Thursday, June 5, 2014

Affirmative Action and College Admissions

Most people who toss opinions into the ring are not encumbered with actual data, experience or personal investment.  Those are advantages I lack.

All of my children were adopted.  My youngest two children are African-American.  My youngest daughter (Belladonna) is a junior and a pretty decent athlete.  We are staring out from the beach and see the tsunami approaching.

Belladonna received an unsolicited letter from University of Pennsylvania.  Ivy League.  Belladonna thinks it is great.

I winced.  My thinking is that education in America is stratified for good reasons.

At the national level, the very highest tier of universities run undergraduate programs for reasons of legacy and tradition.  Research and Grad School are their meat and potatoes.  To be successful, and feel successful as an undergraduate, you better have demonstrated capability at performing grad level work.

Colleges/universities are typically sorted into three levels at the state level.
-The top tier schools have Division I sports teams, perform research, have professional schools (law, medicine) and very active grad programs.  Their graduates are the destined to be the upper management  of the state's industry.  In general, the top tier schools are HUGE.  A typical range of ACT scores might be 24-to-34.
-The second tier schools tend to have a regional service area.  They are distinguished with names like Western (name of state) University.  Each school is smaller than the top tier universities (maybe half the size) but they have, in total, several times as many undergrad students as the relatively few top tier universities.  A typical range of ACT scores might be 18-to-25.  There is a little bit more flexible in admissions than at the top tier schools because the requirements are scaled to balance the number of undergrad slots and the scores of the regional population served by the university.
-The third tier of schools are community colleges and branches of universities serving inner cities.  Standardized test scores are not considered.  Three questions are asked: Does the candidate have a high school diploma or GED? Does the candidate have the ability to pay.  And does the candidate have a pulse?

One of the reasons for selectivity is to avoid running a plow horse in a horse race.  The plow horse might finish the race but chances are good that it will lose heart and stop running before it hits the finish line.

The miss-match spawned by affirmative action has been proposed as one of the causes of poor minority retention rates in college.  For the time period between 1996 and 2003 the 6 year graduation rate for Caucasians was approximately 60% and approximately 41% for African-Americans.  The retention rate for African-Americans immediately jumped up about 4.5% after California passed Prop 209.  There was not a significant drop in the gross number of African-Americans admitted to public California universities but there was a general shift down in the tier/selectivity of schools they were admitted to.

Belladonna would be a perfect fit for a second tier State school.  She would very comfortably fit within the cloud.  Belladonna might be able to cling to the edge of the cliff at a top tier state school but it would likely be a struggle.

That is not to say that intelligence is immutable and that test scores and GPA are destiny.  But you must appreciate that the high school GPA is a composite value that incorporates four years of information, four years of values and long did the student study for tests, did the student take care of themself by eating and sleeping well, how intellectually curious was the student, did the student take advantage of learning opportunities beyond the mandatory lectures.  Standardized tests a marker that indicates how much the student learned during their passage through high school.  Again, a composite measure that condenses four years of priorities and decisions into a few, easy-to-sort numbers.

While the race does not always go to the swift nor the fight to the strong, that is certainly the way to bet.

So what happens when an ill-prepared student enters a top-tier university?  Well, for one thing, they might end up taking remedial classes that don't count toward their degree.  That creates an out-of-pocket cost of paying for at least one additional year of school (+$40K).  It also creates an opportunity cost of a year not worked (+$30K).  So did that top-flight university do the ill-prepared student any favors?  They just vacuumed $70K from them.

I want my children to be successful.  If they really have "the right stuff" they can get fabulous GPAs at a school that matches up with their historical academic performance.  Then they can go to grad school at a top tier school.

One very large supplier I used to work with had a policy of skimming the cream (top 5%) from second tier schools.  Their rational was that those students would have been successful had they gone to the very best schools.  The graduate may have stayed with the local school for family reasons or for financial reasons.  The company's thinking was that they could pick up very, very capable employes who had more work ethic and less entitlement attitude than those from name-brand schools.  And they could start them at much lower salaries.

It is a fact of life that hiring departments look at the last degree granted.  They see the MBA from Wharton.  They do not care if the applicant's undergrad degree was from the University of Southwest Nebraska.

I am NOT looking forward to when Belladonna asks me if I think she is Yale material.  How does one tell a young lady who is smart, and beautiful, and level-headed....and a little bit proud, that she would be a specimen in a petting zoo at Yale, there for the entertainment of the paying customers and to allow Yale to trumpet their "diversity"?


  1. Sadly, you're right... But the key point is to GET a degree. A Masters/PHD is nice, but the reality is that having one is very beneficial to the $$ bottom line. Unless you're going to be a major player in finance or R&D, those big $$ top tier unis don't do a damn thing other than cost the parents their life savings... and that is the .01% of students that actually 'benefit' from those degrees.

    1. There is little doubt that a Bachelor's degree from Saginaw Valley State University has more market value than a drop-out from Harvard.

      Unless you are Bill Gates. He convinced his partner that he should receive 60% equity in Microsoft because dropping out of Harvard had a higher opportunity cost than dropping out of University of Washington.