Selecting the Best and the Brightest

By Robert E. Klitgaard '68 Basic Books; 267 pp.; $19.95

ROBERT E. KLITGAARD '68 learned the hard way to be careful when writing about college admissions. When draft of a report he was writing on the biect was leaked to the press in 1980, shell broke loose at Harvard, where any considered his findings about affirmative action and the academic performance of minorities in universities inflammatory.

Klitgaard, an associate professor at the Kennedy School of Government and formerly a special assistant to President Johnson was vilified as a racist, students marched in the Yard in protest, and Bok went to pains to distance the University from the report.

The "Klitgaard Report" disappeared unceremoniously from public view, and the controversy subsided, but five years later the economist raises virtually the some issues--and comes up with similar conclusions--in his new book, Choosing Elites. This time around, however, Klitgaard is careful to qualify his potentially inflammatory findings. His conclusions are not the irresponsible uminations of a racist--but rather an honest effort to bring policy analysis to hear on one of today's most perplexing social issues.

Klitgaard's purpose is to provide a framework in which selective institutions, in particular colleges and universities, can best choose their members. "If a few highly valued positions or opportunities are to be allocated among a large number of aspirants, how should this be done?" he asks. In essence, Klitgaard examines how society should best choose its elites. His guiding principle throughout is that there is no single "right" admissions process. Rather he offers a way of thinking about these issues, to which admissions officers and other gatekeepers at elite institutions may then apply their own values.

Klitgaard's work should prove invaluable to admissions committees for improving their capacity to think clearly about the selection process and in developing more effective procedures for picking the kind of students they want. In a very important philosophical way, however, it misses the broader picture. Klitgaard fails to develop an adequate moral justification for his conclusion that a selective university's admissions system ought to give greater weight to academic merits in choosing its elites. While his specific suggestions are useful, his overall analysis serves as a disappointing defense of a system automatically favoring certain groups--in particular upper middle-class whites--at the expense of less-privileged members of society.

Though Klitgaard's analysis is ostensibly applicable to any elite institution, he devotes great attention to admissions at Harvard, both on the undergraduate and graduate level, and in many ways the book reads as a rationalization of the selection process within the Yard. Harvard is the archetypal institution confronting the complex problems of selection at the "right tail"--that is, the last part of a bell curve representing all of society--from which minute percentage the most selective institutions call their members.

Selection at the right tail--the central issue of the book--is fraught with difficulties and contradictions. What, first of all, ought to be the objective of selection? To say that universities ought to select the "best" possible students is nothing but a platitude. How should merit be defined? As Klitgaard points out, at universities today "merit" is not simply confined to academic merit as measured by grades and test scores. Leadership, motivation, and diversity of background and race are all among the criteria schools consider in selecting their members.

Such difficult questions aside, right tail selection remains tricky because while one can distinguish "good" from "average," it is highly troublesome to extrapolate "excellence" from grades and test scores--a feat elite institutions routinely attempt.

Klitgaard uses as a baseline the economist's notion that universities should select students to maximize the value added of the education an institution provides. Crudely put, universities want to select those students who, with the help of the education they offer, have the greatest potential for later-life contributions to society. There are, to be sure, a host of problems with this view--not least of all that it takes society's established reward structure as a given, Klitgaard says--but nevertheless it provides the basis for drawing up an admissions policy.

Klitgaard then proceeds to deal with the problems raised in attempts to meet whatever objectives are chosen for an admissions policy. The central problem is how universities can, with "incomplete and imperfect" information, select the best candidates to meet those objectives. Klitgaard utilizes the vast realm of literature on the various factors aiding prediction both of academic success in universities and of later-life success: grades, standardized tests, interviews, letters of recommendation, intelligence tests, and the like. He closes with a chapter on preferential admissions for minorities, the topic that inflamed the campus five years ago.

It would be fruitless to try to summarize in detail here the corpus of Klitgaard's analysis. Suffice it to say it is heavily quantitative, loathe to make categorical statements, and in general correctly skeptical of making too much of our ability to predict "success." But from his research, Klitgaard does hazard some striking and, in many ways, unsettling conclusions:

* test scores and previous grades are quite useful in assembling a class that will perform well academically;

* at the right tail, test scores and grades are much less powerful in predicting later-life success;

* those "intangible" factors often so prized in admissions--essays, interviews, and recommendations--actually add little to our ability to predict later kinds of success;

The general conclusion of these points--that universities will best achieve their objectives if they select the most academically able students (with proper allowance for the representation of groups)--goes against our general liberal intuitions. After all, what of the intuitively pleasing intangibles--like leadership, motivation, or simple effort--that such indicators presumably cannot measure? Yet Klitgaard presents a convincing argument against the widespread belief that such intangibles may be measured by such items as letters of recommendation, which in general are notoriously not candid and unhelpful to admissions committees.