Tag Archives: Race

College Admission Markets

This article by Ron Unz is long and rambles a bit, but deserves its provocative reputation. It offers data suggesting that over the last few decades the most elite US colleges have had systematically biased admissions, against asians and for jews, when measured against other standards, like tests and top math/sci competitions. Given the strong academic rhetoric against racial discrimination, you might expect this to cause a fervor, and to result in big changes soon. But I don’t expect much soon – most academics are from those schools, and benefited from those biases, loud complaining isn’t the asian style, and the larger society doesn’t much care because this discrimination is mostly limited to these schools.

The problem comes mainly from granting discretion to admissions personal to make subjective judgements. One solution is to just use objective features like test scores. But Unz worries about ambitious kids wasting their youth in mostly useless test prep. Also, application packets may contain other useful but harder to read clues about promising students. Unz instead prefers to admit “qualified” students at random, at least for most of the slots. But once everyone knew for sure that the elite schools didn’t actually have much better students, it isn’t clear why they would remain the elite schools.

As usual, my solution involves prediction markets. As I posted here five years ago, we could hide clearly identifying info about students, post their application packets to the web for all to see, and let anyone bet on the consequences of each student going to each school. Students might care about their chance of graduating, their income later, and some measure of satisfaction. Elite schools might care more about the chances of students being “successful” someday. Different schools might use different measures of success, such as with different weights for achievement in sports, politics, business, arts, etc. Schools could admit the students with the best chance to succeed by their measure, and students could apply to and then go to the school giving the best chance if achieving their goals. Or students could not go to school at all, if that was estimated to be best.

Of course speculators will favor students showing concrete signs of future success, and so ambitious students would spend their youth trying to achieve such signs. But instead of locking in particular limited metrics like standard test scores, where prep efforts are mostly wasted, this process would create an open competition to find signs of future success where efforts to gain them are more useful. After all, your chance of success later should be higher the more the signs you pursue push you to gain useful skills and habits in the process.

Yes it would be hard to get people to accept that such markets are accurate and hard-to-manipulate enough for this purposes. But equally hard, I expect, would be getting elite schools to say explicitly what sort of success they most want from students. They probably pretend to care more about admirable success, like being a famous writer, than they actually do.

Added 8p: Regarding anonymity, an obvious solution is for the official application to be completely public. Usually only a small fraction of the relevant application info will be things that are better kept private. Regarding that info, the applicant can just reveal that extra private info to a few trusted folks who are willing to trade in these markets. Markets do not need all traders know all relevant info to work well.

Added 30Oct2013: It appears that Unz’s data was faulty.

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OK, Let’s Talk Race

Sunday’s Post:

Once again, in the midst of the cacophony, calls abound for a national “dialogue” on race. Yet our nation cannot muster the patience or stamina to sustain such a discussion beyond a single news cycle. … At the barest suggestion of race, we line up at opposite corners and start hurling accusations. …

Racial inequality is perpetuated less by individuals than by structural racism and implicit bias. Evidence of structural inequality is everywhere: in the grossly disproportionate numbers of young black men and women in prison; in the color of students shunted into remedial and special education tracks. … It is evident, too, in the history of blatant discrimination against black farmers practiced by the Agricultural Department.

But that does not make doctors, nurses, police officers, judges, teachers, lawyers, city planners, admission officers or others prejudiced. Most are well-intentioned professionals who believe themselves to be free of racial bias. … Implicit bias is a reality we must confront far more openly. A growing mass of compelling research reveals the unconscious racial stereotypes many of us harbor that affect our decisions. … White and black test-takers match black faces more quickly than white ones with words representing violent concepts. … The more stereotypically black the features of a criminal defendant, the harsher the sentence he or she is likely to receive. Implicit bias has been shown to factor into hiring decisions and into the quality of health care that individuals receive. …

The good news is that structures can be dismantled and replaced and unconscious biases can be transformed. … First, though, they must be acknowledged. … Our nation has to stop denying the complexity of our racial attitudes, history and progress. Let’s tone down the rhetoric on all sides.

Many folks reasonably suspect invitations to discuss race are traps – it seems hard to say much on race without being accused of racism, racial insensitivity, etc. But let me cautiously weigh in anyway.

Yes, we have unconscious expectations about others, yes those depend in part on race, and yes those expectations are a mixture of info and error.  Some unconscious race-based expectations are a reasonable summary of actual common differences between races, while others are mistaken, with expectations that are too favorable or unfavorable for particular races.

I see two basic approaches to reducing racial expectation errors:

  1. Rely on, and perhaps improve, local incentives for individual decision makers to identify and correct their own errors, and to select themselves into decision places well matched to their abilities to avoid such errors.
  2. Have a broad conversation on the rough sorts of racial errors we expect to be common, then authorize officials to use discretion to pick regulations to reduce such errors at an acceptable cost, relative to other considerations.

One big problem with the regulation approach is that giving regulators discretion can make things worse, as well as better. Two examples above, of racial errors by sentencing judges and by the Ag Dept, seem examples where regulator discretion went quite wrong. Since medicine is heavily regulated to preserve doctor discretion, racial treatment errors by doctors has a similar cause.

Unfortunately, judges, ag dept officials, and regulated doctors have only weak incentives to overcome their racial biases. Sure they might fear that a broad conversation will arise and create a consensus among voters both that such folks had been racially biased, and that they should be punished strongly for it. But really, how likely is that?

In contrast, employers choosing who to hire can have much stronger incentives. If a labor market isn’t too heavily mis-regulated, any employer could profit substantially by preferring to hire folks that other employers unfairly neglect. If ordinary hiring specialists are too busy or distracted to notice such opportunities, hiring consultants can specialize in charging to identify such opportunities.

Yes, such incentives don’t prevent all employer racial bias, and yes thoughtful hard-working well-meaning regulators (including politicians and civil servants) can and have developed labor regulations that could reduce such bias. The problem is, when you empower regulators to fix such problems, you empower many other kinds of regulators as well, also including lazy stupid racially-biased ones. And you give all these regulators only weak incentives to overcome their biases.

For problems about which many people feel strongly, it is indeed a feels-right forager way to seek a communal conversation to identify new communally-enforced social norms to solve the problem. In large modern societies, however, this urge to solve problems by national conversations and laws seems largely dysfunctional.

Much better, when possible, is to rely on local incentives.  For example, if employer incentives to overcome racial biases seem currently too weak, let’s up the ante by enabling corporate raiders, proxy access, etc.  Forms of futarchy can give participants strong incentives to overcome racial biases regarding policy recommendations.  There is plenty we can do, if people really want to overcome racial biases.

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