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The Dartmouth
March 2, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

High Demand, Unclear Quality

When we walk past a restaurant with a line out the door, most of us think, "Good restaurant." There are some other explanations for the line, of course. The restaurant could be in a can't-miss location or the service might be intentionally slow. The restaurant may be surviving on reputation or people may have joined the line as a function of a herd mentality.

Elite colleges and universities have long lines as well, but unlike the restaurants, most supplicants won't get in. Three years ago, my eldest daughter was rejected from Dartmouth. In what was, I presume, a form letter, Dean of Admissions Karl Furstenberg suggested that the pain of sending out so many rejections was somewhat offset because he knew rejected applicants would nevertheless have many attractive options from which to choose. He was right with regard to my daughter, and she is very happy at the school she chose.

As with the dining establishments, we presume that because elite schools reject roughly nine out of 10 applicants, that the fare those colleges serve up must be the very best. What we forget is that the college experience has a great deal more to do with who we are and how we apply ourselves than whom we are with.

The spring college admissions panic is over for most high-school seniors. Many of the top-rated universities sent out admissions decisions within the last two weeks. Headlines in the schools' newspapers proudly proclaimed the percentages of applicants the colleges rejected, making this the most selective admissions cycle ever.

It was not always so. Fifty years ago, more than six out of 10 students applying to Stanford were accepted. Until 1973, Berkeley accepted any California high-school student who graduated in the top eighth of his or her class. Today, Berkeley, like many elite institutions, rejects many class valedictorians, and less than half of applicants with SAT scores at or above the 96th percentile get in.

Our brand-name consumerism has been fueled by both our own headlong insistence to keep up with the Brahmins as well as by the artificially fanned college rankings, promoted by sources such as U.S. News and World Reports. It is a phenomenon with which we are all familiar. We plunk down an extra $30 for Nikes or pay triple the price for a Coke instead of a generic cola.

Social psychologist Robert Cialdini has identified a relevant principle which helps to explain why we line up in droves for selective colleges. Cialdini believes that we value that which is scarce, often whether the object of our desire is valuable or not.

The scarcity principle is behind advertisers' campaigns which limit the numbers of available products or the amount of time purchasers have to buy.

Cialdini tells an instructive tale about the Mormon temple in his hometown of Mesa, Ariz. He reported that he was never interested enough to go inside the temple until the day he read a newspaper article that told of a special inner section of Mormon temples to which no one had access but faithful members of the church. For a few days after a temple was built or refurbished, non-Mormon visitors could see the temple area normally banned to them.

Cialdini resolved to take the tour until he called a friend who wondered why he seemed so intent on visiting some place he had never been inclined to see and in which he expected to find nothing more spectacular than what he might see at a number of other churches in the area. Cialdini realized the sole allure of seeing the temple was because that possibility would soon be unavailable.

We should not assume that because something is difficult to get, that it is necessarily worth the price of getting it. There is precious little evidence to suggest that once inside the hallowed halls of Dartmouth or any other of our most prestigious universities we receive anything like the supernatural benedictions and nostrums we believe we have purchased. Maybe it is time to ask whether we shouldn't just take our business elsewhere.