College Admissions Help and Disclosure Requirements:
New York Magazine has an interesting piece on the use of expensive consultants that can "package" college applications to improve applicants' chances of admission. Among the difficulties with such consultants is that they make an uneven playing field even more uneven: The same wealthy kids who have been given every opportunity to succeed are then helped even more by "help" in crafting the applications themselves. If you're a college admissions officer, I would imagine that this sort of thing is troubling. It makes it harder to assess real talent and hard work.

  I wonder if disclosure might help matters, at least a little bit. For example, I wonder what parents and applicants would do if the common application required applicants to disclose all of the help they received and all of the services and resources they used in the course of applying. You could make the disclosure a general one, or else make it very detailed. But I wonder if disclosure might help even out the playing field. First, it would discourage excessive packaging. Wealthy parents might want to give their kids a leg up by hiring a consultant to help Junior package himself for Dartmouth, but will they want to do it if Junior has to admit in his application that Ivywise was hired to help him out? Disclosure would help admissions officers, too, by giving them some useful context to evaluate applications.

  Of course, disclosure wouldn't work perfectly. For example, lots of applicants would probably misrepresent the help they received. And it's not easy to figure out what kind of information should be disclosed and what shouldn't. At the same time, disclosure might take us a tiny step forward in evening out the playing field for admission to competitive colleges.

  Thanks to Frank Pasquale for the link.
Patrick McKenzie (mail):
My mother was a "college consultant" (she did this service for approximately 60 kids in the neighborhood, for free, after getting me and my siblings into competitive schools) who was trying to turn a hobby into a business before she got ill and had to quit. Did you know that in Japan some people spend hundreds of dollars on magic charms before they take their entrance exams? True story. We do the same in America, except we call them college consultants -- although, in fairness, they do provide some services which anyone could do themselves. My mother's main expertise was having read close to 1,000 books on the application process, most of which are similarly "pay $20 to have this piece-of-mind-improving-talisman" but some of which include useful advice on how to play the admissions game (emphasise the challenges you have overcome but don't wallow in pathos, don't try to be funny unless you are funny, make sure you say you were a leader not a follower, purge your application of anything controversial and don't take risks with your essay, remember that different schools value different things and write accordingly, etc etc).

You want the typical range of services offered? First, editing the college entrance essay. I would value this at, approximately, $10 for a basic "check spelling and that it makes sense" editing and perhaps as high as $20 if you actually get professional advice on the content. The price list in my neighborhood (I did research for mom when she wanted to go pro) was closer to $300. They'll also offer to check the rest of the application (for an additional fee, generally about $100 in my area), which is also highway robbery (thats likely less than a page of text, and requires *no* creativity whatsoever).

I have rather severe doubts you would be able to reliably distinguish between two applications of comparable students, one of which was worked by a consultant and one of which was purely a parent/student collaboration with perhaps some input from an English teacher. Given this, it seems to me that requiring disclosure in the sickeningly competitive admissions game wouldn't really help you all that much (I also think the specific fix you're contemplating would just lead college consultants to consult "Don't use the common application, Its Bad (TM)" and then charge extra for filling out many application forms).

And if you can't distinguish between two applications, one of which was produced with aid of a magic charm, why even bother regulating the practice? The college consultant can't change that GPA so much as a thousanth of a percentage point (although they might advise you to quote the most favorable of your weighted or unweighted GPA if not given instructions to the contrary -- the fact that people are eager to pay for this level of advice makes me despair for humanity). They are generally hired too late in the game to make meaningful suggestions as to, say, leadership or extra-curricular decisions.

If you really want to level the playing field, talk to folks who practice for the SAT/ACT. People pay similar amounts, in the thousands of dollars, for classes which are also akin to selling magic plus a textbook which you could get for $20. I gather that some forms of this magic can actually have a non-zero effect, despite the best efforts of the College Board to the contrary. Would it make sense to ask kids to disclose whether, and how, they had studied specifically for the SAT?
5.9.2006 9:27pm

Are the choices really just (a) applications edited and reviewed by a consultant and (b) applications produced by parent-student collaboration?

Whatever happened to (c) applicants writing the applications mostly or entirely by themselves?
5.9.2006 9:32pm
Prof Kerr, I assume you are joking about (c). So I'd suggest:

(d) admissions processes that are more transparent so everyone knows how to make an application look good.

In my experience, the parent-student collaboration is less valuable than the student-student collaboration. The best (free) help comes from those who have recently successfully navigated the system. This makes the system particularly unequal since better high schools accumulate the inside info on admissions as it is passed from graduating class to graduating class. Excellent students at lesser high schools lack access to this social capital.
5.9.2006 9:54pm
AWH (mail):
I think a good idea would be to make the essays part of the interview process at the school. Maybe even have them do a case study on a team that is assigned to solve a problem to see how well they interact with others. Then have them write an essay on a topic given to them in the interview room. I think that would quickly separate the best candidates.

Most of the things the application process purports to find out are things that could be ascertained relatively easily in a more rigorous interview process.

5.9.2006 9:58pm
Jim Rhoads (mail):
I suspect that after a while, applications "packaged" by consultants become formulaic and therefore recognizable to admissions screeners who, after all, are exposed to thousands of these things.

Patterns are difficult to hide after a while.
5.9.2006 9:58pm
Patrick McKenzie (mail):
Alan: interviews don't scale well. For one, the school can't afford to fly everyone out to visit it and not everyone can afford to come out by themselves. Local volunteers (full disclosure: I interview for my alma mater) can fill some of the gap, but if you radically raised the weighting you put on the interview no college admissions office would be willing to delegate that much responsibility to someone they do not control.

Jim Rhoads: Most applications, coached or not, appear formulaic. Pick a random student applying to my alma mater this year, and I predict sight unseen they have an application which emphasizes their social conscience and leadershop skills, says that they're "not quite typical", includes at least one ancdote from their childhood, and (while not coming out and saying it -- thats what recs are for) has the subtext "I'm also really, really intelligent".
5.9.2006 10:09pm
Patrick McKenzie (mail):
Whatever happened to (c) applicants writing the applications mostly or entirely by themselves?

I heard that suggested by someone at a dinner once. A friend's parent said "Well, I guess thats technically not child abuse". There was a bit of laughter. And that captures the mindset better than anything I could ever say.

I think the overwhelming importance people, and particularly driven people, place on getting themselves or their children into highly competitive schools means that "Junior will bang out his essay in solitude, perhaps revise it once, show it to no one, and hope for the best -- just like any of the dozens of one-page essays he's written in the last 3 years" is a pipe dream for large segments of the applicant pool. (There are some parents who refuse to help in the application process, from school selection to actually writing the apps: mentioning them causes my mother to burn with incandescent rage.)
5.9.2006 10:17pm
Kate1999 (mail):
Patrick writes:
There are some parents who refuse to help in the application process, from school selection to actually writing the apps: mentioning them causes my mother to burn with incandescent rage
5.9.2006 10:22pm
Elliot123 (mail):
I suspect the first advice a consultant would give would be to check the box saying no help was received in developing the application.
5.9.2006 10:26pm
m (mail):
When I went to high school "college consultants" were called "guidance counselors." And it was no secret that private schools had better counselors than public schools. And wealthy private schools had far better counselors than poor ones. Would disclosure requirements cover this as well? Because if you go to school at Exeter or Andover or Woodbury or St Marks or Harvard-Westlake or Deerfield . . . then this is all rather silly. If we're worried about evening the playing field, disclosure requirements are too little, too late. We'd have to even things much earlier in the game.
5.9.2006 10:31pm
Quarterican (mail):
There's some crosstalk here - the kind of counselor Ms. Viswanathan's parents engaged for her goes above and beyond what (a) I gather Patrick McKenzie's mother was doing, and (b) what my small elite urban private high school provided in the way of a college counselor (whose role was indeed divorced from the more general purpose guidance counselor; the presumption was that 98% of my school was going to go to college, so we had a college counselor and a therapist).

When I was applying to college, as a kid who had pretty much every systemic advantage you can get handed, I always had a dim view of the kids who pushed their advantages over into the extensive SAT courses and the like. If anyone at my school employed a private counselor of the sort who can get you a publishing deal, I didn't know about it, but it wouldn't have surprised me. My disdain probably had a lot to do with my being a cocky SOB, but I did think it was piling unfairness on top of unfairness for kids who were already much better prepared to apply to college than the norm to spend more money specifically to game one of the major criteria for admission.

But in my second year of college I was friends with a kid in my dorm who couldn't write. He was very bright, an engaging speaker, etc., but his writing was atrocious, and he didn't seem aware of it. He had a strong regional accent which meant that his syntax wasn't Standard American English, but this was well beyond that; his written work didn't accurately convey the fact that English was his native language. It was obvious after proofreading a few drafts of one of his papers for him that someone else had written his college essays; there was just no way that he could've done it by himself. Yet his intellectual curiosity and the quality of his ideas in intellectual conversation - even the quality of ideas he was trying to convey in his papers - were such that I felt he clearly belonged at that school. He ended up taking a remedial writing course which brought him up to a level I'd describe as "passable", if not in any way notable, as a writer. So was it a bad thing that someone had helped his application to a degree I previously would've thought unethical? I'm still not sure.
5.9.2006 10:45pm
tab (mail):
Now I don't feel so bad about getting into and attending Columbia. As a high school student, the only thing I knew was that I wanted to get out of Texas. I applied to schools on the East Coast and got into each and every one of them despite the fact that I wrote my own essays, paid for the SATs and SAT IIs out of my own pocket (part-time job), and had a absent father (divorce) and somewhat absent mother (depression). I got in, I suppose because I'm Mexican-American, but I don't feel so bad about using affirmative action now.
5.9.2006 11:01pm
Robert Schwartz (mail):
You are operating under the illusion that the colleges (I speak here only of the elite "selective" schools) want to make admissions a fair game. Nothing could be further from the truth. They want to do just what they are doing.

They want to deal the cards from the bottom of the deck. They want to fill up the classes with jocks, legacies and rich kids. Jocks to staff the athletic teams -- at many colleges the entering class is between one fifth and one third recruited athletes. Legacies to keep the donations flowing and and rich kids to minimize the amount of scholarship money. They also want the luxury of being able to admit affirmative action cases to sooth the political predilections of the faculty.

They also want to manipulate their acceptance/rejection numbers to enhance their USNews rankings.

If they wanted to make it straight up and easy on the kids, they would publish accurate detailed information about their policies, their past records and their intentions for the future.

Don't pick on the parents or the kids. It's the colleges that are running a rigged game.
5.9.2006 11:15pm
rationalactor (mail):
Robert Schwartz -
that's what they call "diversity"
5.9.2006 11:24pm
Gene Vilensky (mail) (www):

I think that at this point, most elite private colleges are need-blind, meaning their admissions decisions are made regardless of income.

As for legacies... it actually turns out that they tend to be better students than the rest of the student body. It makes some sense, right? If daddy was smart, then junior is probably smart too.

I am not saying that the college admissions process is necessarily "fair," but it isn't as stacked as you claim it is.
5.9.2006 11:55pm
Mr L:
I am not saying that the college admissions process is necessarily "fair," but it isn't as stacked as you claim it is.

Of course it is. Now, they don't do things quite the way Robert says -- it's not like they have X rich kid slots, or something like that -- but it's pretty close. It's exactly as he describes for the 'diversity' bit, though; there's a certain percentage of minorities that's expected and if the quota isn't reached the standards will be massaged until it is.

From what I understand, outside of the obvious (1600 SAT) cases and the diversity bit college acceptance is essentially a crapshoot, with most decisions being at the whim of the staff. Which is why colleges will never allow disclosure of their application process -- it'd give top students even more leverage, invite discrimination lawsuits by the dozens, and (worst of all) reveal that most of that resume padding and stress over the last few years was totally worthless.
5.10.2006 12:17am
nn (mail):
The colleges LIKE having discretion to "balance" their classes.

This could be fought with better disclosure but US News merely abets the fraud. All they have to do is force the schools to reveal the test scores of the BOTTOM 10% of the entering class. As it stands, requiring only the 25th and 75th percentiles allow a great deal of creative license with the bottom quarter of the class. Of course schools should be free to do what they want. But how would the incentives change if it were revealed that the bottom 15% of students scored MUCH worse on the SATs than the median while other schools had a more even student body?
5.10.2006 12:19am
Kevin L. Connors (mail) (www):
Life ain't fair, Orin. Get over it. :)
5.10.2006 12:43am
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
I disagree that taking prep courses and practicing the SAT has no effect. At least with the standardized tests I took later in life (LSAT, MBE), they were extremely helpful. They taught pacing and testing techniques. For example, last I knew, the SAT math questions are grouped into sections, with the difficulty in each section gradually increasing. Thus, if you aren't going to be able to finish them all, you should skip the last questions in each section. If you have taken a good SAT prep class, you know if you will be able to finish, and whether you should skip some. Also, does it pay to guess? It did when I took the LSAT, but not the next week when I took the equivalent test for business school. I preppred for the LSAT, and so scored a 100 pts. higher there (and went to business school first anyway).
5.10.2006 12:52am
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
The playing field is not the least bit level. Private prep schools most often provide SAT prep classes as part of their curiculum. Plus, not only do their college counselers know better how to get their kids in the top schools, the top schools recruit much more heavily there, on a per capita basis. For example, the top urban prep schools here in CO have significantly more schools recruiting there (including all the top schools except for Stanford, which apparently doesn't do on-campus interviews) than they have graduating seniors each year.

It goes well beyond that. For example, these schools provide enough things going on, ranging from athletics through theater, choir, academic competitions, etc., that each kid can paper himself with credentials. Most have at least a couple of these a year, whether it be Math league, a solo in a choir concert, a part in a play, publishing essays or poetry, lettering in sports (much easier if you have to participate every term in some sport and there are enough slots so everyone can play something). Also, time is scheduled every year for community involvement, with the kids progressively taking more responsibility for their involvement. All destined for college applications.

Then you have the classes themselves. AP classes start their sophomore year, and by senior year, are either Honors or AP, almost exclusively.

It is almost as if these schools sat down and figured out what would be the best way to get their students into the best colleges. And, that is precisely what they have done.

But, then, why would parents pay the prices these schools charge if they weren't getting anything for the money?
5.10.2006 1:11am
John Jenkins (mail):
Do on-campus interviews REALLY happen? I mean, I knew what college I wanted to go to while I was in High School, but I don't recall that happening at all. Is that a new phenomenon?
5.10.2006 1:21am
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
Gad, how things have changed.

After a year or two of practice, who cares what school you went to? Your reputation is known, and you're either (a) someone they'd worry about opposing but (b) respect in terms of honor, or you aren't.

I (Univ. of AZ) worked at Interior with a guy who had his degree from Harvard and one who had his degree from Cumberland. The Cumberland fellow was the best attorney I have ever known, bar none, in terms of skill, intellect, and honor. We were all GS-14s. He's now Assistant Solicitor.
5.10.2006 1:30am
Proud to be a liberal :
I once worked with a supervisor who required every job applicant to write a one-page essay on any topic as part of the job interview process. You could get a great sense of an individual's ability to write by reading the essays.
Similarly, schools could require students to do the essay portion in a way that would eliminate the opportunity for others to assist with the essay.
5.10.2006 1:45am
Fabio Rojas (mail):
A few comments about the whole college consultant business:

1. College consultants can't make dumb kids smart. College admissions is run primariy by SAT and GPA. If you are marginal in the applicant pool, then you get judged on personal characteristics (essays, sports, affirmative action, etc.) Therefore, a consultant can only help if the person is a marginal applicant, or if the person is applying to the super competitive elite private schools and a few of the top publics.

2. When you think about it, the consultant can do the following: encourage you to take the SAT and practice for it, help/write with the essay, coach for interviews and tell you which extra-curriculars will get noticed by the admissions staff.

When you think about it, the college consultant only earns their money with the extra curriculars. Anyone can buy an SAT prep book and do masssive prep, or sign up for a class. It's also not too hard to have your adult friends coach you for interviews - especially if they went to a fancy private school. Also, if you wanted, you could easily hire a professional writer to help you polish, or even write your essay.

But here's the kicker: Colleges are in the business of providing interesting experiences for their students. Thus, they want a "well balanced" class with "fun" and attractive kids, who will also be able to give money in later stages of their lives. They also have political problems - they must have the right number of athletes, legacies, minorities, women, tuba players, or whatever.

That's where the consultant can earn their keep. They know how to make an applicant look as if they will help round out a class, or solve some sort of political problem for the admissions office. They know that an asian male with 1450 math/1230 verbal is dead in the water at the elite public schools. However, the consultant can tell the applicant what to put in the essay or what activities join in so the kid won't be "boring Asian suburban" kid and will now magically be converted into "special kid who looks great in the newsletter and who is helping the world be a better place."

3. So if you want to even the playing field between rich and poor, then what you should do is emphasize basic talent and learned knowledge in the admissions process. Math skill or good vocab is amazingly hard to fake.

If you really want "well balanced," then emphasize extra curriculars that are not easily managed by asking mother for money. For example, if a person wins a competitive music recital, then they ususally had to really work hard at it. Yes, it helps if your folks have money to pay for lessons, but on the other hand you have to actually practice. It takes hard work to be a class A musician.

College admissions officers should be less impressed by travel (which is often seen as a sign of well roundedness) or any other activity made possible primarily by family wealth. Other examples include: fancy language lessons, participation in non-competitive arts, internships in fancy non-profits or firms that your folks have connections with or taking summer college courses in non-competitive subjects.

4. So in the end, college consultants make little difference for most kids - except those on the margins or those in firecely competitive applicant pools, like HYP.

If you want to counter the consultant business, then you should insist on giving great weight to demonstrated talent and achievement in areas that are hard to fake, and thus less susceptible to manipulation by consultants
5.10.2006 2:16am
Vorn (mail):
Kevin L. Connors wrote:

"Life ain't fair, Orin. Get over it. :)"

This sort of attitude is precisely why libertarians like Kevin will never get very far politically. This comment is practically oozing with selfishness. Keven might as well write, "Life is fair enough for me. I don't care about anyone else. Why do you? :)"

Life may not every be completely fair. It doesn't exactly take a genius to make that observation. But it can be more fair. And those of us who actually care about others think more fairness is good. In the meantime, we should be grateful that people like Kevin so openly remind us that libertarianism is the philosophy of self-centered selfishness. That way, the majority of people who are not as selfish will know to reject libertarianism.
5.10.2006 3:20am
Cal Lanier (mail) (www):
I number among my many occupations the position of test prep instructor, and as a result fell into college admissions consulting. The sort of pimping that Viswanathan's "consultant" does for the extremely rich isn't the norm for the upper middle class in the Bay Area. I suggest essay topics because I know the kids well, and provide editing and occasional wording suggestions.

Many parents hire someone like me not for an edge, but because it eliminates stress for everyone. The kids are more likely to listen to an outsider than they are the parents, and (importantly) vice versa. Everyone can sit at the table and talk about options. That's where I add some value to the process. It's also a value that is only really needed by the upper middle class professionals--lower and middle income parents wouldn't feel the same sort of energy that creates tension.

On needblind admissions: so the colleges say, and so I believed until recently. But if you look at the incentives for the US News rankings, and consider the costs of school, it makes far too much sense that schools are taking ability to pay into account. If a parent is paying the full nut, then a $10-15K discount means a great deal. Couple that with the fact that rich families are more likely to give generously as alumni, and it's just getting harder to believe.

But metrics still matter, and admissions tests are a great leveller for a bright kid of any income level. At least one major test prep company offers a great deal of financial aid, and many tutoring clubs and programs for disadvantaged kids pay for courses. Any low-income kid that wants help can get it. Many don't know to ask for it. But in general, underprivileged kids with any ability at all are usually the subject of intense attention. I've known several low-income African American and Hispanic teens with test scores in the 80th percentile. These kids aren't ignored--and they need to do next to nothing to get accepted into an outstanding school.

The ones I worry more about are the kids who are fully capable of going to college, but whose parents aren't poor enough to get attention and aren't rich enough to pay for it. These families often don't know all the complexities involved and don't know where to look or how to ask for them. Their schools focus exclusively on the high achievers, and kids with perfectly solid performances end up going to a junior college because they don't know they could do better.

My son has three classmates who were very poorly served by their high school counsellor. All of them had at least three AP classes to their credit. One was told to try a two-year cooking school. Two were told that applying to a UC was a waste of time, even though they met the required criteria for automatic acceptance. Had I not ferociously intervened, one of them would not now be going to a Cal State and the other two to UCs. While I am deeply satisified with that result, I've seen too many incompetent high school counsellors to be comfortable--and I haven't seen much variance between public and private schools, either.

While I'm at it, I'd like to put in a plug for parental involvement. The constant jokes and bitching about overinvolved parents are simply misplaced. College admissions directors may be experiencing a 1-2% volume increase in complaints, and a 10-40% increase in admissions, giving them a big boost in application fees. They can shut the f*** up while they're taking the money.

NY Times stories aside, most parents aren't that much more stressed out than they were in previous eras. But if you have a bright kid who worked hard in high school, then he or she deserves an education worthy of that work. Selective universities (top 100) are the best way to assure they will be surrounded by peers of equal caliber. Junior colleges are overrun with remedial students, and the state universities are starting to drown under the overflow of unqualified kids.

Sure, a motivated kid can still do well at a 2-year school--I've helped two young men go from Foothill to Columbia--but that should be reserved for those who screwed up in high school. A kid who scores over 600 on all sections of the SAT will be in the top 1% of kids in a non-selective state school--is that what he worked for, to go to school with a population that had trouble passing algebra?

Many parents in this demographic are appropriately involved with their kids' applications. Like the mom/consultant mentioned above, I save my deepest ire not for their concern, but for the parents who actively disengage from the process, dumping it all onto their kids without offering advice, feedback, or support--not out of laziness, but some perverse parenting philosophy.

My son went through the process this year and I managed to advise him without either of us going beserk. The results were deeply satisfactory; he leveraged his excellent test scores and advanced classes far beyond where he thought his average grades could carry him. And when, after extensive campus/classroom visits to two schools, he turned down the slightly better school for the university he'd dreamed of since 8th grade, I didn't whimper for a moment.

Yet many people see my level of involvement, or those who hire me, as indistinguishable from the people who pay $20K to get their daughter a book contract as a resume item for her Harvard application.

Phew. Long post. Sorry.

Footnote: Did you all hear that SAT scores are down? Most likely culprit is the changes last year, but nothing is known yet. I say again: don't forget the SAT isn't the only game in town. Take the ACT. (More here.)
5.10.2006 3:47am
John Jenkins (mail):
Vorn, that has nothing to do with libertarianism so your criticism is utterly inapt. As a political philosophy, libertarianism has nothing to say about admissions to college (except to state schools, though many libertarians would reject state-supported education outright).

All processes are inherently unfair because of the biases of those involved. In fact, a "better" admissions process just promotes a different sort of unfairness. Whereas now the perceived unfairness is based on financial conditions, the new one that you would create might be based on pure intellect, in which case the unfairness stems from genetics and schooling, which is distributed no more "fairly" than wealth (if by fair, you mean evenly, which is what I take you and Orin to mean). Unless you're an out and out Randian (who do not consider themselves libertarians) you will generally recognize the existence of moral luck and no process is sufficient to control for that fact. Thus, "fixing" the process will not accomplish anything other than to shift the benefits to those who are merely lucky in a different way, one which you would preference over financial luck.
5.10.2006 3:54am
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
But how do you make life more fair (assuming that we can agree on what is fair, which is problematic)? I don't know. Orin had an idea here, that a lot of us don't think will work, but, nevertheless, it was a good idea.

I think that during the 1970s or so, we were moving towards a meritocracy in higher education. But we seem to be moving in the opposite direction. SATs apparently now are moving away from aptitude and towards achievement - which benefits those best prepared, and, thus, from the most advantaged backgrounds. And the sad reality is that kids graduating from the top high schools are probably a couple of years ahead of those graduating from the worst high schools.

This is compounded by the natural tendency for parents to try to give their children every advantage in comparison with the other kids. This is an innate drive, not unique to our species. Chimps do it. Hyenas do it.

Back to fairness, what is fair? I don't know. Economics isn't the only place though these days where the college admission process isn't the least bit fair. I know of one kid attending an Ivy League institution who was raised white in a million dollar house, and only asserted her 1/2 black heritage to get into the school. Wouldn't it have been more fair if that slot had gone to a poor white kid who had to overcome an inferior school (instead of attending an exclusive prep school)? If you have an applicant whose family recently came from Jamaica, and one whose family recently came from Poland, all things being equal, the one with Jamaican roots is going to get significant preference in college admissions - because of his race, even if his family came here 140 years too late to be affected by slavery here. Is that fair?

The problem is that the top schools in this country can fill their incoming classes many times over every year, with kids who can do the work. They have to decide somehow which ones to take. Add to this that a Harvard degree is more valuable, in lifetime income, than a degree from Podunk community college. Who should get those scarce slots at Harvard? What would be fair?
5.10.2006 3:58am
Sarah (mail) (www):
As a homeschooled kid, it was suprisingly difficult for me to find solid knowledge on how the system works; if our town had has some kind of packaging/counseling service I hope I would have been smart enough to have started working even earlier just to pay for it. Of course, the kids at our local public schools did little better; my advantage was a set of parents who went to college in a different state in the 1970s, and the public school kids had a guidance counselor who tried hard to explain that working a lifetime in our local ball bearing factory probably wasn't going to be a good option for nearly anyone. That in itself was a full time job; hardly any parents seemed to understand what "we're eliminating third shift altogether for the first time in company history" actually meant for the future. Suffice to say that I wasn't the only 1380 SAT/29 ACT type in town that felt relieved to get into our major state school, and certainly never applied for anything more expensive. I didn't even understand what "98th percentile" really meant as far as admissions were concerned till I was a sophomore, and noticed that I was one of four girls admitted directly to the honors engineering program (along with 176 guys) my freshman year.

Anyway, this stuff isn't well publicized or particularly obvious to the uninitiated, you know -- mandatory disclosure would primarily punish the kids who have to pay, to the benefit of the ones whose parents have friends in college admissions offices. At least there's some kind of compensatory action possible in the guidance racket. Short of becoming a very well connected golf caddy, I find it difficult to see how outsiders could gain necessary background information otherwise.

(For what it's worth, I'm currently debating whether to bother hiring a guidance/admissions counselor for law school admissions, or resign myself to a guaranteed 100% scholarship at a fourth-tier school. My LSAT score is actually slightly better than my SAT scores were in terms of percentile, but my GPA is worse than the high school one that no one paid any attention to, since it was my mom giving me that "C" in music.)
5.10.2006 4:15am
I don't recall getting any help with my college applications. I think my parents may have agreed to pay the application fee - provided I didn't apply to more than 2 or 3 places. I guess I had no idea my family was so far out of the mainstream.
5.10.2006 4:22am
David M. Nieporent (www):
I know of one kid attending an Ivy League institution who was raised white in a million dollar house, and only asserted her 1/2 black heritage to get into the school. Wouldn't it have been more fair if that slot had gone to a poor white kid who had to overcome an inferior school (instead of attending an exclusive prep school)?
Well, that's a good argument against race preferences -- but I'm a little curious about what "raised white" means. Is there some special melanin-based form of childrearing?
5.10.2006 4:40am
Vorn (mail):
Mr. Jenkins,

My comment is apt. Not because I think that libertarians have a single coherent view on college admissions. Like many (all) ideologies, I am sure that libertarians splinter on various issues.

However, from observation, I think that a common thing that tends to (there are exceptions) unite libertarians is an indifference to others. Of course, libertarians have a idea that they use to justify their indifference. That idea is that most anything we do to help others is bound to make things worse, rather than better. I think your post illustrates this. You do not believe that the concept of fairness is coherent. Anything movement towards fairness is merely a shifting of unfairness to another form.

It is refreshing to see someone like Kevin basically just come out and admit the truth about libertarians. He does not search for a solution, he merely accepts the status quo. He simply does not care enough to think hard about these problems. He is indifferent. I submit, that this indifference is a sign of selfishness, not a truly coherent philosophy.

One final point. I should note that in your response you made the exact same error that I explicitly mentioned in my previous post. I agree that completely fairness is, for practical purposes, impossible. But we do not live in a simplistic binary world. I am talking about more fair.

Now, if you think that the concept of fair is incoherent, then what is wrong with slavery? Are you going to respond that if you free slaves, then that is not more fair it is just a shifting of unfairness from slaves to slavemasters who will thereafter have to perform more labor themselves? That would be ridiculous, wouldn't it? I know your not talking about slavery, but this example illustrates the point I want to make which is also applicable to your statement. That point is that "fairness" is not a zero-sum game. Not all actions we take merely shift unfairness from one individual to another. A world without slavery is more fair than a world without it.

Mr. Hayden:

I think your post illustrates a very good point. Determining exactly what is fair is not always very easy. That does not mean that it is a useless exercise, however. Many very worthwhile things in life are not trivial. That does not make them any less worthwhile.
5.10.2006 4:41am
Trade Monkey (mail) (www):

Libertarians in no way maintain a belief of "indifference to others." There is however a belief that there should be no 'institutionalized systems of preference' among most libertarians.

I, like most libertarians, believe that there are many effective things that can be done to help others. As long as it involves completely voluntary systems, not socially enforced conditions and norms, than libertarians are fine with it.

The fairness that you speak of is not a system of fairness at all- as it only relates to Identity and groups, not any of the individuals inherent to either. A system is fair only when it allows for natural outcomes, i.e., not rigged. Libertarianism, as a social philosophy, is concerned with removing demographic concepts such as wealth, race, religion, education, ethnicity, etc, from debates of social issues. What is left of a person is his/her uniqueness. Society should be geared such that this uniqueness is set free. That is the libertarian weltanschauung.

As far as your comment about libertarians, "not car[ing] enough," I can think of nothing I could do that would be more cruel than playing god with other peoples lives by attempting to control their fates in a perceived attempt at 'fairness.'

Life is a zero sum game; you cannot give to one without taking from another. Therefore, a forced system where you give to someone is only as moral as taking from another. This taking is often justified by saying that some have 'too much,' but what is too much? Who decides this? What moral authority do they have? Why do some people think they're so superior to others, that they feel they somehow have the right to manage how other peoples lives are played out? Is this fair??? No.

Few people have the humility to let others live their lives.
5.10.2006 7:15am
Huggy (mail):
Have candidates roll five dice. Higher scores get in. Lower scores don't. Better than the current system and the product will have a better outlook on life. The current system generates too much cynicism.
5.10.2006 8:17am
Vorn (mail):
Trade Monkey:

Interesting response. I will note the areas we disagree briefly.

First, the concept of "natural outcomes" is completely ridiculous in a society ordered by laws made by men. There is nothing "natural" about, say, the current state of copyright law, which in turns has a large influence on the distributions of wealth and income in our society. There is nothing "natural" about allowing inheritance of unearned wealth (and power) from one generation to the next. There is nothing "natural" about racial discrimination. The list goes on and on.

If libertarians think that complete fairness is an impossibility, how much more so should they think that "natural outcomes" are largely an illusion. One would think we did not live in a society at all, but rather a wilderness, or better, were merely so many atoms in space, destined never to collide.

Second, the idea of complete voluntariness is an illusion. No human being is free from natural and social influences. Libertarians seem to only count social influences that constrain freedom as bad, but ignore natural influences. Lets say there is a hurricane. Due to this hurricane, there is a shortage of water. Say, after the hurricane, an "entrepreneur" goes into local stores, buying all the bottles of water for, say $1.00 a bottle. Then, right outside of the store, they sell those bottles of water for $20.00. People, not having any alternative, "voluntarily" purchase the bottles of water for $20.00. Of course, in reality, this transaction is not truly voluntary. That is a huge illusion. Circumstances beyond the control of individuals have led them to be exploited by this price gouger (who is probably a libertarian that thinks the entire concept of price gouging a fraud).

Anyway, I think we can be skeptical of how "voluntary" the free market really is. How many people do you know that do not like their jobs, but then spend a huge chunk of their conscious moments working at them? Another issue is wages. Isn't it interesting that we have a Federal Reserve which kindly raises interest rates (i.e. manipulates the economy) to prevent inflation. But what causes inflation? Well, ordinary workers becoming too scarce, and having excessive negotiating power relative to employers of course. Do you think your free market system is truly voluntary with all this manipulation? Do you think that people make themselves subservient to those with more wealth because they enjoy it? That, my friend, is an illusion. Those who run businesses like to think they deserve all the credit, that the results of their enterprises are "individual" achievements even while failing to recognize that these "free market" results are the product of human relationships that are not entirely free. That all these transactions are "voluntary" is a convenient illusion for those who are on the right side of the transaction and have the greater negotiating leverage. But it is nonetheless an illusion. I say let go of the illusion and look at the truth behind these "voluntary" transactions. Recognize that there is such a thing as power, and negotiating leverage. Realize that power explains many of the results of your supposedly "voluntary" transactions.

Third, you write: "Libertarianism, as a social philosophy, is concerned with removing demographic concepts such as wealth, race, religion, education, ethnicity, etc, from debates of social issues."

How interesting. Lets ignore all those inconvenient social facts from consideration of social policy. After all, considering these social issues may interfere with the illusions that we use to justify our amoral actions. In other words, lets be willfully blind to reality when making decisions about social policy. Im sorry, but I don't find it persuasive to think that we should ignore SOCIAL facts in debates on SOCIAL policy.

Fourth, you ask what you imagine to be difficult questions, but which I do not think are difficult questions.

"What is too much?"
CEO pay. Unearned inherited wealth. The unearned oil wealth of the Saudi royal family. Etc, etc. This really isn't such a hard question. What is the appropriate age of consent for signing contracts? We are better off with an imperfect rule, like age 18, than no rule at all. Likewise, with your question.

"Who decides this?"
Society. Democracy. The People.

"What moral authority do they have?"
Equal moral authority. The same moral authority that we all have in a world where our actions and inactions inevitable affect others. We are moral agents, and we must make decisions with moral consequences. Libertarians are so often in denial of this, as they justify the consumption of, for example, the services of prostitutes. All one needs is the illusion of "voluntariness." Forget the history and abuse of the object (not human) that provides us with momentary physical pleasure, they say. Enjoy yourself.

Not only do we have moral authority to make these decisions, we have the moral responsibility to do so.

"Why do some people think they're so superior to others, that they feel they somehow have the right to manage how other peoples lives are played out?"

It is not a matter of moral superiority. It is a matter of the inevitableness of human relationships. And of those human relationships inevitably having an impact on others, for good or for ill. If we see that one person is abusing power in a relationship to harm another, we have the right and the duty to intervene. Based on the premise of equal moral authority. Of course, those who refuse to acknowledge the moral consequences of their actions or inactions will likely harm others and thus give rise to a moral duty in others to intervene.

Is this fair?
Absolutely. Of course, from a libertarian perspective, why should it matter? Remember, the classic line, "Life ain't fair. Get over it. :)" I have little sympathy for those who invoke a principle they do not believe in to ask for quarter. Nonetheless, nothing could be more fair than preventing explotaition.

I have a hard time believing that libertarians really believe these things sincerely and are not merely selfish. It sounds like the whole philosophy is designed specifically to shield decision-makers from taking moral responsibility for their actions and inactions. It is based on so many illusions, after all.
5.10.2006 8:18am
Tangentially related:
Around the turn of the century, college admissions at the top of the game (Harvard, Yale, Princeton) became very transparant, as they based admission almost entirely on the College Board Entrance Exam (precursor to the SAT). This led to a "crisis" as more and more Jewish students were admitted, until Harvard had incoming classes that were almost 20% Jewish (gasp). This led them to change admission procedures to heavily weigh "character" in the admission process. To this end they instituted essays and interviews (which had never been used before) simply as way to weed out Jewish students. Even well qualified students could be turned down for entirely subjective (read: racist) reasons.

Good book, "The Chosen" detailed this... I forgot who wrote it, but it includes a pretty interesting history of elite college admissions processes.
5.10.2006 9:35am
But why would I want to "package" my son to get into *Dartmouth*?

Seems a poor use of my time . . .
5.10.2006 10:37am
Marcus1 (mail) (www):

>I don't recall getting any help with my college applications. I think my parents may have agreed to pay the application fee - provided I didn't apply to more than 2 or 3 places. I guess I had no idea my family was so far out of the mainstream.<

You're kidding, right? Volokh commenters as the mainstream? :) Heh. Of course, you are the mainstream -- probably at the upper end of it -- which is exactly the problem. The mainstream is at a huge disadvantage.

Really, though, I'm not sure how much we can blame Dartmouth for all of this. Nothing these elite schools do is going to undo the advantage of hyper-parenting. They're nice if they try not to let the system be manipulated too much, and if they actively seek out diamonds in the rough, but you can only blame Dartmouth so much for the inequality in our society.

Personally, I blame George Bush. Tax-free inheritance? Yeah, that's a fair society... Not to mention everything else he does to give rich people a bigger advantage than they already have.
5.10.2006 10:51am
AppSocRes (mail):

I think you are making an important point: In the late 1800s and early 1900s US higher education made a very conscious decision to emulate the German system and its emphasis on pure academic excellence. Basing admissions on objective maesures of academic achievement -- the College Board examination system -- was one aspect of this. Elites became nervous when they noticed that Jews were exceptionally good at academics and that many legacy children were exceptionally poor.

The drift away from using pure academic achievement has accelerated since affirmative action. This has benefited the children of elites, the targets of various affirmative action programs (athletes, "minorities", persons with special non-academic skills, legatees, etc.), and those with exceptional academic achievement. Those who are hurt are those who are "borderline" gifted academically and are neither children of the elite nor targets of the various affirmative action programs.

If American institutions of higher education were to truly concentrate on academic achievement, the current admissions systems would be abandoned for a uniform, standardized testing system. This is unlikely ever to happen, since too many special interest groups benefit from the current system.

Parenthetically: I once served as a graduate student member of my graduate department's admissions committe. I surreptitiously tracked the success of the grad students who were admitted during my tenure on the committee. Success (completing the Ph.D.) correlated perfectly with GRE scores, to a lesser degree with the GRE achievement exam score, and hardly at all with anything else, including indergraduate grades. IMHO standardized test scores are absolutely the best and only criteria needed if one is selecting entrants to a school based solely on their potential to benefit academically from attending the school in question.
5.10.2006 11:00am
Marcus1 (mail) (www):

It raises the question: why the h--l are educational institutions weeding out for "character" or all these other subjective qualities? I mean, we're talking about schools. How did this turn into picking out the most superior well-rounded individuals? Ok, you said how it happened, but still.

When you think about it, it does seem kind of offensive, the idea that a university is in a position to judge anything other than academic merit (or maybe athletic, musical, etc., depending on the particular training that's offered). I'd think that going to Harvard should be a sign that you're smart, not that you're some kind of ubermensch.

There's a lot to be said, it seems, for going just on GPA and SAT scores. The rest of it is really what turns it all into this mystical and arbitrary human selection process.
5.10.2006 11:16am
Re: Marcus1's Comments--

My alma mater--Notre Dame--has gone overbaord with the "uebermensch" ideal. Kids know that they have to be on a varsity team, Key Club, studednt government, etc., to have a good shot at admission. This leads to resume padding. Even worse, the habit is hard to break, so students over-commit to clubs, intra-mural sports, dorm life, rather than getting deeply involved in, say, chemistry or Russian lit.

Friends who teach at Duke and Northwestern say it's the same at those schools. I don't think all universities need to be like Chicago. But the sense that the intellectual life is the point of a university has been lost.
5.10.2006 11:48am
Cal Lanier (mail) (www):
The drift away from using pure academic achievement has accelerated since affirmative action. This has benefited the children of elites, the targets of various affirmative action programs (athletes, "minorities", persons with special non-academic skills, legatees, etc.), and those with exceptional academic achievement. Those who are hurt are those who are "borderline" gifted academically and are neither children of the elite nor targets of the various affirmative action programs.

This is exactly right.

College admissions will never provide transparency. Public universities might need to be forced to. The UCs, particularly Berkeley and UCLA, get in trouble for this every year.

Ironically, this conversation began because Orin wants the students to disclose.
5.10.2006 12:06pm
Cal Lanier (mail) (www):
There's a lot to be said, it seems, for going just on GPA and SAT scores.

GPA is a joke. Girls get higher GPAs than boys, yet girls comprise well over half the low performers on any standardized test--and usually have a lower median score than boys. Whites with C averages do much better than blacks with an A average.

Grades are the primary means by which colleges practice affirmative action.
5.10.2006 12:11pm
Robert Schwartz (mail):
"I think that at this point, most elite private colleges are need-blind, meaning their admissions decisions are made regardless of income."

And you believed them.

Look, they know that kids from private schools, many suburban high schools and legacies are unlikely to qualify for aid. They can manage the numbers statistically without ever asking for a financial statement.
5.10.2006 12:36pm

Isn't your argument entirely circular? You seem to be defining libertarian thought as the view that inequality is okay, and then using that definition to prove that libertarians think that inequality is okay. What am I missing?
5.10.2006 12:56pm
Orin, can you please explain what you mean by "leveling out the playing field?" It doesn't seem to have much subtance. And let's discuss mandatory disclosure, too-- why is that beneficial? What are its limits?

Should we require children whose parents earn $100,000+ to disclose that to "level" the field? How about $1,000,000+ How are we to use this information to "level" anything, if at all?

Should we require children who have benefited from private tutors at any time in their past to disclose that fact?

Should we require children who have taken SAT preparation courses to disclose that fact?

And what criterion do you suggest employing to "level" the field? Let's say a child has admitted he used a consultant to write his essay. To what degree do you diminish his chances versus another? Is there a sort of "I know it when I see it" judging standard employed here?

Please explain how it would it "level" any field when a middle-income student bereft of the advantages of an Exter Academy pays $200.00 for help on his essay is now forced to admit that aid, when the Exeter student has no such debilitating stigma on his record? (For purposes of the hypo, let's assume the middle-income student's family has income of $80,000 and the Exeter student's family has income of $1,300,000).
5.10.2006 1:28pm
Mr. Mandias (mail) (www):
Too much fretting here:

Yes, wealthy, hyper parents give their kids an unfair advantage. On the other hand, they tend to have a lot less kids. Its not like some kind of permanent class structure is being created, because the top class doesn't reproduce itself very well.
5.10.2006 2:05pm

Sure it does. All that it means is that the elite level is slightly smaller. And they like it that way.
5.10.2006 2:28pm
Cal Lanier (mail) (www):
On the other hand, they tend to have a lot less kids.

The rich actually have more kids than all but the poorest folk, I believe. It's the UMC professionals that have fewer.

can you please explain what you mean by "leveling out the playing field?"

A California judge just provided an excellent look at what "levelling out the playing field might look like" by signalling that he's probably going to strike down the California Exit Exam on the grounds that kids who are taught by uncertified teachers are unfairly disadvantaged.

Granted, most private school students are taught by uncertified teachers, but I dunno if that's going to make it into the argument.
5.10.2006 2:37pm
Cal Lanier (mail) (www):
Ooops. Throw in "High School" before "Exit Exam".
5.10.2006 2:38pm
AppSocRes (mail):
It seems to me that there are only two reasonable criteria for determining whether a student should get into a particular institution of higher education: (1) whether attending that school would optimally aid his intellectual development; and (2) whether the potential student's presence would contribute in a positive manner to the intellectual environment of the school. How the student has acquired this intellectual competence should be immaterial. If inadequate public education intelectually hobbles poor and middle class children, improve public education! Don't reward the perpetrators by giving their shamefully mis-treated wards preferential admission to institutions which they are ill-prepared to utilize.
5.10.2006 3:13pm
Marcus1 (mail) (www):
Prof. Kerr,

>Isn't your argument entirely circular? You seem to be defining libertarian thought as the view that inequality is okay, and then using that definition to prove that libertarians think that inequality is okay. What am I missing?<

Hmm, so what does a perfect libertarian think about education? Private universities are best, but then fairness and equality should be achieved through social moral pressure?

Come to think of it, I have no idea how libertarians think equality of opportunity should be achieved, or if that's simply not a concern. Is the idea that the morality just has to come from the people themselves, and not from the government? But then, people are supposed to act selfishly as well...

Yeah, I don't get it. Do libertarians deny the idea that people helping and promoting their children will create class disparities over time? I don't quite see how this can be denied. I'd guess that libertarians must simply think that this is the cost of an efficient society... So maybe they don't think inequality is ok, they just think it's better than the alternative?
5.10.2006 3:14pm
Public_Defender (mail):
Students should also have to disclose what prep courses they took for the SAT's. The schools should then subtract from those students' scores the average gain that the courses teachers claim.

That would help level the playing field between those who can and cannot afford prep courses.
5.10.2006 3:15pm
"Students should also have to disclose what prep courses they took for the SAT's. The schools should then subtract from those students' scores the average gain that the courses teachers claim."

I think comments like these from Public Defender illustrate the faulty reasoning employed by those who wish to "level" things.

Adopting such a stratagem would serve to penalize those who wish to better themselves and close that line of business. Thus, students will be unable to better themselves using this method. That leaves the status quo intact, i.e. students of wealthy backgrounds and better educational backgrounds will continue to outperform those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds -- it's a lot cheaper to pay Princeton Review $1,500 than to pay Exeter Academy $40,000 per year. Students from poorer families will not be able to better themselves using this prep course.

I do not see why this status quo is in any way desirable.

I also do not see why those who wish to improve themselves should be prohibited from so doing.
5.10.2006 3:52pm
It would also be interesting to hear a reasoned and principled defense of the current state of admissions policies at major universities by those who wish to prohibit or hobble students' use of means to better their chances of acceptance.

It seems a low form of hypocrisy to mandate that colleges must review essays, extracurricular activities, violin playing, etc. to gain entry and then penalize students from attempting to improve those matters. That is particularly so when it is obvious that wealthy students from college-trained family backgrounds have natural advantages in these areas -- but not others. How many middle class students play rugby, after all, or own expensive sports equipment? And how many bright, talented immigrants have as sufficient competence in English as students from Andover to wax eloquent on how they wish to better the world as they excel in science and math? Why should they suffer in comparison to students from affluent backgrounds who have had advantages?

If universities wish to emphasize these qualities as requirements for entry, no one should be shocked or surprised that students will make their best effort to satisfy those universities' demands. Barring or penalizing students from using aids to fulfill these (quite arbitrary) demands merely serves to perpetuate a status quo that can hardly be seen as "level."

These defects are well known. Various sorts of affirmative action program exist as a result. But let me ask: what students will be hurt by eliminating or penalizing prep courses and application services? Wealthy students? The affluent? The very poor?

Or, perhaps, will the students hurt be middle-class students? Striving immigrants? Who are the users of these programs?
5.10.2006 4:02pm
Blooky (mail):
Tempting as it might be, I'm not going to respond at great length fo Vorn's broadiside against libertarianism, as we all know how tedious such debates can get.

I don't think that libertarianism as a political ideology has much to say about how private institutions ought to determine their admissions. It does suggest that the state ought not try to tell private institutions how to go about things, but a libertarian would leave schools free to let students in by grades, test scores, essays, interviews, random chance, race, community involvement, legacy status, or any combination of these factors.

That said, one of the reasons that I lean libertarian is that I'm skeptical about the ability of central planners to get things right, and I'd be skeptical even if I were the central planner. I don't pretend to know the "best" system of admissions. What bothers me about our current system is its dreadful uniformity. With a few minor variations, most of the elite schools seems to go about this process in the same way: they look at grades, test scores, essays, recommendations, interviews, extracurricular activities, and they weigh them about the same.

I would much prefer a system in which elite school A relied largely on test scores, while elite school B used grades instead, C combined the two, D relied heavily on essays, and E looked at the extracurriculars. I think that the risks of error would be much lower if schools employed more diverse standards.

And I do think that the current system really does reward mindless ticket-punching, and it makes kids waste their time on activities that serve no useful purpose. If a kid likes to play chess or take pictures or engage in debate, great. But nobody should join the chess club, the photography club, or the debate team just to punch a ticket. If nothing else, making that sort of activity a de facto requirement drains the activity of whatever joy or intrinsic value if might have had. With the incidental effect of excluding kids who aren't "joiners," who would rather read a book than work on the yearbook.
5.10.2006 4:59pm
Kevin L. Connors (mail) (www):
Vorn, You seem to believe that I am speaking from a position of both privilege and innocence. I can assure you that neither is the case.

Considering the circumstances of my life, it would be easy for me to fall into a state of envy, and attempt to use the power of the state to make things "more fair", for myself and my compatriots. However, that would inevitably lead to things being "less fair" for some other group.

That you bring up the subject of slavery is opportune here. Surely, slavery itself is unfair. But your citation of depriving the former slaveholders of the slave's labor is a step from the sublime to the ridiculous. It would be better to cite the issue of uncompensated emancipation. The Civil War, and the 13th Amendment have to be the greatest "taking" in the history of modern governance. Compensation for emancipated slaves was written into many state constitutions, and Lincoln personally favored it. However, IIRC, it only actually happened in Washington D.C. and Delaware.

In extreme cases, such as slavery, it is easy to identify unfair situations, and right to move to correct them. But it is the height of hubris to believe we can fine tune systems, in cases such as this, to make things "more fair."
5.10.2006 5:22pm
Vorn (mail):

First, I want to recognize this about libertarians. They are not all the same; they do not all have the same beliefs. Like every other ideology that I know of, their is significant splintering.

Given this view, it wouldn't really make sense for me to define libertarianism, except in a very simplified manner which did not capture all libertarians. Not that there would be anything wrong with trying to come up with such a definition; such definitions are sometimes necessary for discussion. But it is important to keep in mind the limitations of our definitions.

Second, my goal was not to prove anything about libertarians, merely to state what I think is most likely the case concerning many (or most), though surely not all, libertarians.

The reasoning is as follows.
Libertarians say:
"Life is not fair. Get over it."
The attitude behind this statement is dismissive of the problem. As though there is no problem. Of course, going from the words itself only, one has to admit many possible interpretations.

Here are a few:
(1) I have really thought about "life" and all the possibly ways it could be rearranged, and have determined that no additional fairness is possible.

(2) Life is a zero-sum game. Correcting unfairness for one merely creates unfairness for another. [So, logically extending this, stopping someone engaged in selling bottled water for $20.00 in the "voluntary" transactions in my last post, is simply "unfair" to the price gouger.]

(3) This whole discussion of "fairness" bothers me. I am not interested in fair. You shouldn't be either.

In my view, the most sympathetic interpretation would be (1). If a thoughtful individual had really thought hard about it, but determined that no additional fairness was possible, then that certainly would not be an indication that they are indifferent to inequality. Why? They took the question seriously and thought hard about it. I frankly do not believe that most libertarian analysis reaches anywhere near this point. They simply do not seem to take the question seriously. Why do I think that?

First, the number of possible rearranging of states in the world is pretty close to infinite. While, in some instances, we can attempt to logically define categories that we believe encompass all states, such attempts at defining categories should be done with all due humility. When you clump unlike things into categories, it is not uncommon for important exceptions to arise for particular members of the category, such that the analysis that one asserts applies to the category does not fit a particular member of the category. Of course, this isn't necessarily a problem if all things you put together have a very small number of dimensions, say 1 or 2 that matter. But the real world does not work like that. There are always n dimensions, where n varies from object to object, and n is large. Thus, our attempts at categorization are going to be inherently imperfect. And if our attempts at categorization are imperfect, it follows that generalities that depend on those categories are suspect.

There is a simpler way to say this. It should be fairly obvious to anyone that the world is complex. The conclusion that one can do nothing in the world to improve fairness therefore borders on the arrogant. How could one possibly conclude this when they don't have the time to think about every possible solution that might lead to a different state of affairs?

It is one thing to say that a particular solution might cause more problems than it solves, or impose more costs than benefits. It is another to say that all possible solutions will do so.

I think this is pretty obvious. The world is complex. The number of possible states unmanageable. So then, how does one come to a sweeping conclusions concerning the inevitability of unfairness?

I think we can infer that a good number of people who come to such conclusions do not really care about the problem. I suspect that if it was a problem that they really cared about, that they would not be so quick to dismiss it. After all, this is not the sort of behavior we typically observe when people care about a problem, is it? When people care about a problem, they tend to be hesitant to assume there is no solution. Especially when it is pretty much impossible to really say that there is not one.

Now, of course, like all inferences that are not subject to verification, it is not possible to quantify precisely how many libertarians this applies to. I am open to the possibility that seeming indifference to fairness by some libertarians has a different explanation. Nonetheless, I think it is a fairly safe bet that many libertarians are that way simply because they do not care about the problem.

Third, clearly, regarding previous comments, you are absolutely right when you say that I did not "prove" that libertarians are indifferent to fairness. That really was not my purpose -- I think it is evident that a fair inference can be drawn from a statement like "Life isn't fair. Get over it." that the person in question (probably)does not think the unfairness is an important problem. Merely from attitude and tone.

The purpose of my first comment was merely to point out that such blatant indifference to fairness is not a wise political strategy for libertarians. Not that I want libertarians to succeed politically, far from it. But, if libertarians realize that taking fairness seriously is in their best interest from a political perspective, then perhaps they will start to think about it a little harder. In the process, I suspect their views will shift, not due to external persuasion, but rather internal rumination.

I would actually be sympathetic to a fair-minded libertarian. I am no fan of, for example, the war on drugs or other destructive policies. In actuality, I think of myself as more of an individualist than any libertarian. I simply recognize what libertarians tend to deny. That restrictionss on individual liberty and freedom come from sources other than the state.

My subsequent comments were aimed at pointing out what I saw were problems in the responses to my original comment.

So, my aim was never to "prove" anything about libertarians, but merely point out an inference that I think can be fairly drawn the comment: "Life ain't fair. Get over it." I can see how you would understand my comments differently, though.
5.10.2006 6:03pm
Marcus1 (mail) (www):

I think admission to college is one of many areas in which children of the affluent are given a huge boost over other children, compounding other social inequalities.

It's about social mobility. George Bush pretends that we're a country of social mobility. It's central to his whole governing philosophy. He pretends that if you work hard, you can have a big house and drive a beemer. So why does he think this? Because he has no idea that if he had been a regular kid like you or me, he would have gone to a state school and probably never would have made more than 70k/yr.

Of course, social mobility is better in America than it is in most countries. In a lot of ways, though, it's not that good, and it seems to be getting worse. Personally, I don't see how a person says the government can't do anything about this. To me, the government has to do something about it, or else the poor lose any moral investment/obligation to the society.

At the same time, I'm still not sure college admission at elite private schools is the place to try to equal things out. I do think this reveals a problem with libertarianism though: if we can't fix the problem at the college level, where else do we fix it? If college is too late still to be talking about equality of opportunity, where else, without government intermeddling, do we address the problem? Or are we denying the problem, or simply saying it doesn't need to be fixed? Libertarianism as a theory that people should follow their own interests, and that the government should stay out of things, seems in this regard to have a pretty big gap.

This wasn't a criticism of Prof. Kerr, incidentally, who proposed a way for elite colleges to address the problem. I think it was a criticism of those libertarians who say the unfairness doesn't matter. Like Vorn, I think it does matter.
5.10.2006 6:47pm
Marcus1 (mail) (www):
Well explained, Vorn.

>It is one thing to say that a particular solution might cause more problems than it solves, or impose more costs than benefits. It is another to say that all possible solutions will do so.<

Libertarianism: The theory that says "Stop trying."
5.10.2006 7:07pm
John Jenkins (mail):
Marcus &Vorn, I still think that all you're doing is preferencing one form of unfairness over another. Now the deck is stacked in favor of the financially gifted. Any "solution" would merely stack the deck in favor of the intellectually gifted. Maybe that is preferable, but I fail to see how it is more fair. The only actual fair allocation would seem to be a purely random assignment. Perhaps we first have to decide what we mean by "fair."
5.10.2006 8:57pm
The argument rests on a questionable presupposition: fairness means greater equality (and the corollary, such inequality is inherently unfair).

I see no reason to accept such a presupposition.
5.10.2006 9:31pm
Marcus1 (mail) (www):

Do you hang out with a lot of people significantly wealthier than you are despite the fact that they did nothing to earn it? Do you find yourself putting a great deal of effort into achieving things that you then see given to others who did nothing at all? Would it bug you if your boss were completely incompetent, or if completely incompetent people were promoted ahead of you, not based on any merit, but because those people had relatives in high places? Would it bug you if you were bidding on a house you really wanted, but then Bill Gates' unemployed daughter came and doubled your bid? If you needed a heart transplant, and she came in and outbid you?

Equality of result isn't a valid objective, but I think equality of opportunity clearly is, even if it's impossible to perfectly achieve.
5.10.2006 11:26pm
How are the advantages of having wealthy/superachieving parents different from winning the genetic lottery in any number of physical and mental attributes that are likewise "undeserved"?

And if we're really serious about equality of opportunity, we ought to abolish the family altogether, and while we're at it, establish a eugenics program, which is pretty much what Plato's Socrates proposed in The Republic.
5.11.2006 12:28am
Kevin L. Connors (mail) (www):
This seems like a classic justice versus fairness issue.
5.11.2006 1:15am
Gene Vilensky (mail) (www):
I think you guys are a little off here. At Yale, nearly half (at least when I was there) of the student body received grant-based financial aid. About 30% of the students were Asian (mostly children of immigrants). Another 10% or so were black, hispanic or Native American. I am a first-generation American, and I knew several white students (meaning they don't appear in the "diversity statistics") who were as well and I knew numerous people from middle-of-nowhere small towns and many children of academics. Sure, there were WASPy people with vast family fortunes, but it wasn't like the campus was dominated by them. At all. Most elite schools have similar demographics.

As for AP classes, you know, you can take the AP exam without taking the class. That's what I did in my public high school. We didn't have AP Physics, Chemistry, European History, or Comparative Politics, but I took them anyway (studying on my own) and did fine.

Yes, kids at private schools have lots of advantages for college admissions. But I think the admissions officers at colleges, for all of their faults, know this. I know a kid who went to one of the best NE boarding schools, had 1500+ SAT's, straight A's, lots of activities, and got rejected by every Ivy. I also know a girl whose father went to Yale, and she got rejected despite stellar grades at a tough suburban public school and excellent SAT's. I think admissions officers look more at what students have done with what they had been given, not where they necessarily ended up. I think with some hard work, students who were not very advantaged can easily overcome this.
5.11.2006 1:32am
John Jenkins (mail):
I think we have a better shot at defining fair than we do defining justice, so let's stick with that.
5.11.2006 2:57am
Public_Defender (mail):

I also do not see why those who wish to improve themselves should be prohibited from so doing.

Taking a test prep class doesn't "improve oneself," it just improves the person's ability to take that test. The prep class makes the test a less accurate measure of general aptitude. The simplest way to correct the measuring ability of the test is to adjust the scores accordingly.

To be fair, colleges do engage in some other forms of correction. When faced with a poor kid and a rich kid with the same scores, any smart admissions officer would give a preference to the poor kid. This is because the poor kid had to work harder and be smarter to get the same score.

But back to the thread topic. Perhaps the best way to guage how much help the student received would be to ask the student to write a paragraph about the help he or she received on the application. In addition to giving the school insight into who prepared the application, the question would test the student's writing ability, as well as the student's judgment in knowing when to accept help.
5.11.2006 8:23am
Vincent L. Teahan (mail):
Five years ago, I wrote to "Salon" that I thought that the most selective colleges ought to do an initial sorting of applications and conduct a lottery for a good part of the next freshman class.

I think the problem has gotten worse over the last 5 years, and the colleges (while claiming to wash their hands of the problem) are significant enablers. There are perfectly reasonable ways for them to cut down the current madness, in which students and parents are being driven to needless competitive distraction.

I attach below what I wrote. I am not hopeful that colleges will do anything constructive. They have a lot invested in the current, perverse system.

One way to stop the madness might be for each college to choose an arbitrary percentage (say half) of its class by traditional one-by-one selection. The other half would be chosen by sorting applicants who fit into certain categories of excellence (academics, music, sports, art, writing, overcoming personal difficulties) and then choosing these people by lot. No applicant would know how he or she was chosen. I would anticipate that this latter half of accepted applicants would be oversubscribed in many cases by four or five times, given that these elite institutions only take a small fraction of qualified applicants. I recognize that the criteria to get into the lottery would still be pretty hard to establish, but if refined it would at least reduce the level of tension, and of needless competitiveness, that separates an "accept" from a "reject" from one of the 25 or so schools. The schools could also consider other steps, more or less controversial, like limiting the number of applications to any of these schools to, say, three, and also limit the bidding for scholarships that is going on (fully recognizing that there are antitrust considerations at work here).

Yale College and Yale Law School (where I also went) were highly selective 25 years ago, but not nearly so much as now. For too long a time, I thought that it was great that selective admissions committees had seen fit to recognize my merit. (I don't think that this was an isolated reaction, as schools of this sort foster an arrogant camaraderie among their elect, which is part of their sinister allure). I would have proceeded more quickly to adult life, rather than merely competing for prizes and feeling smug about my supposedly elite status, had I been forced to realize early on that I had simply won a lottery.

-- Vincent Teahan
5.11.2006 10:10am
Marcus1 (mail) (www):

It seems to me there's unfairness that we're given and can't do anything about, and then there's unfairness that people create. Of course, fairness is kind of an ambiguous idea, but I think almost anyone would agree that an initiative which drastically hurt the vast majority of people (such as abolishing the family) and only marginally increased equality would not be an increase in fairness.

I think it's pretty well accepted that a good political system (and a fair one) will serve everyone as well as possible, but then additionally won't randomly make some people extremely much better off than others. Why the second part? A lot of reasons. 1. We're competitive, and I won't be happy shining Paris Hilton's shoes for the rest of my life no matter how many TV's I can buy. 2. Democracy or not, wealth brings political power, and large disparities in wealth give the wealthy real control over the entire system, whether tax policy or gay marriage. 3. Look at reality. We have a lot more extreme poverty in America than there is in a lot of European countries, despite the fact that we're much wealthier. This isn't abstract; poor people in America are actively being screwed by our lack of fairness. 4. In moral terms, it's awfully convenient for the people who are well off to perpetuate an unfair system and then say "Oh, well it's really no different than the fact that I ended up prettier than you." In real terms, if this were the prevailing defense of our system, I think the system would be pretty short-lived, because those who were being put at the bottom of the heap wouldn't put up with it.

I bet there are a lot more reasons to support the idea that fairness matters. Fairness/equality aren't the only thing, but they are one thing. Essentially, unless we care about fairness, we're resolving to live in an entirely amoral society, where I might as well commit any crime I think I can get away with. Some people think this way, but I think it would be a problem if we all did.
5.11.2006 10:51am
Kevin L. Connors (mail) (www):

To be fair, colleges do engage in some other forms of correction. When faced with a poor kid and a rich kid with the same scores, any smart admissions officer would give a preference to the poor kid. This is because the poor kid had to work harder and be smarter to get the same score.

Not necessarily so. The gap in academic standards between schools in wealthy and poor areas is notorious.

Of course, SATs and ACTs are supposed to level the playing field" in that regard. But there we introduce another unfairness; some people are just better at the testing process than others.
5.11.2006 11:36am

At Yale, nearly half (at least when I was there) of the student body received grant-based financial aid.

These stats are often misleading. Percentage of students recieving need-based financial aid is an important number in the ranking games and lots of schools artificially inflate the number by giving tons of tiny grants, which in the end hurts the kids who really need it as there is less to go around.

When I was a UG freshman, I had a $23,000 need-based grant. The next year, as the school's president changed, they restructured the financial aid system, boosting the "percentage of students recieving need-based aid" from 22% to 68%. My grant was reduced to $1400. I stuck it out and borrowed the money (currently have $32k left to pay, though I'm about to borrow 100k+ for law school).

Point is, that's a meaningless statistic.
5.11.2006 12:01pm
This comment by Public Defender is quite revealing:

"Taking a test prep class doesn't "improve oneself," it just improves the person's ability to take that test. The prep class makes the test a less accurate measure of general aptitude. The simplest way to correct the measuring ability of the test is to adjust the scores accordingly. "

One might just as easily say that going to school and taking courses in chemistry to pass an AP exam "just improves the person's ability to take that test." How is this different? Is that not what education is about? If not, how does one grade or measure it?

Perhaps Public Defender would like to abandon such measurement standards. If so, I would be curious to hear what standards Defender would like to use to justify selective admissions to colleges.
5.11.2006 12:12pm
Marcus1 (mail) (www):

>One might just as easily say that going to school and taking courses in chemistry to pass an AP exam "just improves the person's ability to take that test." How is this different? Is that not what education is about?<

If you're trying to test knowledge, then studying is the whole point. If you're trying to test aptitude, though, then there is of course a problem when people learn methods to game the test. In either case, though, the serious problem is when some people have access to information that allows them to do well on the test without actually being any good at the thing that we're trying to test.

As others have pointed out, such as Kevin L. Connors, there's not much fairness in one person getting in because he's smarter than another. So you could say that makes the whole thing arbitrary in terms of fairness. I don't think that's true, though. It's fair to say that, being able to train one of two people to be a doctor, we're going to pick the one who has the most potential to be a good doctor. It's fair for a lot of reasons: fairness to the eventual patients, fairness to the school so they're not wasting time and money, and fairness to the applicants, one of whom has more potential to actually be a doctor, or a good doctor, and thus a greater interest in the spot. The other person can then go find something else that he's good at. That's fair. People should be promoted in things they're good at; not arbitrarily forced into fields without any considerations given to their natural talents.

In the end, it would be very counterproductive to pick applicants to various endeavors without considering their potential to succeed in that endeavor. This is a good reason for considering this factor. It is not, however, a justification for making the entire system arbitrary, or worse, for turning it into an insider game.
5.11.2006 12:34pm
"In the end, it would be very counterproductive to pick applicants to various endeavors without considering their potential to succeed in that endeavor. This is a good reason for considering this factor. It is not, however, a justification for making the entire system arbitrary, or worse, for turning it into an insider game."

This is a fascinating defense to offer for trying to ban test-preparation courses. Tell me; are you as concerned about preferential admission for African-American students into medical schools? How does that advance your stated thesis of finding "one of whom has more potential to actually be a doctor, or a good doctor"? Do you believe that essay writing best reflects this ability? Are you aware that standardized test scores (such as on the LSAT or MCAT) best correlate with passage of medical school and law school qualifying exams?

And tell me: what data do you rely on to suggest that those who do well on SATs without training are in any way "better" than those with training? I'd be interested to see it -- because there are no such data.
5.11.2006 1:52pm
logicnazi (mail) (www):
I haven't read enough of the comments to take a view on the broader issues but just on the help with essays point I think there are some very good reasons to allow this sort of help.

A huge factor in how people evaluate an essay is not just the ideas and concepts involved but also little things like grammar and spelling. These abilities come much more easily to some than others but most graduating HS students don't have perfect writing style and some of them are horrible at grammar (for instance I was...and still am).

Now while for some areas grammar might be an important skill (though you can always get someone to edit your papers etc..) people may be very skilled and compotent in some areas but still have poor grammar (I got a BS in math from caltech and working on PhD in logic at UCB and you can see how bad my grammar is). Unfortunatly, it is very difficult for most people to seperate out the effect of bad grammar/spelling from the impact of an essay as a whole.

Or to put it differently relatively minor cosmetic features are a barrier to really getting at the substance of an essay one is reading. Thus barring help or making one list the help one recieved (as someone editing your paper now looks the same as someone writing half of it for you to the admissions officer) elevates the importance of relatively trivial skills over substance. The problem is that you just can't accurately measure the amount of help people have gotten on an essay and telling people to list the help they have gotten will encourage many people to get someone to co-write the essay and list this as 'minor help with phrasing/editing' and thus if looked at seriously discourage people from getting their english teacher to read over the essay and make suggestions.

Also, getting help measures the student's dedication. I suspect students of equal ability, one of whom takes their essay to three of their english teacher's for editing help and the other who doesn't will not perform equally well in college (the more proactive student will do better). Also the type of parents who push their kids to get help may also be more likely to support their kids in college and push them to do well in courses.

So it is entierly possible (as unfortunate as it is) that getting help on your essay is actually a good thing as far as admissions offices are concerned (within bounds of ethics/fairness) and that an explicit listing of this fact would screw up this system as it would encourage people to go to extremes (once you pay the cost of listing help you might as well get them to co-write the thing especially since you no longer feel guilty).
5.11.2006 3:18pm
1) Ok, so don't abolish the family. Why not have arranged marriages to even out the differences? The idea that individuals should be able to choose their spouse is a peculiar feature of modern liberal democracy (influenced as well by mawkish Romantic notions). In other words, many of the things that people seem to think are fixed really are not. They, too, are the result of political choices.

2) I think it's pretty well accepted that a good political system (and a fair one) will serve everyone as well as possible, but then additionally won't randomly make some people extremely much better off than others.

Speaking as political philosopher, I would not agree at all with that claim, particularly the second part of the claim. Only certain types of egalitarians would accept such a notion of what constitutes a good political system.

3) I don't consider the welfare states of the Europeans to be fairer because they dole out more benefits to the poor that reduce disparities in income.

In any case, the only problem I would have with these consultants and prep courses is that they may add noise the selection process, not that the upper strata of society benefit most from them.
5.11.2006 3:44pm
Marcus1 (mail) (www):

Did you see my use of the word "randomly"? As in arbitrarily? You think arbitrarily placing some individuals in extremely superior positions to others presents no problem whatsoever? If I'm living in a society which arbitrarily makes my neighbor my boss, and gives him 10 times my salary, why am I going to put up with this system? Because I have to? I have to ask, are you a fascist?

Of course, things are rarely actually random or arbitrary. Much more often it's one group helping itself to the detriment of another.

As to arranged marriage, I happen to think that would present some problems in America. I'm pretty sure it would result in a net loss more significant than any increase in equality, whatever that increase in equality is supposed to be. Again, I wasn't suggesting we should cut everybody down to the least common denominator or below. I'm just suggesting that equality of opportunity is a virtue, to be balanced against its various costs in various situations. Now, we can argue about the costs, which I think is pretty much what we're doing, but it seems pretty strange to say that equality of opportunity isn't even a virtue. I think history shows pretty convincingly that where there isn't at least an attempt to create equality of opportunity, the result is a lot of violence, which could be seen both as a symptom, and of course as a problem in itself. Don't you think?
5.11.2006 5:44pm
I didn't take randomly to mean arbitrarily.

As with many abstract concepts, it's how one defines equality of opportunity that causes disagreement. My view of it--and the extent to which I think that government should promote it--is obviously much more limited than yours.
5.11.2006 9:38pm