It happens every spring. High school seniors across the country anxiously grope in their mailboxes for letters from colleges—exulting if the envelope is a fat one stuffed with acceptance details, despairing if it's a thin one containing a one-page rejection.
In his "Economic Scene" column in the April 14th New York Times, Cornell economist Robert H. Frank, co-author of The Winner-Take-All Society, explains why college applicants' annual April Agony gets worse each year:
"The steep rise in overall earnings inequality over the last three decades has occurred in virtually every industry and occupation… For every starting analyst's position posted by J. P. Morgan, for example, the firm receives mail sacks full of applications. Employers in this situation seldom find time to interview applicants who did not graduate from an elite university. Ambitious high school students have responded by applying in record numbers to the nation's most selective universities. But there is no greater number of slots in these institutions than before."
But what makes an "elite university" elite? Is it because they do a better job of educating students?
Oddly enough, nobody seems terribly interested in finding out. It's extremely rare for anybody to test college seniors to find out how much more than they know than when they were freshmen. This indifference is typical at all levels of the education industry.
Ironically, our pretence that we believe in empirical egalitarianism leads to educational elitism of the crassest kind.
Because we are supposed to assume in public that all men are created equal, it follows, quasi-logically, that if Harvard graduates are smart (which they generally are), that can only be because Harvard made them smart (which is very seldom the case).
In reality, of course, universities are ranked primarily on the grades and SAT or ACT scores that their students achieved in high school. The fame of their grad schools and even the successes of their hired football and basketball gladiators seem to matter more to their reputations than documented evidence, assuming any exists, of the effectiveness of their undergraduate teaching.
So, why do employers care about which college applicants attended? Mostly because it's evidence of an applicant's SAT score—along with high school grades—which in turn is correlated with his IQ. What college you go to permanently signifies your position in the IQ strata.
This is why high school students and their parents are so frenzied over college admissions: it really does go on your Permanent Record.
One consequence is that many kids strive to get into colleges where the average IQ is a little higher than their own. In his NYT article, Frank points out:
"Thus, according to one study, applicants typically seek an institution whose average combined SAT score is roughly 100 points higher than their own."
In other words, high school seniors would like their resumes to suggest they are about a half standard deviation smarter than they really are.
Why not one or two standard deviations (200 or 400 points out of 1600 on the pre-2005 SAT)? Because getting into a college that's too far over your head can lead to flunking out—which also looks bad on your resume.
For example, when I was a high school senior, I almost applied to Cal Tech. But I eventually realized that, if they were stupid enough to let me in, I wouldn't have any idea what anybody was talking about. (Outside of science-engineering colleges, however, famous private colleges tend to be easier to stay in than top public universities.)
Because girls mature more quickly than boys, the current overwhelming emphasis on high school performance hurts males. The system is also biased in favor of upper middle class kids whose highly-competent parents can help them jump through all the hoops. The process seems to mold young people into the well-organized but shallow and unappealing careerists who predominate in David Brooks' profiles of today's elite college students.
Obviously, this is also a screwy, Rube Goldberg way for companies to evaluate job prospects. The consequent lousy hiring decisions cost all Americans in lower overall prosperity.
When a 28-year old, for instance, applies for a job, why should a company care so much about how he did on an IQ-type SAT test a decade before?
Why not just give him a new test—perhaps one fine-tuned to the needs of the job?
Many companies still do use written tests—because they are so useful. Consumer packaged goods giant Procter & Gamble, long famous for the quality of its employees, paid a large amount of money to have their 65-minute problem solving test validated. The NFL encourages all college football players hoping to be drafted to take the 12-minute Wonderlic IQ test. (For average IQs by position, click here.)
Other firms insist that their managers conduct personal interviews that are IQ tests in disguise.
Fear of discrimination lawsuits is why Microsoft famously uses IQ-type questions in interviews—such as "Estimate how many gas stations there are in the US"—instead of using written tests, even though Bill Gates is obsessive about IQ.
This is no secret. Rich Karlgaard, former editor of Forbes ASAP, reminisced in the Wall Street Journal about a journey he took with Gates in 1993:
"During that trip, I must have heard Mr. Gates mention 'IQ' a hundred times. The obsession with smarts is embedded deep in Mr. Gates's thinking and long ago was institutionalized at Microsoft. Apply for a job and you'll face an oral grilling that probes for IQ. It is oral and informal because of Griggs v. Duke Power, the 1971 Supreme Court ruling that banished written IQ tests and 'tests of an abstract nature' from job applications. But Microsoft knows what it wants. It wants IQ. And Microsoft always has been savvy at getting what it wants."
(Whenever I mention how much Gates values high IQ employees, somebody objects that Microsoft's software is lousy so his workers must not be very smart. But that assumes that Gates wanted his Microserfs to deliver good software. I suspect that he just wanted them to make him the richest man in the world. If they had to foist buggy software on the public to do it, well, that was a price Bill was willing to pay.)
Griggs leads to some bizarre corporate customs worthy of Dilbert cartoons.
When I was at Dun & Bradstreet, I was once told to hire a computer programmer. Not being a professional code writer myself, I asked the Human Resources department for D&B's official programmer's test. They told me that they didn't have any written tests for fear of civil rights bias lawsuits. I was free to ask job hunters questions orally. But I absolutely couldn't write them down.
Written exams more likely to be biased than oral interviews? To assume that, you have to be a Supreme Court justice!
Another problem with oral examinations: their small sample size of questions. Interviewers don't generally have time to ask enough questions to get a statistically-significant picture of how smart the applicant is.
For example, when I was getting an MBA, the famous consulting firm McKinsey called me in for an interview. I figured a secretary would set me down in an unused office and give me a half dozen case studies to write up over a couple of hours.
But, instead, everything was done orally. A McKinsey partner's' time is money, so Mr. Big only had time to outline for me just one client's problem and ask me what the key insight would be.
I got the wrong answer. That was the end of my brilliant McKinsey career.
Perhaps I really wasn't smart enough to be a McKinsey consultant. But I like to think that a longer written test would have provided them with a more accurate assessment.
In contrast, I was eventually hired by a small, fast-growing marketing research firm. One of the founders was a college professor, so when I showed up for an interview, the HR department had me first spend two hours taking the professor's quite difficult Advanced Marketing Research 301 final exam.
A few years later, when the company grew large enough to show up on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's radar, it had to stop using the test.
The quality of new hires was never the same again.
All these irrationalities stem from the fact that our society is
a) obsessed with IQ (as any advanced technological culture has to be); and
b) so terrified of the topic that we aren't supposed to discuss it in print.
It's time we grew up and talked honestly about the facts of life.
And, as a consequence, end the April Agony we inflict on the young—those least able to bear it.