Friday, January 31, 2014

Splitting Hairs

Learning of the death of legendary former Stanford and Princeton Dean of Admissions Fred Hargadon made me think back to my one conversation with him, shortly before the end of his tenure as Princeton.  We sat next to each other at lunch at a conference, and he reflected on what the public didn’t understand about selective college admissions.

“Anyone who thinks we’re doing anything other than splitting hairs has no clue,” he observed.  “I can spend an entire afternoon in committee, ultimately admitting four of fifty applicants, and the next morning I can’t remember why we picked the four we did, because the others look just as good.”

He also talked about how being an admissions dean at a place like Stanford or Princeton had gotten more complicated.  At Stanford he had the flexibility to admit a deserving kid who had gotten shut out of acceptances to an Ivy caliber school.  That was no longer possible at Princeton, due to increases in application numbers and selectivity.

There is even more hair-splitting and less flexibility today, when admission rates have dropped to single digits, as cold and unpleasant as the temperatures in last week’s “Arctic Vortex”.  The increased number of applications and competition for admission to the most selective schools also increases the likelihood that kids with stellar credentials will find themselves, in the words of Vanderbilt Dean of Admissions Doug Christiansen, “superbly qualified but not competitive.”

Is that a good thing?  It depends on whom you ask (my friend Chris Gruber at Davidson says that “It depends” is the proper answer to any question about college admissions). It’s certainly good for colleges, as having a scarcity of invitations to “join the club” has proven a brilliant marketing strategy. Mirroring the economy as a whole, among colleges and universities the gap between the 1% and the 99% is widening.  Higher education writers can phone in right now their stories for April about how the Ivies and near-Ivies have had record admission years.

It is not as good for college counselors on the secondary side, especially those of us in independent schools where the marketing strategy, sometimes overt and sometimes subtle, is the promise of “better” college options.  I used to have a good sense of what an Ivy League candidate looked like; not any more. 

Earlier this week my public speaking students turned in their list of colleges for the informative speech I use as a way to get them to think about and research the things that are unique and distinctive about a college’s personality and culture.  The lists were ambitious, and I found myself conflicted, excited to see them setting their sights high but also wondering how many will end up disappointed by the realities of selective admissions.  I also wonder how it will change my job as my career winds down.  Will I be pressured to become a strategist rather than a counselor?  Will I be the college counseling equivalent of Jimmy Carter explaining why $1 per gallon gasoline is a thing of the past?  Will it shorten my career, and will I have any say in that?

And what about the impact on the public?  While it is true that many highly selective institutions are private and have the right to admit whomever they choose, there is also an implied social contract that higher education has with students and parents. That contract promises that a college education is a pathway to the American Dream, serving the public interest, and that investing in a college education will pay off with economic success and personal happiness.   If college graduates, especially those who have gone into debt, find that their degrees don’t lead to employment, trust in the system is eroded.  Trust will also be eroded if the other promise contained in the contract, that students will find an appropriate fit, is no longer true at the top end.

Today admissions committees at highly-selective institutions are splitting hairs even more finely than in Fred Hargadon’s day, with many admitting that they could fill their freshman class three times over with qualified candidates. The application numbers provide immunity to criticism and also allow institutions to engineer a class that meets numerous and complex institutional goals.  But does splitting hairs produce a better educational environment, and is it a good use of admission officers’ time and energy?

Today many college counselors compare earning admission to a highly-selective college or university to winning the lottery. More than 25 years ago, in my first published article dealing with college admissions, I took the lottery analogy one step further.  I argued in a Chronicle of Higher Education back-page op-ed that selective colleges should admit their freshman classes using random selection from among the pool of candidates identified as qualified for admission.  My premise was that selective admission is an example of distributive justice, where the ethical imperative is finding a fair means of distributing a scarce good or service.  Rather than splitting hairs, making fine distinctions among highly-qualified applicants, admissions committees should determine which candidates are qualified for admission, then award places randomly from among all those who are deemed qualified.

You will not be surprised that it was an idea whose time had not (and has not) come.  The article garnered lots of attention, including being republished in the Parents League of New York Review and a textbook of rhetoric and logic (I couldn’t figure out if it was seen as an example of good or bad logic).  It was reported to me that my name taken in vain in admissions offices across the nation, referred to in terms beginning with “ass” and ending with “hole.”  Most interesting was the fact that the Chronicle received several letters from students who wanted to believe that they had been admitted to the Ivy League because they were better and more deserving, not because they were fortunate and even lucky.

I am not foolish enough to make the same argument today.  I understand the argument for admissions officers having the professional expertise to measure merit and predict potential among similar candidates, and would make that same argument if I worked on the admissions side, but the truth is that I don’t really believe I could split hairs in a way that’s meaningful rather than arbitrary.  I understand that selectivity and social engineering is in the self-interest of institutions, but given the increase in application numbers without corresponding increase in staff,  I wonder whether the current system produces better results, better classes, than random selection.  I doubt we’ll ever find out.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Ethics and Self-interest

Soon after I assumed my duties at St. Christopher’s nearly 25 years ago, I received a call from the Dean of Admissions at one of the colleges most sought after by our students.  He called with congratulations and a request.  “Can you please do something about that ranking system?” (There may have been an unprintable adjective before “ranking system.”)

“That ranking system” was the way my predecessor calculated class rank, back in the days before many schools stopped officially ranking.  As I recall, he calculated GPA out to two decimal places, deemed any students with GPA’s within .05 as being tied, and did a kind of creative accounting for the first fifteen ranks in the class where if three students were tied for first in the class, the next highest GPA was ranked not #4, but #2.  The great benefit of the ranking system was that it resulted in 75% of seniors being ranked in the top half of the class.

I am not passing judgment on my predecessor, especially because I later discovered that the same ranking system was used by the National French Exam, which explained why so many of my students scored in the top ten in the state.  He was trying to balance accuracy with putting students in the best light for college admission.  Those are treacherous ethical waters to try to navigate, and all of us who work in schools need to be vigilant that we are not focusing on the second at the expense of the first, lest we fall into the same trap that snared colleges misrepresenting admissions statistics.

I thought about that in light of my last post, dealing with schools and school systems changing their grading scale.  The hidden (and perhaps unexamined) assumption is that changing to a ten-point grading scale will put more students in the best light and pay off in better college admissions results.  But is that the case?

Following publication of the last post, I received an interesting e-mail from a colleague who works in a prominent school system which has recently moved to the ten-point grading scale.  Here are some early results from the change:

            --The GPA’s for top of the class students have moved from 4.25 to 4.5;

            --Because of that jump having a 4.0 GPA is not as impressive as parents and students assume.  Some high schools have 30% of seniors with GPA’s above 4.0, and it is now possible to have a weighted 4.0 without a single A on the transcript.  An annual rite of spring is complaints from parents and media reports about students with a 4.0 GPA who are turned down by the leading state public universities;

            --There is a widening GPA gap between AP/IB/Honors students and those in standard level courses;

            --There is a slight increase in the number of students choosing to take an Honors class rather than an AP course when both options are available;

            --There has been no significant change in the numbers of students accepted at most colleges.

The colleague observed that when the school system was considering making the change, none of the school districts it contacted would share how changing the grading scale had impacted either college admission or scholarship results, and yet that was the big public selling point for making the change.


Another regular reader/correspondent made the point that those who push for changing grading scales are usually motivated primarily by what will benefit them (or their children).  Acting in your own best interest is an ethical theory known as ethical egoism.  Ethical egoism is based on psychological egoism, the view that humans are capable of acting only out of self-interest, but there are enough examples of altruistic behavior to question whether acting in self-interest is inevitable.  Of course, as I’ll discuss in a minute, there is a larger question to be asked about whether acting in one’s self-interest in consistent with ethical behavior as most of us understand it.

Ethical egoism is a consequentialist theory, in that an individual should determine what the right thing to do is in a given case by calculating the consequences.  The most widely-accepted ethical theory, utilitarianism, is also a consequentialist theory.  Ethical egoism is simpler, in that all you have to calculate what is good for you, whereas utilitarianism tries to calculate what produces the maximum amount of good for everyone.  The problems with consequentialist theories include how you define good.  Many philosophers equate good with happiness, leading to the objection that there are lots of things that make us happy that aren’t good for us.  The other problem with consequentialism is the Law of Unintended Consequences.  We’re not particularly good at anticipating all the consequences of our actions.

The other approach to ethical theory argues that what is right or good is independent of the consequences it produces.  Certainly good acts produce good consequences, but the consequences are good because the act is good, not the other way around.  The best-known advocate of this point of view is the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, and the example he cites is telling the truth.  Kant argues that telling the truth is a moral imperative even if telling the truth produces bad consequences.  That doesn’t mean that you might not choose to lie because another moral imperative (such as saving innocent lives) outweighs telling the truth in a particular case, but telling the truth is morally right independent of the consequences it produces.

When I was in graduate school one of my professors made reference to my “Kantian tendencies,”  tendencies I wasn’t aware of.  One of my favorite quotes about ethics is supposedly from Kant, “Ethics begins where self-interest ends.”  I say “supposedly” because as NACAC President I used that quote several times.  About a year ago I was giving a speech and decided to look up the exact formulation.  When I googled it I found one result—an article quoting not Kant, but me.  Now I’m wondering if I made it up. In any case I think it’s true to Kant and it captures my view about what is ethical.   

Tuesday, January 7, 2014


How can it be that, three hours into my first day after a two week Christmas break (no war on Christmas here, FOX news), I was already ready for a vacation?  It’s certainly not lack of enthusiasm for the job, as I spent time in the office more days than not during the “break.”  It could be age, my default excuse these days for everything that’s wrong with me, or it could be the shock of reverting to my “normal” sleep schedule after a holiday schedule that seems to fit my system much better. 

The most likely explanation is that I returned to school yesterday morning to face the reality that grades are due.  Grading has always been my least favorite part of being a teacher, but I take it seriously even though the course I teach (Public Speaking) is not an academic core course.  I am unwilling to give all A’s like some non-academic courses do.  I would describe my philosophy of grades for my course as “graduate school grading.”  Similar to graduate school, an A should be hard to get and a sign of excellence, a B should be easy to earn, and a C or below should be a sign that the student has gone out of his way to prove to me how little care and energy he has put into my class. I recognize that there is a good bit of subjectivity in giving grades, so I worry about consistency, about treating like cases alike.  I try to grade in comparison both with the other students in the class and also with my Platonic ideal of what a good speech is.

There is an argument to be made that grades can be an impediment to education, and I tell students that if they focus on learning grades will take care of themselves. Nearly 20 years ago I served as chair of the conference planning committee for the Virginia Association of Independent Schools.  During my tenure we brought one of the original “edutainers,” Alfie Kohn, to the conference as keynote speaker soon after publication of his book, Punished by Rewards, in which he argues that giving grades hurts intrinsic motivation and love of learning.

If the goal of being a keynote speaker is being provocative, Kohn was a hit. Many of those attending the conference found his presentation refreshing and inspirational, the best keynote in years.  At the other end of the spectrum, some teachers were so provoked by his message that they suggested that the organization show support for his opposition to rewards by refusing to pay him.  His message about intrinsic motivation struck a chord in me, but I also suspect that love of learning may be developmental, a rest stop on the road to self-actualization. The need for grades may be best explained by psychologists such as Piaget and Maslow.

I’ve found myself thinking about grades more than usual recently.  The public school system in the county where I live is considering changing its grading scale from a six-point scale to a ten-point scale, a change that several other localities in Virginia have recently made.  In addition, I have had recent conversations with colleagues from two good independent schools that are changing their grading scales.

What all three have in common are concerns related to college admission.  One of the independent schools is making the change in response to a state university for which it is a feeder school saying it will no longer admit out-of-state applicants with a GPA below 2.5.  The other school believes that it may be hurting its students because it has less grade inflation than other schools.  And the primary argument for changing public school grading scale is that it puts students at a disadvantage in the college admissions process compared with students with a ten-point scale.

I am skeptical about how much benefit will accrue from changing a grading scale.  The hidden assumption seems to be that changing the scale will produce a rising tide of GPA’s, resulting in greatly improved college admissions results.  That might work for a short time, but over the long run it begins to feel like the academic equivalent of a Ponzi scheme.

That is not the only questionable assumption.  Another is that grades are hard data and purely objective, but grading requires both discretion and judgment, and it is not clear that teachers will not recalibrate what they consider to be an A or a B to fit the new scale.  The grade scale argument also assumes that college admissions officers look at a transcript without taking context into account.  I hope and believe that’s not the case, but I worry that many admissions officer do not have the experience, training, or time to evaluate a student’s academic record.  I know I didn’t as a young admissions officer.  The 10-point scale argument assumes that admissions officers are too busy, too lazy, or concerned about the appearance of the freshman class profile to evaluate a student’s record at a deeper than superficial level.  While in my career I have had the rare admissions officer say things like, “We think all high schools are exactly alike,” I believe those are outliers.    

I have always felt that what’s more important than grade scale is grade distribution, how easy it is to earn a certain grade.  I have seen high schools where a weighted GPA below 4.0 places a student in the bottom half of the class. On the other hand, when I worked in college admissions we had an English Department that took great pride in its low grades.  One member of the department was notorious for stating at the beginning of each semester, “In my class God would get an A.  I would get a B.  For all of you, that leaves…”  He was not known for his impish sense of humor.  After we enrolled the strongest class statistically in the college’s history, there were 390 students enrolled in freshman English, and exactly one student received an A.  The grading scale was a ten-point scale, but it didn’t matter.

I suspect that grades will be part of the college admissions process for some time to come, and that is a good thing, because the alternative is greater reliance on standardized testing.  I hope that we will always consider grades in context.  When my son came to me during his junior year in high school, having transitioned from underachiever to good student, and told me he had gotten a 95 on a test, I responded, “Out of how many?”  That’s probably always a good question when it comes to grades.