When asked whether “Letting car services such as Uber or Lyft compete with taxi firms on equal footing regarding genuine safety and insurance requirements, but without restrictions on prices or routes, raises consumer welfare,” the responses varied only in the intensity with which they agreed. Of the 40 economists who responded, 60 percent “strongly agree,” 40 percent “agree,” and while zero responded that they were “uncertain,” none “disagree” nor did any “strongly disagree.” On this issue at least, it’s time to retire the caricature of the two-handed economist.
Economists Agree on Something
Steven Pinker has a fascinating piece on what's wrong with the admissions process of elite colleges in America, and how to fix it. He faults elite colleges for not basing admissions primarily on the basis of academic potential. He feels that colleges rely too much on athletic, artistic, and other extracurricular accomplishments.
At the admissions end, it’s common knowledge that Harvard selects at most 10 percent (some say 5 percent) of its students on the basis of academic merit. At an orientation session for new faculty, we were told that Harvard “wants to train the future leaders of the world, not the future academics of the world,” and that “We want to read about our student in Newsweek 20 years hence” (prompting the woman next to me to mutter, “Like the Unabomber”). The rest are selected “holistically,” based also on participation in athletics, the arts, charity, activism, travel, and, we inferred (Not in front of the children!), race, donations, and legacy status (since anything can be hidden behind the holistic fig leaf).
Pinker recommends standardized testing as the solution. I do worry that standardized testing can be gamed. But the current system seems strange to me.
Compared to the rest of the world, American college admissions is unique in relying so heavily on non-academic factors. This has been a source of constant puzzle to me ever since I landed at Dartmouth College after finishing high school in India. My sense is that professors have a strong preference for having smart students in their classes. If they were in charge of admissions, they would probably try to take the smartest students they can get. But the admissions office has other priorities. And I'm guessing that those priorities are handed down to them from top administration. The question is, what explains those priorities? Are they trying to identify people who are likely to become financially successful and donate to their alma mater? And maybe being good at academics is not the only predictor of financial success? There must be something behind it, because if these choices don't make sense, then why aren't colleges just below the elite level attempting to capture all the smart students who didn't get into Harvard because they lost out to the bassoonist or the lacrosse athlete? The sub-elite colleges look at other things too. They also pass over smart people for musicians and athletes.
I would be very interested in comparing Caltech graduates to science majors at other universites. Caltech admissions focuses much more on academic achievement than other schools. So are they getting it wrong in some dimension? Do their graduates not go on to become captains of industry and donate millions? Do they end up working for the well-rounded musician-athlete with lower SAT scores from Harvard? I am genuinely curious.
Author of Economics: The Remarkable Story of How the Economy Works