A modest proposal concerning University admissions

In my country we use a system called the ATAR, which is based on internal and external grades and rankings. The only thing I will say to commend it is it’s vastly superior to the American system. This is because doesn’t require any students to write a cloying, narcissistic admissions essay in which they outline how varied and wholesome their life is, how many made-up NGO’s they’ve lead and how many lacrosse teams they’ve played for(1).

Anyway ATAR results correlate well with university grades. Here’s the interesting part. Going to a private school increases your ATAR. However, public (government) school students university grades outperform their ATAR’s relative to private school kids. Say the average private school kid with an ATAR of 90 got a university average of an upper credit, then the average public school kid with an ATAR of 90 gets a distinction.

Once upon a time I was on the academic board of Sydney University as a student representative, or maybe I was at a subcommittee meeting, I can’t remember. Anyway I made a proposal that shocked and scandalized all in attendance. This was perhaps because, bless their socks, but most of them went to a private school.

Why not just, in considering applications, adjust the ATAR scores of public school students upwards, in proportion with their marks? Say, for example, that the average university student from a public school with an ATAR of 80 gets the same university marks as a private school student with an ATAR of 85. Increase the public school student’s effective ATAR for the purposes of admission to 85.

Note that this proposal is not an affirmative action proposal. It has the strengths of affirmative action, in increasing socioeconomic and racial diversity, but not the perceived weakness. It is purely based on a calculation of “merit”, understood in the narrowest possible sense as grades.

Now there would be, I admit, statistical difficulties in implementing this, and problems around variability in public and private school quality. However they are the sort of difficulties that a competent committee could approximate a reasonable answer to pretty quickly.

I’m firmly convinced that a lot of the reason people oppose this policy is because they believe that parents, having paid a great deal of money to get their kids into an elite private, are entitled to a return, in terms of admissions etc. But when you think about it, this attitude is absurd. Surely we believe in meritocracy, don’t we? Surely meritocracy isn’t just a fig leaf over the clawing, desperate ambitions of the middle class who want to make sure their gremlins aren’t assigned to the dropout pile?

Of course the natural parallel of this plan in the US, where the most important variation in school effects on SAT is between public schools, rather than across the public/private school divide, is obvious. Assuming that in the US, the same disparity holds where at least some of the “better school” advantage on the SAT doesn’t transfer across to university grades, deflate the SAT scores of “better” schools in exact proportion to the degree to which those better scores don’t reflect better university GPA’s.

If you enjoyed this article please consider joining our mailing list: https://forms.gle/TaQA3BN5w3rgpyqeA also, a collection of my best writing between 2018 and early 2020 is available as a free e-book “Something to read in quarantine: Essays 2018-2020”. You can grab it here.

(1) I’m with Matt Bruenig and Freddie de Boer on this, “extracurriculars” should count zero towards admissions. They’re made up rubbish. They don’t select for well rounded people, they select for resume building overachieving freaks and rich kids.

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