Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society by Mario Vargas Llosa.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Reaction to chapter 5

In chapter 5, Prof. Guinier talks a lot about successful programs for helping disadvantaged students through college with peer support and scholarships.  Though not from the same background as most of the students described, I can certainly attest to the importance of scholarships and peers for my own success in advanced study.  If the question is "Can people without strong scores on some of the traditional academic metrics nonetheless succeed with the right support?" I have to agree with Prof. Guinier:  The answer is an unqualified "Yes!"

If that were the only question to ask then I would declare the case closed now and put down the book.  We could convert college admissions processes from composites of test, grades, essays, letters, etc. to interviews of the sort described on page 70 (termed "Dynamic Assessment Process", or DAP), focusing on evaluations of how students work together in group activities.  Sounds great, right?

However, I see another big factor here: The interplay of competition and inequality. Let's suppose that more institutions stopped emphasizing tests, and started emphasizing the DAP, which Prof. Guinier characterizes as measures of "collaborative merit."  How long would it take for rich kids to hire coaches for these interviews?  If these processes were administered broadly, to large pools of applicants, and not just to disadvantaged students nominated for a handful of private foundation scholarships, what would happen when parents and guidance counselors in the suburbs realized that these interviews were the targets to hit, and put their social and economic capital into preparing kids for these interviews?  How long would it take for Kaplan and Princeton Review to develop interview prep courses?

The bottom line is that in our economy attending certain types of schools will give you a much greater financial return on time and tuition than attending other types of schools, and that some students have vastly more resources at their disposal for preparing for those interviews.  I have no problem believing that success in a DAP has more predictive power than a score on an easily-coached test...because right now there are few incentives for the privileged to put their social and economic capital into acing the DAP.  Change the incentives, and suddenly the DAP will predict nothing except how much money your parents spent preparing for it.

Here's the question that I still have not seen answered in Prof. Guinier's book:  Suppose that we adopt a new college admissions process, but some institutions still produce substantially greater returns on time and tuition than others.  What happens a few years after the rules are changed, when the privileged have had a chance to get their kids the appropriate coaching?

The problem here is that we have differential returns on time and tuition, and huge differences in the social and economic capital available to students from different backgrounds.  A thoroughly-gamed college admissions process does not produce or even exacerbate that problem; it merely reflects it.  The solution is probably some more radical transformation of society, in which colleges and universities will at best be bit players and more hopefully be bystanders.  (I firmly believe in the academy as something that is or ought to be timeless, and should serve in a role of advancing and disseminating knowledge for its own sake in whatever society it happens to exist in.)  Appropriately, the next book that I plan to read (and blog about) is this one.

Shorter version: When the buildings have the names of rich guys on them, do you really think the universities are the institutions that will upset the distribution of wealth?

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