The Abiding Scandal of College Admissions

Matt Feeney:

This year, Harvard applications were up 43 percent from last year. At Yale, applicants were up 33 percent. At Duke, 25 percent. The result is plunging acceptance rates. Harvard admitted just 3.4 percent of applicants; Yale, 4.6 percent; Duke, 5.8 percent. The deluge of applications poses a problem: Admissions officers at the most selective colleges increasingly must squint to discern any meaningful difference between thoroughly deserving applicants.

My wife is a high-school counselor, and her boss (the head counselor) conveyed a revealing tidbit to me: An Ivy League admissions dean told her that his office could simply replace the class they admitted with the next most competitive group of applicants, and the next several after that, and it would make no difference. In 2015 the undergraduate admissions dean at Tufts University made a similar confession, noting that 74 percent of the nearly 20,000 applicants to Tufts were deemed qualified for admission while 42 percent were recommended for acceptance. The school’s actual acceptance rate that year? Sixteen percent, a number that has likely only shrunk: This year, applications to Tufts ballooned by 35 percent.

A sane approach to this glut of qualified applicants would be for a college’s admissions office to take the names of all qualified applicants, spread them over a cork board, and start throwing some darts. Indeed, such a straightforward and compelling proposal to reform the admissions process — a type of lottery — has been offered in these pages by Barry Schwartz and Dalton Conley.