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The Meaning of Selectivity

With the early decision cycle only ten days away, there is undoubtedly a lot of chatter about the selective universities and what it means to be selective. Unfortunately, the dialogue is typically focused around acceptance rates and SAT scores, when the topic is a lot more complicated than that.

First, can we agree that acceptance rates as published tell you nothing? A much more meaningful statistic would be the percentage of student acceptances relative to the total population of applicants whom the school would deem fit to enroll were space not a problem. If one out of every five applicants to Harvard is doing it as a lark and they have absolutely no shot at getting accepted, what does Harvard's acceptance rate tell you about selectivity? Nothing really.

Similarly, a lot of schools are now engaging in pretty... interesting... behavior to tailor their entering classes as they see fit, which can affect the acceptance rates in odd ways. Penn is enrolling 50 percent of its class early decision, way beyond the norm for any of its peer schools. And WashU has been known to purposeful reject candidates considered to be overqualified.

So acceptance rates tell you nothing.

That said, in my mind, there are two underlying qualities that colleges look for when they accept students -- academic qualifications and what I will call extramural qualifications. These comprise the basis of what it is meant to be "selective". Often two students may have the same academic qualifications but differ extramurally, and those factors will make all of the difference.

Now, it is impossible to quantify these extramural factors in any meaning form, so good luck with that.

But there is also a lively discussion to be had about academic qualifications...

Turning to the academic qualifications, there are many known issues with the standard statistics used. The first failure is that selectivity is often paired with statistics for the entering class, and not the accepted class. If selectivity is really to be a gauge for how difficult it is to get accepted to a school, I think the accepted class statistics should be used across the board.

More importantly, SAT and ACT scores are widely considered to be endogenously correlated with the household income of a student, suggesting that the wealthier a school's student body is, the higher standardized test scores you should expect, all other things held equal (e.g. the academic qualifications of the student body are exactly the same). So if 10 percent of Dartmouth students are on Pell Grants, as compared to 35 percent of Berkeley students, I'm not certain you can make a meaningful comparison across the two institution's SAT scores without taking this fact into account.

Another question I have in regards to selectivity is why class size doesn't come into account more often. It seems to me to be pretty easy to create a selective class when you may only enroll 1,000 new students a year. But it is a lot harder to enroll a just as "selective" class when you enroll 2,500 or 3,000 students a year. If you look at the distribution of

I believe that the best indicator of academic qualifications is one's academic record in high school. But there are a couple of issues with how to consider one's academic record, especially as no two high schools are going to grade similarly.

There is also the problem of non-reporting of high school rank in class. Not all high schools feature the same caliber of a student body, so one who may be a top 10 percent in a certain high school might only hit the top 30 percent in another high school. Apples to oranges. And a majority of students no longer report it, so I'm not certain how meaningful it is anymore.

Finally there is the role of interest and motivation in all of this. Somebody could be fascinated by birds or driven to play music all day, but really struggle in English class. If Cornell is enrolling some of the world's future premier ornithologists or Oberlin is admitting some of the best chamber musicians in the country, but they just so happen to have a spotty record in some traditional academic subjects, how can you compare this type information with other schools? You can't.

In the end you need to trust that each institution is accepting and enrolling the students they think will make the best use out of the resources and opportunities offered. That is important. It's what education should be all about. But quite frankly, I'm not so certain that is happening anymore at a lot of schools, as everybody falls prey to this rankings madness. Intellectually curious students are being passed over for drones who have good test scores but can't come up with an independent thought to save their life.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on October 22, 2008 (#)

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