades (Harvard’s average GPA climbed from 3.0 in 1967 to 3.8 in 2022), despite the fact that there’s no evidence that today’s admits are brainier or harder–working than earlier generations of students. One of the very few selective institutions to try to address grade-inflation—Princeton University—gave up in 2014, concluding that doing so would “add a large element of stress to students’ lives.” My own experience teaching at several selective institutions is that faculty and staff are mostly encouraged not to demand rigor (because it’s presumed the students are self-starters) but to be as comforting and supportive as is feasible.
Faculty and staff at selective institutions are mostly encouraged not to demand rigor.Finally, it’s suggested that there’s some collective benefit in gathering curated populations of “diverse” students. In practice, though, the curation seems less about diversity than about institutional convenience. Indeed, a 2017 New York Times analysis noted that five of eight Ivy League schools admitted more students “from the top 1 percent of the income scale than from the entire bottom 60 percent.” At Harvard, nearly half of students are there due to some preference, such as being a “legacy” or the child of a wealthy donor. These “curated” student bodies don’t reflect the nation socioeconomically, nor do they reflect it intellectually. Ivy League student bodies are, on average, 68 percent Democrat and just 12 percent Republican. It’s easy to believe that there’d be more social benefit from these students interacting with a broader range of peers than their being collected in an artificial, like-minded hothouse.
Then there are all the obvious costs of selectivity.
It makes a business out of access to selective schools. The simple act of being “selected” (whether due to academic performance, athletic skills, family connections, racial identity, a big family donation, or what-have-you) provides privileged access to all manner of important networks and employment opportunities. Shattering the notion that where a student goes to school should be so determinant in the shape of his or her life seems immensely healthy.
It imagines that these colleges have some special acumen for determining the optimal mix of people to cultivate broad-minded citizens. This seems debatable, at the very least, when the result does a pretty good job of excluding whole swaths of Americans, based on background, income level, views, and values.
It rewards students who can afford admissions coaches, who have parents or coaches who carefully “edit” (or ghost-write) their applications, and who have been tutored in how to play to the proper ideological and identity notes in their heart-rending admissions essay.
It imposes an enormous psychic and financial toll on teens and parents, requires teens to devote extraordinary effort to an array of performative roles and activities, subjects applicants to an intrusive and biased interview gauntlet, and grossly distorts the high-school experience.
It’s becoming harder and harder to ignore how rife with corruption and fraud the admissions process is.Meanwhile, it’s becoming harder and harder to ignore how rife with corruption and fraud the admissions process is. The 2019 Varsity Blues investigation involved a massive scheme to bribe campus officials and manufacture application materials in order to gain admission to selective colleges. But Varsity Blues wasn’t about Mission Impossible–style deception. Rather, the scandals were about campus officials failing to perform basic due diligence, as applicants photo-shopped their faces onto the bodies of actual athletes and coaches sold admissions slots. And these practices aren’t solely the province of the rich and powerful. Heck, more than 60 percent of college students acknowledge including false information on their applications, with 39 percent saying they misrepresented their race or ethnicity, 30 percent admitting that they faked their letters of recommendation, and a third conceding that their personal essays were untrue.
And all of this unspools at institutions where the leaders can’t seem to stop themselves from maintaining legacy admissions or selling seats to donors willing to contribute big bucks to the campus capital campaign. If the most selective of colleges engage in blatant discrimination, turn a blind eye to clown-car corruption, and just keep selling access, it’s hard to believe that they’re selecting students in fair-minded, responsible, or socially beneficial ways.
Consequently, the leaders of selective colleges should heed their own finger-wagging lectures about democratizing opportunity, take a page out of the K-12 charter-school playbook, and adopt lottery admissions. Such a move would help dissolve the relationship between where people went to school and how talented they’re presumed to be. This would shatter the ability of a few hundred selective institutions to sell taxpayer-subsidized fast-passes to good jobs and force employers to scrutinize candidates rather than alma maters.
Selective colleges could slash their sprawling admissions operations. The illicit admissions dance between college officials, celebrity parents, and wealthy donors would come to an unlamented end. Applicants would save millions of dollars in assorted costs, while a bizarre mental and emotional toll-bridge would be removed from the lives of high schoolers and their families. The nation’s high-school teachers would no longer have to collectively devote hundreds of thousands of hours to penning rote letters of recommendation. Meanwhile, students would still apply to the campuses that they find the most appealing, and faculty at selective colleges would still do their research, teaching, and mentoring.
If there’s a concern that such an arrangement would lead to the admission of blatantly unqualified students, there’s a straightforward remedy. Campuses can take a page from former Justice Scalia’s brilliant dissent in Grutter v. Bollinger, in which he suggested that it was appropriate to establish specific qualifications and admit randomly from those who qualify. If, in addition to a diploma, campuses want to require minimum ACT/SAT scores or high-school course-taking requirements, that seems wholly appropriate.
Colleges can expand. They can double their size, or even admit everyone who’d like to go.Now, this proposal entails some obvious losers. The HR departments at investment banking and consulting firms would have to visit more campuses and work harder to identify and interview candidates. Graduate schools could no longer use applicants’ undergraduate institutions as a convenient proxy—they’d have to actually engage in the kind of individualized scrutiny they frequently talk about. The college-prep industry would crater. The presidents of prestigious colleges could no longer count on raking in massive sums from alumni and wealthy donors seeking to secure seats for their kids. All of this could be really inconvenient for those college presidents and their pampered professors. But, as the tech crowd might say, those are features, not bugs.
For those who fear that prestigious schools would be unable to serve all the deserving applicants, there’s a practical recourse: Colleges can expand. They can double their size, or even admit everyone who’d like to go. Now, that might dilute their manicured prestige, upend their bubbled cultures, require they hire new faculty and that all faculty teach more, and force them to spend endowment dollars. But that all seems unobjectionable, even healthy.
Since time immemorial, the acid test of a teacher has not been the ability to select excellent charges but to help one’s charges excel. Selective colleges have turned that principle on its head. We can do better.
Frederick M. Hess is the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.