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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