Does College Admission Have a Quarterback Problem?

With his usual clarity, Malcolm Gladwell makes the case in The New Yorker that there are two models for predicting success (“Most Likely to Succeed,” Dec. 15, 2008).  In one, used to evaluate college football players, evaluators look at a range of qualities in order to project how well the player will perform at the professional level.  Notoriously, this is unreliable for the evaluation of quarterbacks, because the speed of defenses at the professional level makes football an altogether different game than what college quarterbacks play.  The ability to read a defense at the line of scrimmage before snapping the ball (college level) and the ability to read a defense during the two-to-three step drop after snapping the ball (professional level) is not the same ability.  The latter, I have observed to friends, looks to me like the ability to do ballet within range of a wrecking ball.  Athletic grace meets unforeseen demolition.

Those who hire financial advisers, Gladwell explains, pursue an altogether different strategy.  Within that field, there’s widespread recognition that nothing available to a hiring manager reliably predicts success.  One expert acknowledges that a willingness to work obscenely long hours is a prerequisite, but still no assurance.  Instead, hiring managers let in a large number of people at the entry level, then weed them out over time on the basis of performance.  It’s merciless but fair, and those who succeed reap big enough rewards to entice sufficient volume at the entry level.  It’s the opposite, in other words, of what NFL scouts do.  It’s also the opposite of how teachers are hired at the secondary level, and this leads to the main point of Gladwell’s article—that hiring teachers should be less about screening for credentials and certifications, and more about actual performance as teachers.

Closer to home, the financial adviser hiring model is also the opposite of how competitive admission works.

We look for indicators of success in the records of high school students, and we screen them very selectively.  But success in this instance is an even more loaded term than it is for quarterbacks or financial advisers.  Yes, grades and test scores predict classroom achievement reasonably well, but they don’t show us other, equally important things.  Will this student will be someone who challenges and supports her peers?  Will she take initiative in ways that create learning opportunities for herself and for others?  Will she handle setbacks in a manner that leads to greater achievements and sets an example?  All we have to go on for these more qualitative questions is what the students have done so far as teenagers, what recommenders offer us as insights and what the students write about themselves.  These are not infallible predictors (and in fact, they’re extremely difficult to assess), but they’re all we have.

Does this present us with a quarterback problem, whereby what’s done at the high school level differs so dramatically from what’s done at the collegiate level—and later, at the rest-of-your-life level when everything alumni do affects William & Mary’s reputation—that it’s not worth using to screen for entrance?  That’s a worthy question for admission officers, and we shouldn’t assume the answer is simple.  The question reminds us that we’re in the business of discerning potential, not predicting outcomes.  As long as the only viable alternative would be to enroll a much larger class and winnow the group over time, however, we’re likely to keep working like the NFL scouts.  We time how fast they run.  We see how far they throw.  And we respect the limitations of both our predictive science and our intuitive leanings.

– Henry Broaddus

Categories: Admission, Faculty & Staff Blogs

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