Choosing a college
I was not able to write on this weblog last week because I was visiting colleges with my daughter to help her choose where she will enroll next year. Having grown up in Iran, it is impossible to have your children go through the US system without thinking about how different they are, even though Iran’s is more or less modelled after the western education system. So, it seems appropriate to write something about the big contrast in the transition from high school to college in the two countries, which happens to be on my mind this week and which is what I do in my research. (See my commentary on concour reform, on women in universities, and a longer paper on Iranian youth.)
There is no greater contrast between the two systems of education than in how they select students for college. We know how this is done in Iran. Students work hard to get good grades, which helps them go into successively more selective schools which is all to increase the chance of getting a high score in the Big Test–Iran’s infamous concour. Iran’s system receives praise for its objectivity (computers not humans grade the test) and for its selectivity (more than a million take the test and the top universities pick from the top 1% (hear a Chronicle of Higher Education reporter visiting Iran praise the concour’s selectivity–past minute 8). What proponents of Iran’s concour miss are the costs of objectivity and selectivity.
To understand the costs, you have to think of the system of selection as the source of incentives for students to learn–how much effort to put into studying and what skills to learn. The contrast between the two selection systems in Iran and US helps make this aspect of selectivity clear.
Each year about two million US high school graduates prepare their college applications in which they report not only their computerized (objective) scores on their SAT tests, but also on a range of activities from sports to volunteer work. Essays play an important role because they help admission officers make sense of the how all the materials in the application fit together. The US system of selection into college thus provides a wider range of incentives for learning. It tests for intelligence, ability, and knowledge of various subjects, as well as interest in extra-curricular activities. To do a good job, all colleges have a large admission department with trained personnel who read through applications and try to pick students who bring something to their college. In several speeches by admission deans that I heard in my travels last week, not one mentioned the SAT scores of their incoming pool, but all mentioned their achievements in other areas –high school newspaper editor, musical performer, accomplished athlete, etc.
What is the value to colleges of attracting a diverse group of students with skills that are often hard to verify or measure with objetive criteria? The answer is that colleges like to be known for developing the whole person, to offer to employers and graduate schools graduates who can compete in the global marketplace and succeed in their jobs. They are not interested in attracting a bunch of book worms with unusual ability to memorize and take multiple choice test. If they do, their graduates will be shunned by employers and graduate schools, who need people with a variety of productive traits including good character and good work habits.
So, college admission officers look for people who bring something to their campus, which helps them build the kind of reputation that, in turn, helps their graduates place into good jobs and graduate programs. This is, after all, why people find their college attractive in the first place. Colleges invest in reputations very much as companies do; they try to define their brand that employers find attractive. For example, Princeton emphasizes its academic and elitist character while Yale prefers to be known as the place where students develop interest in public service and make connections.
Colleges announce their decisions by the end of March, at which point the tables are turned and students with more than one offer sit in judgement of colleges. This is the time when colleges are sized up carefully for what they offer in academic and non-academic training, and how well they place their graduates in jobs and graduate schools. It is at this time that investments colleges make in their reputation — quality of their admission staff, faculty, and facilities — begin to pay off.
There is no better way to understand the priorities of children and their parents in organizing their time during the crucial teens years than examine how colleges select students. In Iran, there is much emphasis on grades and test scores because that is what the system understands best, while in the US there is greater balance in the range of activities children and youth engage in. I have argued in a paper that student and parent investments in child quality can be traced to labor market institutions. Where employers are not able to rely on less objective and more arbitrary criteria in rewarding their employees, and their actions are regulated by the government, education systems seem to follow suit and rely more on objective criteria, which are computerized test scores.
Let me leave this subject with a question for future discussion: to what extent the problems Iranian youth face in finding a job after they graduate can be traced to Iran’s education system, and in that system to the way we test students?