The November 2003 Atlantic carries some interesting articles, many of which are available on the Web, on college admissions. Of interest to aviation enthusiasts will be the article by William Langewiesche on the Columbia space shuttle investigation. At the very least it will make you feel fortunate that you’re not working for a large bureaucracy.
Speaking of bureaucracies, the college admissions articles are collectively very revealing.
First, due to the dumbing down and rescaling of the SAT test it is very tough to predict who will get into top colleges. Harvard, for example, receives about 500 applications every year from students with 1600 (perfect) on the SATs… and rejects more than half of them! Paradoxically the dumbing down of the SATs seems to have had a pernicious effect on black high schoolers. White kids go to SAT cram courses and get 100% of the easy questions right. Black kids don’t necessarily do well on those questions that are easy to prep for but often do much better on questions that can only be answered by those who’ve hit the books. ETS, the fantastically profitable non-profit (“non-taxpaying” would perhaps be more accurate) that runs the SAT, responded to research showing this racial bias by trying to figure out how their data had leaked rather than looking at the substance.
“Selective” colleges and those ranked high in reputation by U.S. News and World Report (which immediately causes a rush of applications and therefore a “selective” statistic) are swamped by applicants. At the same time a National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) found that the actual quality of undergraduate experience was uncorrelated with the U.S. News top schools ranking (the results of this survey are kept secret from the public and the Ivy League schools have refused to participate but a handful of state schools make their results available). Those pesky economists, who tend to reduce everything to dollars, make the case in a National Bureau of Economic Research report (link) that selective colleges are of no value. Kids from rich families who go to Harvard end up being richer adults than immigrants who go to state schools, of course. However, students who get into really selective colleges but decide to go to less selective ones end up having the same lifetime income than those who accepted their spot at the really selective school.
In terms of practical advice to young people and their parents anxious to game the system the magazine offers little. The obvious technique of being born into the correct racial group is not covered. In addition to practicing racial discrimination, however, it is important for Asian-Americans and non-Hispanic whites not to forget that college admissions departments also engage in sex discrimination. Liberal arts colleges are hurting for male students so, for example, the chance of getting into Pomona College will rise from 20% to 27% if Jane Applicant decides to embark on a hormone and surgery program to turn herself into Joe Applicant. A sex change operation is even more effective when applying to engineering and science schools. Across the street from Pomona is Harvey Mudd College where Joe Applicant’s 29% acceptance rate can turn into 61% after a sex change. The effect of an applicant’s sex is larger at MIT where males are admitted at the rate of 12% and females at 28%.
[If your kid doesn't want to undergo surgery but you still want him or her to get into a school with a high reputation the message is "send Johnny to an airy-fairy liberal arts school and send Jane to Nerd Central".]