OPEN UNIVERSITY SEPTEMBER 12, 2006
by David A. BellTwo cheers for Harvard for getting rid of early admissions, in order to "produce a fairer process," as once- and present-president Derek Bok put it in announcing the change. Yet if Harvard really wants to do something to make admissions fairer, it should consider doing away with the most inane and manipulable part of the present process: the application essay. Essays are supposed to reveal an applicant's "character," but in fact they have been tainted goods ever since universities started using them to evaluate applicants. Last year, in his history The Chosen, Jerome Karabel demonstrated once and for all that Harvard, Yale and Princeton first started putting an emphasis on "character" in admissions in the first have of the twentieth century as a way of keeping out Jews. Blond Protestant boys from good families who played football, sailed, and didn't bother studying too hard had "good character"; thin Jewish boys from immigrant households who spent all their time reading and arguing did not. That prejudice disappeared from the admissions process long ago, but more recently the application essay has been corrupted from another direction: by wealthy parents who hire consultants for tens of thousands of dollars to game the system, "advising" students on their essays (i.e. writing them), and also arranging for just the right range of activities and "experiences" to make the essays compelling to admissions officers. It is the system that last year produced the Kaavya Viswanathan plagiarism scandal--not exactly evidence that it selects for "good character."
More broadly, there is something vaguely comical about Bok's worry that "the existing process has been shown to advantage those who are already advantaged." Well, yes. The existing process does that. So, to a very large extent, does the entire institution called Harvard College. In modern societies, elite universities tend to function as mechanisms for reproducing existing social elites, and no matter how much their well-meaning directors try to do to level the playing field, social elites will usually find a way to tip things back in their favor again. If Bok doubts this, which I'm sure he doesn't, let him try to eliminate admissions preferences for Harvard alumni! The best example of the process at work is higher education in France, where the government imposes a form of admissions to elite institutions which, in theory, is far more meritocratic than the American variety. Nonetheless, the student body remains more socially exclusive than ours.
Yet the French case also offers one lesson for us. If social elites are always going to game the system, if the advantaged are always going to have advantages in college admissions, shouldn't we at least make the admissions process about something useful? In France, high-achieving teenagers do not spend their time rushing from one essay-enhancing activity to another, and, for that matter, they do not waste their time studying for a test as ridiculous as the SAT. They spend their time studying advanced math, foreign languages, history and great literature, because that is what they will be tested on to get into the top institutions. If we moved in this direction, we might not make college admissions any fairer, but at least we would end up with better-educated freshmen.