Biology Magazine

The Myth of the Zero Sum College Admission Game

Posted on the 01 July 2023 by Ccc1685 @ccc1685

A major concern of the commentary in the wake of the recent US Supreme Court decision eliminating the role of race in college admission is how to maintain diversity in elite colleges. What is not being written about is that maybe we shouldn't have exclusive elite colleges to start with. Americans seem to take for granted that attending an elite college is a zero sum game. However, there is no reason that a so-called elite education must be a scarce resource. Harvard, with its 50 billion plus endowment could easily expand its incoming freshman class by a factor of 5 or 10. It doesn't because that obviously would make its product less prestigious and diminish its brand. It is a policy decision that allows elite universities like Harvard and Stanford to maintain their status. Being old is not an excuse. Ancient universities in Europe like the University of Bologna in Italy or University of Heidelberg in Germany, are state run and have acceptance rates well over 50%.

The main problem in the US is not that exclusive universities exist but that they have undue power. Kids are scrambling to get in because they believe it gives them a leg up in life. And they are mostly correct. All the Supreme Court Judges, save one, went to either Harvard or Yale law school. The faculty of elite schools tend to get their degrees from elite schools. High power consulting, Wall Street, and law firms tend to recruit from a small set of elite schools. Yet, this is only because we as a society choose it to be this way. In the distant past, elite colleges were basically finishing schools for the wealthy and powerful. Going to an Ivy league school was not what conferred you power and wealth. You were there because you already had power and wealth. It has only been in the past half century or so that the elite schools started admitting on the basis of merit. The cynical view is that world was getting more technical and thus it was useful for the wealthy and powerful to have access to talented recruits.

While it is true that the top schools generally have more resources and more research active faculty, what really makes them elite is the quality of their students. It is not that elite colleges produce the best graduates but rather that the best students choose elite colleges. Now there is an over supply of gifted students. For every student that is admitted to a top ten school there are probably five or more others who would have done equally well. This is not entirely a negative thing. Having talent spread across more universities is a boon to students and society.

As seen with what happened in California and Michigan, eliminating race-conscious admission will likely decrease the number of under-represented minorities at elite schools. But this only matters if going to an elite school is the only way to access to the levers of power and have a productive life. We could make an elite education available to everyone. We could increase supply by increasing funding to state run universities and we could take away the public subsidy of elite private schools by taxing their land and endowments. The fact that affirmative action still matters over a half century later is an indication of failure. There is talent everywhere and that talent should be given a chance to flourish.

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