This article is in the wake of Hollywood celebrities buying their children’s way through college admissions. It is probably not surprising at all. However, its egregious to cheat the system, at least until these institutions change their rules. It’s like it’s acceptable in America for lobbyists to literally propose laws so we cannot question the lobbyists since they are not doing anything illegal. Just like that, there are countless such schools where it’s pay to play. However, the schools on the list are not pay to play. They are some of the better private and public schools of America. And that’s why this is so problematic. These schools are not NPU, Fremont but Yale, Stanford, UCLA and USC. However, it is not the schools themselves that committed crimes, it’s the people employed in different areas of the entire college admission process and the parents of children who played foul.
So, are there any better solutions than the subjective American college admissions scheme? It depends on the objective of college. Is the objective of college, life experience and networking? Or is it strictly building hard skills and employ-ability? Or is it a mixed set of both? Most will agree that it’s a mixed set of both and that’s why we have landed at this subjective college admissions procedure in America.
To throw some international perspective, when I was growing up, there were clearly three kinds of colleges- the pay-to-play types, the strict admission criteria types and the admission criteria types with pay-to-play under the table. I went obviously to the “strict admission criteria type”. There used to be a college entrance exam for this college with 1% selection rate. In my year, 300,000 students appeared for the test, 3000 got selected (strictly based on the test score) and my rank was 981 (in the top 0.33%). To compare, Stanford and Harvard have 5% acceptance rates. Let’s say if Harvard and Stanford just look at SAT scores and GPAs as admission criteria, somebody like me can get in with my work ethic and education focused mindset.
However, the story is different in America. There is no strict formula for undergraduate admissions. It’s a combination of SAT scores, GPA, letters of recommendation, personal essays, legacy and a more holistic resume with volunteer/entrepreneurship/leadership experience or otherwise some exceptional talent/performance in one area. I could have still eked into Stanford or Harvard, based on SAT scores, GPA, letters of recommendation and personal essays; had I applied for undergraduate admissions in the US and had I taken the SAT. I can say this because I have always been good at academics and understanding how things work conceptually has never been a problem for me because of my reading habits. However, to achieve this, I should have gotten perfect scores at SAT and an extremely high GPA to balance out my lack of holistic resume. Most kids from my socioeconomic and geographic background lacked the holistic resumes we speak of today. The only “paid” extracurricular classes I ever went to was “cricket practice classes” at the neighborhood park for a season or two. In contrast to that, just to check out my daughter’s interest, I have taken her to ballet, voice lessons, basketball, cross country, track and field, golf and martial arts, to name a few and she is just 10. Of course, I am not imposing any of these “paid” extracurricular activities on her. We are taking her for the experience to see if she can develop interest in anything particular. From trial and error, we did find out that she truly enjoys “long jump” (and track and field in general) and does very well at them.
Despite the lack of this holistic resume, I was able to attend the best engineering school in India and this is because the school’s admission criterion was extremely objective- the test score of their entrance examination. This makes sense since the objective of the school was to produce technical engineers. However, once we were at the school, we realized that the school had much more to offer than a great engineering degree, it offered us life experience, holistic education and awesome networking opportunities in addition. The school has since (I went there in 2002) changed it’s admission criteria but I am sure it’s still somewhat more objective than American schools.
So which schools in America are somewhat like my school in India? I think the schools which come closest are California Institute of Technology aka Caltech and Massachusetts Institute of Technology aka MIT. I am not saying that these schools don’t look at subjective things but their objective criteria are so strong that few students make the cut. I am adding some videos to this post to make the knowledge gathering session more “holistic” instead of an objective reading.
Shashi Tharoor’s somewhat exaggerated take on IITs
So the premise of this post is that if the objective of a school is specialization, the admission criteria will be more objective than subjective and if the objective leans more towards a holistic well-rounded education, the admission criteria will be more subjective. Foul play can happen with objective criteria as well (you can pay someone to fudge the scores, who knows) but it is more likely to happen with subjective criteria since “subjective” is a matter of perception. One of the universal rules of life is: “whenever performance is not clearly measurable, networking plays a bigger role in success”.
So every society is free to decide what kind of schools they want and what kinds of graduates they want. We need both kinds- we need the well-rounded, people savvy sales guys and we also need the uber specialized engineers, doctors and scientists. We either send them to the same schools with same criteria or different schools with different criteria, that’s our call. There are other things to think about though- privilege, legacy and endowments. Social currency has always been one of the most important currencies since humans existed; hence we will never be able to eliminate the “who we know” phenomena. But we have to think creatively about leveling the playing field. Ideas are welcome. Remember, life is not fair but we can try to make it fairer, not always, not everywhere, but at least when and where we can.