Maybe the problem is that Harvard exists

Maybe the problem is that Harvard exists

Aug 2023

Here’s a rant from my evil twin Tyromight, which I publish without endorsement as it appears to be an unhinged polemic with no constructive solutions.

Say that when people apply for their first driver’s license, 1% get Executive Platinum licenses. For life, they get free use of toll roads and can drive 20% over the speed limit. People argue—fiercely argue—if these should be awarded based on the written test, the driving test, or based on personal essays on What Driving Means to Me.

That would be weird, right?

Or say there’s a school. When kids enter as five-year-olds, the school deems 5% of them to be Gold Elites. They get special lunches and when they graduate as ten-year-olds, get preferred admission to competitive middle schools.

The question is not if Gold Elites should be chosen based on finger-painting or kickball competitions. The question is, why do they exist at all?

What would happen in schools if we lived in a magical dreamworld?

I think the answer is: Each kid gets whatever experiences maximize their potential.

That’s not controversial, is it? Ideally, they’d learn whatever subjects, in whatever style would best help them flourish into rich, happy, successful adults. Alice might spend her first few years in immersive Czech-language math classes and postpone history and science until she’s older. Bob might study everything in parallel with teachers that use puppetry and interpretive dance.

Picture each student as a dot in the space of possible experiences.

student dots

In the real world, there are only so many teachers and classrooms. So perhaps it’s necessary to carve up the space of experiences and create one class for each chunk.

student dots partitioned

(Really, it’s harder than this picture suggests, because many experiences are based on other students. If I want you as my project partner but you want to forget I exist, then something has to give.)

So there are tough questions. What classes should exist? Where do you put the best teachers? Should there be a “gifted” program? Most people acknowledge some tension between what’s best for the “top” students and everyone else. Opinions differ on how to resolve that tension, ranging from “top students in best classrooms with best teachers” to “all students together, with faster students helping others”.

But we agree on the ideal, right? In dreamworld, every kid would follow their own path. There would be no “advanced classes” or “tracks” because those concepts wouldn’t exist.

Now, this dreamworld school would not be a rainbow utopia where all students emerge equal. It’s plausible there would be more variance in outcomes than we have now. But we should still do it if we could.

So if that’s the ideal, then what’s wrong with giving 5% of kids Gold Elite status? Well:

  • It’s decided by a committee, not something that emerges organically.

  • If you must have Gold Elites (why?) you should pick them when they are graduating, not when they start.

  • If someone’s going to make Gold Elites, it damn well shouldn’t be the government or a tax-exempt nonprofit.

That’s pretty much what’s wrong with Harvard. (And high-stakes college admissions in general).

Problem #1: Gating mechanisms are bad

In the limit, this is obvious. Imagine a society in which 18-year olds are assessed and then assigned to different career bands. “Alphas” could be senators or CEOs, while “gammas” could pursue dreams of carrying heavy rocks or carrying heavy pieces of wood. It doesn’t matter how the assessment is done, the idea is dystopic.

College isn’t nearly that consequential. But still, the effect of high-stakes college admissions is to make society a bit more like that.

I think that’s bad because I’ve internalized Western individualist values. (Haven’t you?) But there are practical reasons, too.

One is that when gates exist, the people who control them will put their fingers on the scales, creating all sorts of weird distortions and drama. (Witness: How college admissions currently creates all sorts of weird distortions and drama.)

But forget all that. The deeper reason is that prediction is hard.

Yes, grades and test scores and teacher evaluations are correlated with performance in college and beyond. But they are only correlated. When Carl Bernstein was a student at the University of Maryland, he was kicked off the school paper for bad grades. And yet, Carl Bernstein is extremely good at journalism.

Are there any criteria that would have identified what undergraduate Carl Bernstein was capable of? I doubt it. The only way to really know what a human can do is to let them try.

Yes, people will end up in different jobs somehow. But this should be a fluid process, not something controlled by any central authority. Your ability to become a famous journalist should be determined only by how good you are at journalism. Not by your grades or test scores or your ability to convince some committee of your potential.

And when gating functions exist, cui bono?

Well, who has parents to most help and support them in school? Who gets special tutors if they struggle? Who has school counselors trained to win the college admissions game? Who has the time and resources and connections to publish a book of nature photography or start a charity or volunteer in Guatemala or work in a cancer research lab?

We should have a Marxist version of Goodhart’s law, something like:

When a measure becomes a target, the privileged always find a way to win.

Sure, I think it’s bizarre that so many people have decided that standardized tests must be eliminated since they favor the rich. Everything favors the rich, but surely an SAT-prep course does less than a personal-essay consultant.

But that misses the point. Standardized tests are not the solution. If you eliminate all advantages for privileged students, you’re still handing out gold stars for no reason. High-stake college admissions based on any criteria make society less meritocratic.

Problem #2: If there must be gating mechanisms, they should come as late as possible

Sometimes you gotta gate.

If a war started tomorrow and everyone was drafted, then the military would have to choose who to train to fly fighter jets and who to train to repair submarines. There’s no getting around it. Aren’t colleges like that?

No. The plain truth is that different colleges mostly teach the same stuff.

Don’t believe me? See for yourself. Here are practice exams for first-semester calculus at Harvard and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. I’d say Harvard’s questions are a little harder, and a little “better” (more fun, better reflect core concepts). But mostly the difference is number of pictures of Harvard.

But isn’t the typical student at Harvard better prepared for calculus? Surely that has some impact?

It does! It has a huge impact: At SIU Edwardsville, 54% of students graduate within 6 years. At Harvard, it’s 98%. Harvard does not do selective admissions so that it can push the most talented people to their limit. The hardest part is getting in. Do you think every legacy admit student athlete is a genius?

Say Alice wants to study math but she gets rejected from Harvard so she goes to SIU Edwardsville. She struggles for a couple of semesters and then something clicks—she gets math and is at the top of the rest of her classes. She does a great research project and several professors say she’s the strongest undergrad to come through in years.

If Alice wants to be a professor, what are her odds of getting into a top program? (Of course a PhD from a top program is necessary to get a job as a professor!) The reality is: Low. Most PhD admissions committees will decide they don’t know what “strongest student at SIU” means, and pick someone “safer”.

If Alice wants to join the New York Times, or get a job at McKinsey, or go to a top law school so she could have a chance at the Supreme Court—same story. When Harvard rejected her, that made it harder for her to pass through other gating functions and many dreams became harder to reach.

High-stakes college admissions means that much of the value of a college degree is determined before students even start college. If you must mark and sort young people, gross, but OK. But why do it at 18 rather than 22? There’s no justification. No one even suggests a justification. Harvard just does it because it can.

Problem #3: Gating mechanisms certainly shouldn’t be created by tax-exempt nonprofits

Some people say Harvard is a private institution and it can do what it wants. These people are wrong.

For one, companies can’t do whatever they want. Just try starting a restaurant that refuses entry to people over 50.

Anyway, private universities are non-profits. You can’t start a tax-exempt country club. If you could, then every business would be a non-profit and no one would pay taxes and the government would collapse.

When John Paulson donated $400 million to Harvard, that was tax-deductible. If we assume his marginal tax rate was 25%, that’s equivalent to him donating $300 million of after-tax money, and then having the government kick in an extra $100 million. Ivy-league universities also earn insane profits on endowments tax-free and are exempt from local property taxes.

Yes, I know Massachusetts has a weird system of passive-aggressive reduced-rate “voluntary” taxes and Harvard pays $4 million a year. Great! After 25 years, they’ll have repaid the subsidy on Paulson’s donation and can start working on the billions they earn each year from their endowment.

Harvard is clear about their educational mission. It is to create “citizen-leaders”.

Yes, it’s preposterous that they have legacy admissions and other criteria that might as well be designed to favor the rich. But even with the fairest possible admissions, Harvard would still be an organization designed to reduce meritocracy, one with the explicit goal of picking a subset of the population and labeling them as winners. And it would still do that while being subsidized by the rest of society.

When you argue about how it does admissions, you’re accepting the premise that it should exist at all. It only seems reasonable because we’ve been indoctrinated since birth with the idea that “Ivy League = prestige”, and humans are programmed to think prestigious things are good.

Does this matter?

Everyone is talking about a recent paper that looks at the impact of getting admitted to an Ivy+ (Ivy or similar) school. Here are the ratios by which Ivy+ grads are represented in different groups relative to all college grads.

Condition Ivy+ over-representation
Top 25% income 1.8×
Top 10% income 3.3×
Top 1% income 10.1×
Fortune 500 CEOs 14.5×
Top 0.1% income 16.8×
Senators 31.2×
Attend elite grad school 32.4×
Journalists at NYT / WSJ 32.6×
Presidents 52.1×
Supreme Court justices 89.2×

Of course, this isn’t causal. The people who get into Ivy+ schools are smart and rich and would do well no matter what. To estimate the causal impact, they compare two groups:

  1. Those who were put on a waitlist to an Ivy+ school and eventually accepted.

  2. Those who were put on a waitlist to an Ivy+ school but not accepted.

They make some statistical arguments that these groups are similar, so getting off the waitlist is effectively random. Comparing the two groups, here’s how much they find getting accepted increases your chances of various things.

Condition Causal impact of Ivy+ admission
“Mean income rank” +1.8%
Top 25% income +2.7%
Top 10% income +8.2%
Attend grad school +28%
Top 1% income +44%
Attend elite grad school +90%
Work at place where many Ivy+ grads work +222%

Some point out that Ivy+ admission has little impact on mean income rank, and suggest that none of this matters. To this, I have three counterarguments:

First, note—as most journalists did not—that “mean earnings rank” contains the word rank. Your rank is your position on a list of people sorted by incomes. This—unlike mean income—is insensitive to high earners. Roughly speaking, what this says is that for the median person, the causal effect of Ivy+ admissions on income is small.

Second, we don’t have causal estimates for things like becoming a CEO or working at the NYT or becoming a senator. But come on—the causal impacts are strongly correlated with Ivy+ over-representation. And Ivy+ grads are just as over-represented among Senators / NYT journalists / presidents as they are among people who go to elite grad schools.

Third, and most import: These causal estimates are for attending an Ivy+ school, compared to attending a highly selective state school like the University of Michigan. Michigan rejects 80% of applicants! Getting in there is still passing a very difficult gating function. This is all comparing a gold star to a slightly less shiny gold star. Imagine the impact versus places lower down the greasy pole.

Here’s my explanation for what’s happening:

  • Most people, even Ivy+ grads, end up in the world of normal jobs.

  • That world is reasonably meritocratic. What matters is mostly your abilities, not your collection of gold stars. (At least, assuming you have Michigan-tier gold star.)

  • The “elite” world is an incestuous shell game.

Harvard exists to make society less meritocratic, and it does that while subsidized by everyone else. Give up. There’s a reasonable argument for putting the top professors together in one school, sure, and maybe even PhD students. But undergraduates? Please. We don’t need to sort and classify 18-year olds. It’s absurd. Stop trying to fix it and get rid of it.

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