June 11, 2012

Education: Custom’ary to Customer’y

Harvard admitted children of alumni at a rate more than twice that of non--athlete, non--legacy applicants, despite the fact that, on virtually every one of the school's magical ratings scales, legacies significantly lagged behind their peers. Karabel calls the practice "unmeritocratic at best and profoundly corrupt at worst," but rewarding customer loyalty is what luxury brands do. Harvard wants good graduates, and part of their definition of a good graduate is someone who is a generous and loyal alumnus. And if you want generous and loyal alumni, you have to reward them.
Buying into this line of thinking is perhaps not, by itself, problematic; the Harvards are Private Universities and could potentially be left alone to choose their students any which way they liked, to manage themselves as surplus-maximizing consumer brand if they so chose.

However, that provided the alumni are on their own in the real World. It gets very concerning when they have a surefire career to look forward to, given the prestige of their stamp and a helpful old boys network operating in a “private”-Corporate environment where it has become public (Government) responsibility to ensure they have growing profits “so they can hire more people” – both such alumni and “lesser mortals”. If the environment were truly Capitalistic, you would hire to be able to win more business (and not partly the other way around), where the work environment would demand pure meritocracy as evidenced with a man's actual delivery in work. So, to the extent the Harvards got their admission criteria - and the mix of selection effect1 and treatment effect1 - suboptimal, their alumni would lose out in the real World.

1Social scientists distinguish between what are known as treatment effects and selection effects. The Marine Corps, for instance, is largely a treatment--effect institution. It doesn't have an enormous admissions office grading applicants along four separate dimensions of toughness and intelligence. It's confident that the experience of undergoing Marine Corps basic training will turn you into a formidable soldier.

A modelling agency, by contrast, is a selection--effect institution. You don't become beautiful by signing up with an agency. You get signed up by an agency because you're beautiful.

At the heart of the American obsession with the Ivy League is the belief that schools like Harvard provide the social and intellectual equivalent of Marine Corps basic training--that being taught by all those brilliant professors and meeting all those other motivated students and getting a degree with that powerful name on it will confer advantages that no local state university can provide.
Any true substance in both the treatment effect and the “selection effect” of the Harvard like institutions needs to win its place in a real market-workplace, where the outcome of the entities the alumni serve are not effectively insured by the Government. Else, one begets a nepotistic order that perpetuates itself no end, with dubious roots in "merit".
In the nineteen--eighties, when Harvard was accused of enforcing a secret quota on Asian admissions, its defense was that once you adjusted for the preferences given to the children of alumni and for the preferences given to athletes, Asians really weren't being discriminated against.
But you could sense Harvard's exasperation that the issue was being raised at all. If Harvard had too many Asians, it wouldn't be Harvard, just as Harvard wouldn't be Harvard with too many Jews or pansies or parlor pinks or shy types or short people with big ears.

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