What no one asks about college admissions data

The news has been all over the press – Stanford’s admissions rate has now reached 5%, and its implications for college applicants is clear: everyone is screwed.

This is false. As everyone knows about admissions, the aggregate admissions rate has almost no value to any student, since every student is bucketed into different groups with radically different acceptance rates. Athletes aren’t facing a 5% acceptance rate, nor are legacies or development cases. Intel Science Talent Search winners aren’t facing such long odds to success.

This thinking that everyone has an equal chance reminds me a lot of startups, where talk of a “lottery” persists. This is also false. Startups have uneven probabilities of success, much as applicants to college have uneven probabilities of success. People need to stop looking at an aggregate admissions statistic, or the chance of going from conception to a billion dollar company if they want to find success. The reality is, 95% of efforts are going to end in failure. The key is to find the reason why you should be disproportionately chosen, in applications and in a startup.

That said, despite the flurry of articles on admissions rates these past few days, there doesn’t seem to be any depth of thinking about these statistics. Here are two questions I would love answered:

  1. What is the makeup of the applicant pool? Admissions officials have been trying to increase the diversity of applicant pools for years through outreach events, etc. Are these programs working, and thus the applicant pools are becoming more diverse, or is it the opposite, that we are just getting applicants from the same groups we have always gotten them from in the past. You can’t glean this from a single aggregate statistic, but it would seem to be really important, particularly since there are so many legal battles over affirmative action these days.

  2. How many applicants are elite, marginal, and rejects? The New York Times writes this sentence in their story about the declining admissions rates: “Admissions directors at these institutions say that most of the students they turn down are such strong candidates that many are indistinguishable from those who get in.” I am getting really tired of this trope. There aren’t suddenly 45,000 elite students that have been generated in Stanford admissions, something that the admissions director admits when he says that 20% would not make it academically on campus. Thus, I am curious how we can break the pool down to those candidates that should obviously receive admission, those who are marginally likely to be admitted, and those who never had a chance. Just because the admissions rate is decreasing does not mean that the applicant pool is increasing in quality (the “mixture” or “composition” problem in statistics).

There is a lot more to this story than reporters seem to give it credit. Given the history of admissions (here is a multi-hundred page book called The Chosen if you are interested) and the important place that these gatekeepers hold in our society, one would hope for a little better critical analysis of what is going on.