Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Harvard-Yale Competition


Jun 28 2007 4:55PM EDT

Do Harvard and Yale compete for the best students? Greg Mankiw certainly thinks so:

If the optimal strategy puts Harvard at a competitive disadvantage, then we had better rethink our policy...
The interesting question is whether a significant number of top candidates, once admitted by Yale, will choose to forgo a Harvard application altogether. If that happens, then Harvard will, from a game-theoretic point of view, have to revise its new admissions policy.

I think we can all be quite happy that Harvard hasn't put a game theorist in charge of its admissions program. The issue which is getting Mankiw so excited is that of early admissions – something which Harvard no longer offers, but which Yale does. That being the case, Mankiw is worried that "students who act strategically" are more likely to go to Yale than to Harvard, and that, as a consequence, Harvard might lose out on some of the best students.

A commenter connects the dots:

There are two kinds of students: those who apply strategically and those who don’t. I would predict that those students who applied strategically, all other qualifications equal, who do better in college and in the real world.

I'm far from convinced. The most qualified cohort of college applicants every year vastly outnumbers the number of places at Harvard and Yale combined. The admissions officers at both universities have a large and necessarily somewhat subjective set of criteria which lead them to choose some subset of that cohort for admission. And that subset, which gets admitted, invariably does very well. But any other subset, once admitted, would also do very well.

In any case, the colleges have good reason to pick candidates based on much wider criteria than how well they think they'll do "in college and in the real world" – indeed, that's why Harvard gave up its early admissions in the first place. The early-admissions system produced stellar graduates, to be sure, but the vast majority of them came from extremely privileged backgrounds, and the university felt that it had a meritocratic obligation to level the playing field and try to attract more students from the lower half (or more) of the socio-economic spectrum.

So we're left with the question of whether Harvard should make some attempt to include a certain number of "strategic thinkers" in its admissions – with that term being defined, very narrowly, as "people who apply to Yale and don't apply to Harvard because of the difference in early admissions policies". My feeling is that Harvard should be more than capable of finding a large number of strategic thinkers within its current pool of applicants. And more than that, I think that Harvard is – and should be – defined much more by what happens to students after they're admitted, than it is by the quality of students, however defined, on their first day as a freshman. In other words, it really has nothing to worry about.

Besides, Harvard has a high-profile econoblogger on staff: Mankiw himself. Yale, on that front, doesn't compete at all.

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