The Social Logic of Ivy League Admissions

I haven’t been able to get to my next book because I’m drowning in periodicals and print-outs, in large part due to my discovery of Arts and Letters Daily, a massive aggregator of all the interesting articles on ideas, criticisms, books, politics, academia, etc. I also discovered Political Theory Daily Review which is another meta aggregator of similar kind.

If you don’t already subscribe to The Atlantic, well, shame on you, you should, and if you did you’d read their college admissions survey. So instead I will point you to a free article online in the New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell. When I read the title and saw the author I knew I’d love it – it’s about "social logic of Ivy League admissions." I love sociology and college admissions is relevant!

Go read the whole thing. Gladwell starts by pointing out the ridiculousness of the old Ivy League admissions system, as recent as the 1970s ("applicant is short with big ears"). He then makes a clear point:

Social 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. Fuelling the treatment-effect idea are studies showing that if you take two students with the same S.A.T. scores and grades, one of whom goes to a school like Harvard and one of whom goes to a less selective college, the Ivy Leaguer will make far more money ten or twenty years down the road.

Then, we learn that a couple economists published a study questioning the common assertion that Ivy League grads make more money later on. "They found that when you compare apples and apples the income bonus from selective schools disappears."

Later it discusses an interesting dilemma for admissions officers: do you admit the "best-graduates" or the best students? "We tend to think that intellectual achievement is the fairest and highest standard of merit…" yet the "only thing that matters in terms of future impact on or contribution to society is the degree of personal inner force an individual has." Elite law schools tend to admit on the best-students model, Gladwell says, even though L.S.A.T. scores have little to do with how good a lawyer he will be. If you support a best-graduate model, then you should support a bit lower standards for athletes because athletes are far more likely to go into the high paying financial services sector "where they succeed because of their personality and psychological makeup." And a successful alum will donate to the school. Finally:

In the 1985-92 period, for instance, 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. Aren’t the tremendous resources provided to Harvard by its alumni part of the reason so many people want to go to Harvard in the first place? The endless battle over admissions in the United States proceeds on the assumption that some great moral principle is at stake in the matter of whom schools like Harvard choose to let in—that those who are denied admission by the whims of the admissions office have somehow been harmed. If you are sick and a hospital shuts its doors to you, you are harmed. But a selective school is not a hospital, and those it turns away are not sick. Élite schools, like any luxury brand, are an aesthetic experience—an exquisitely constructed fantasy of what it means to belong to an élite —and they have always been mindful of what must be done to maintain that experience.

5 comments on “The Social Logic of Ivy League Admissions
  • My problem with these articles and studies is that they invariably use money as the most significant measure of success. The most original/revolutionary thinkers aren’t necessarily the ones going to Ivy Leagues, but they’re also not necessarily making the most money.

    Also, maybe I’m deluding myself, but I think the majority of kids you and I know are not selecting schools based on how much money they’re going to make down the road. There are other reasons to aspire to a big name college: quality of student body, cutting edge facilities, and access to professors who represent the best in their fields.

    It’s good to know that perseverence pays off, but in my opinion, these articles are getting old.

    • >>quality of student body,


      >>cutting edge facilities

      In what? Engineering? Physics? Bio?

      >>and access to professors who represent the best in their fields.

      How many students received a LOR for graduate school from the leader in [X field]?

  • Gladwell made a number of points, the one refuting the common assumption that Ivy League grads make more was just one of them. But this is minor. It doesn’t matter how you define success, most people try to go to a good college because they want to be “successful” in their own eyes and in the eyes of others. I find the argument that big name schools have “great facilities, students, teachers” such bullshit. Sure, an Ivy may have the #1 scholar in some discrete school, but a top 50 college will have a #2 or #3 scholar. A liberal arts college will have a top scholar who actually wants to transfer that knowledge to the student. The overwhelming reason Ivies are attractive is because it’s luxury brand, as Gladwell says, and it’s a carefully constructed fantasy of what it means to belong to an elite. It’s like a Rolex watch – can a Rolex tell time better than my Casio? Well, yes, I’m sure it’s a tad more precise. But people don’t buy Rolexes to tell time better.

    The other point which you can’t overlook is the conundrum between “best graduates” and “best students.” Some would argue that a college should admit solely based on merit – students who would show the most academic promise and would succeed at the college. But wait! Why does a recruited athlete have double the chance to get into Harvard? Why do legacies have a leg up? It’s because the college needs people who can go off, make money, contribute to the bursting endowment, and keep the institution elite….

  • Ben,

    Thanks for posting about Arts and Letters Daily…what a fantastic aggregator…sort of like the Drudge Report for smart people. Needless to say, my schedule the last few days has been sacrificed to the noble goal of catching up on the backlog of must-read articles, essays, and reviews posted at

  • Ben,
    I have an English abstract due tomorrow on “The Awakening” and when I did a search on google your website came up. Needless to say, I have been extremely distracted, and though I am known to be an excellent procrastinator, i’m thinking that since I have not started and it is almost 2am, it might not work out this time.
    Anyways- reading all your comments about college- currently completely sleep-deprived because I’m applying to BC and Villanova. Are you applying to ivy league or are you just interested in why there is such mass appeal? Just curious and continuing to procrastinate.
    Also- I’m editor of my school’s newspaper as well, and am interested in pursuing something in the communications field. It looks like you may be considering something along the same lines, in which case you should look in boston (if you havent already). oh- also- the email about the messy break up with the cheating girl was tres tres funny…

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