The Paradox of Selectivity

by Evan Meyerson | 2/7/08 10:35am

Through watching my sibling go through the 2008 edition of the college crapshoot, it has become clear to me that I could not get in to Dartmouth with today's admissions metrics. With all due respect to the Classes of 2010 and 2011, I do not consider myself less intelligent than you all -- but my God you are qualified! Twenty-five percent of '10s scored above 1550 on their SATs. Thirty percent of '11s were valedictorians in high school. Blah blah blah.

The trend -- at Dartmouth as well as nationally -- is clear: while America's general education system declines, the numerical qualifications -- not to mention the absurd extracurricular endeavors -- of students applying to selective colleges is reaching freakish heights. How could this possibly be a good thing?

It is mind-boggling to envision what the college-admissions process will be like when our children apply to Dartmouth. Fast forward 30 years to when 50-year-old you has convinced your teenager to consider your dear old alma mater. You check out the "Admissions Data" screen of the Dartmouth website and begin to feel queasy: "SAT range, middle 50 percent: 2360-2400; tuition, room, board and fees: $89,483."

We all hope that these statistics represent an exaggerated fantasy, but can you really bet on it? While the exploding number of high school students nationwide will finally decrease after the graduates of 2009 apply to college (thanks a lot, baby-boomers), we are unlikely to see any drop in test scores or other credentials. The College will continue to find itself shutting its doors on truly deserving candidates. At the same time, however, the paradox of selectivity will gradually expand the horizons of higher education.

The paradox of selectivity is a simple, mathematical concept. Increasingly competitive applicant pools coupled with the top-tier schools' very limited expansions of their incoming classes force the "elite" institutions to reject perfectly qualified students. Despite their Ivy League"caliber qualifications, these rejected students enroll -- begrudgingly at first -- at schools traditionally considered outside the top tier.

As a result, colleges that strove to be mentioned in the same sentence as the Ivies now have an unprecedented number of accomplished students; such institutions have become "hot" schools.

First-rate students now willingly apply to these up-and-comers. Over time, as the pool of overqualified applicants continues to grow, the disparities between students at top-ten schools and those at schools ranked 10 through 30 will markedly erode. In an ironic twist of fate for schools like Dartmouth, the unintended yet unavoidable consequence of choosing increased selectivity over expansion is a decrease in absolute ranking.

In truth, this simplified scenario is far from a new development. The paradox of selectivity has been gaining steam for over a decade; schools like Washington University in St. Louis, Emory University and the University of Southern California have consequently joined the ranks of America's preeminent providers of higher education.

Whether you blame the baby-boomers or Princeton Review for this trend, there is a greater number of top-notch students seeking higher education than ever before in our nation's history. While it may hurt our egos to watch Dartmouth's ranking in U.S. News and World Report fall from nine to 11 -- a sign that the selectivity paradox may be hitting close to home -- the arrival of new players to the upper levels of education is a great development for our society.

High schools across the country are failing to provide our students with an education that meets the necessarily high standards of a global leader. Nevertheless, as second-tier colleges become first-tier colleges, opportunities for rigorous higher education become more widespread. While it would be naive to hope that this expanding arena of higher education will trickle down to high schools and below, there is an undeniable societal gain in what may seem like a college admissions crisis.

It may be difficult to console despondent high school students with the notion that their rejection from Dartmouth or its brethren actually benefits the greater good. Yet the mere fact that schools like Dartmouth must reject some of the world's brightest remains a remarkable highlight of an education system that is regrettably struggling to keep pace with the rest of the developed world.

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