I'm going to exploit Cornell as an example here, because I'm most familiar with its policies and its numbers. This year, the number of applications cracked the 40,000 barrier. Acceptances were just over 6,000, for an admit rate a hair over 15 percent. And yet some of the Cornell Daily Sun commenters consider that an abomination, a sign that we're losing ground to the rest of the Ivy League and the other peer institutions. I shudder to think of how they'd perceive the Cornell of a decade or more ago. The acceptance rate in 1999, the year I was admitted, was 32.9 percent. Just ten years ago, it was 31%. CU's Undergraduate Admissions Office has more than halved that number since, and it's still too high? Get off the high horse and get back to studying.
The now essentially defunct MetaEzra long drove home the point that the admit rate, in and of itself, doesn't say anything about whether and how the admission standards are changing. Let's say you get 100 applicants and accept 30. If you double the pool to 200, but all the additional applicants are less qualified than the previously worst, while still admitting 30, you've cut the admission rate in half without raising the quality of the admitted class. Without knowing how the underlying factors have shifted, you can't necessarily draw hard conclusions from only applications and acceptances.
Further, let me draw an analogy to the calls to fire the hockey coach: if you're advocating a policy change, you need to state the alternative. Here, that means giving us a means to drive that admit rate down even further. Two years ago, Matt Nagowski warned us against trying to fiddle with it so much. And in a comment to that post, I made a point I'll restate here -- that I'm inclined to think Cornell has already done plenty to drop its admit rate, possibly with one single policy change. Let's go to the numbers -- or at least, a pictorial representation of them:
The blue line (applications) hovers roughly constant for about twenty years, never dipping below 19K or rising above 22K. And then it climbs drastically, forcing the acceptance rate down in turn (acceptances haven't really moved much, as the target class size of 3,000 has remained roughly constant, except for a few years during the recent economic downturn).
I stumbled across the piece of information that I think might explain this. Late in my time in the Navy, I was often asked whether I'd go back to Cornell. Shortly after I got out, I knew I wouldn't, but if I had, would it be different from high school? Sure enough, it is. Back then, Cornell was not a member of the Common Application consortium. But it is now. When did that switch happen? In the summer of 2004, effective for the 2004-05 admission cycle -- in other words, just when the application flood gates opened. The standard research disclaimer about correlation not implying causation applies here, but what else might there be?
To come back to the point I made in the second paragraph, it's preposterous to think that the Cornell I attended ten years ago, or the Penn that McArdle attended twenty years ago, are lesser versions of their current selves because they rejected a lower percentage of their applicants back then. The drive to go to the top of the standings for percentage of applicants rejected seems to me little more than a play to the rankings that these schools proudly proclaim to ignore. Whatever benefits may have accrued to the institutions are far outweighed by the costs imposed on their applicants as the treadmill that represents this rat race is ramped up ever faster.
After all that, briefly on to the Princeton mom who implored that institution's undergraduate women to seek husbands. I'm torn between instinct and experience here. On one side, I find it a repellent thought that one should jump through all the hoops required to gain acceptance to Princeton or another school of that ilk, and then upon arrival, put the pursuit of the M.R.S. above that of the bachelor's.
That's the instinct. One piece of the experience is a classmate of mine at Hofstra who married prior to the start of her final semester, at age 21. She embodies just the principle that McArdle espouses -- don't let age hold you back from pulling the trigger if you know you've got the right match. In addition to that, there's the phenomenon of "bandcest." That's the tendency of members of the Cornell Big Red Band to date within the band... and quite often, to marry within it. From the time I attended Cornell and played in the band, I know of at least a dozen band couples who tied the knot (and remain happily married after varying numbers of years). Their experiences lead me to believe that Patton has a good point -- although she stated it embarrassingly and perhaps inelegantly.
Also, pressure to marry pops up again at 35 for guys? Crap! That's only a little more than three years away! Unless, of course, my next employment takes me to the South, in which case the pressure to marry would no doubt kick in before I'm finished settling in.
Last, and presented without comment, Monday's Cato Daily Podcast: Does HHS Secretary Sebelius Understand Insurance? (All right, minimal comment -- no, she doesn't.)