Those Bothersome Essays
I don’t know whether I should laugh, cry, dance a jig or merely shrug my shoulders at this new story by Eric Hoover in the Chronicle which reports that over the past year, “Boston College saw a 26-percent decrease in applications this year, a drop officials largely attribute to a new essay requirement.” If writing a measly 400 words is enough to dissuade around 9,000 students from applying to a school ranked
31st in the nation (by US News and World Report), I suppose one can be forgiven for wondering what this might mean in general for the nation’s aspiring college students. In one sense this very much reminds me of the more salient points buried in Dave Tomar’s screed The Shadow Scholar” How I Made a Living Helping College Kids Cheat (as Tomar recounts, one of his “clients” once maintained that while he can do the course work, he would prefer not to “waste” his time on it).
Perhaps the most interesting issue raised by the Chronicle story, however, is one related to measuring academic quality of institutions of higher education. As Hoover himself points out, this trend at Boston College, if it can be generalized across all of higher education, “reveals the slipperiness of application tallies, widely viewed as a meaningful metric.” Perhaps the most intelligent
immediate response to this may be “why in the world have we ever thought the application rate is a meaningful metric for academic quality?” After all, as Kevin Carey perceptively pointed out a few years ago, the use of application rates in college rankings is really a measure of institutional “exclusivity,” and which merely “confirm[s] the status of colleges and universities that by virtue of their prestige are valuable to students irrespective of the quality of the education they provide.” The problem with that, obviously, is that even if exclusivity can be related to superior educational outcomes for students, that connection is not necessarily a direct one and it leaves the door wide open for institutions to promote their own exclusivity at the expense of educational outcomes. This may exactly have been what happened at Boston College before they added the essay requirement this year: they could enjoy a lower admissions rate but who knows what their educational outcomes really were.
Of course, it would be impermissible to single out Boston College to the exclusion of anyone else in higher ed (the College is at least seeking to improve its admissions process), but this is just another example of why we should be continually questioning the underlying rationale for the status quo. It is perhaps, unrealistic to expect higher ed at any time soon to abandon the use of prestige metrics like application rates as a proxy for institutional quality, but we must not forget that simply because elite school can turn tens of thousands of prospective students away, it does not necessarily mean that the education the admitted students receive is, in fact, superior to the education they would have otherwise received or even superior to the education that the rejected students would have obtained at a lower tier institution.