Reverse-engineering the college admissions process
I just finished reading a fascinating article from Bloomberg BusinessWeek about a man who claims to have reverse-engineered the admission processes at Ivy League colleges (hat tip Jan Zilinsky).
His name is Steven Ma, and as befits an ex-hedge funder, he has built an algorithm of sorts to work well with both the admission algorithms at the “top 50 colleges,” and the US News & World Report model which defines which colleges are in the “to 50.” It’s a huge modeling war that you can pay to engage in.
Ma is a salesman too: he guarantees that a given high-school kid will get into a top school, your money back. In other words he has no problem working with probabilities and taking risks that he think are likely to pay off and that make the parents willing to put down huge sums. Here’s an example of a complicated contract he developed with one family:
After signing an agreement in May 2012, the family wired Ma $700,000 over the next five months—before the boy had even applied to college. The contract set out incentives that would pay Ma as much as $1.1 million if the son got into the No. 1 school in U.S. News’ 2012 rankings. (Harvard and Princeton were tied at the time.) Ma would get nothing, however, if the boy achieved a 3.0 GPA and a 1600 SAT score and still wasn’t accepted at a top-100 college. For admission to a school ranked 81 to 100, Ma would get to keep $300,000; schools ranked 51 to 80 would let Ma hang on to $400,000; and for a top-50 admission, Ma’s payoff started at $600,000, climbing $10,000 for every rung up the ladder to No. 1.
He’s also interested in reverse-engineering the “winning essay” in conjunction with after-school activities:
With more capital—ThinkTank’s current valuation to potential investors is $60 million—Ma hopes to buy hundreds of completed college applications from the students who submitted them, along with the schools’ responses, and beef up his algorithm for the top 50 U.S. colleges. With enough data, Ma plans to build an “optimizer” that will help students, perhaps via an online subscription, choose which classes and activities they should take. It might tell an aspiring Stanford applicant with several AP classes in his junior year that it’s time to focus on becoming president of the chess or technology club, for example.
This whole college coaching industry reminds me a lot of financial regulation. We complicate the rules to the point where only very well-off insiders know exactly how to bypass the rules. To the extent that getting into one of these “top schools” actually does give young people access to power, influence, and success, it’s alarming how predictable the whole process has become.
Here’s a thought: maybe we should have disclosure laws about college coaching and prep? Or would those laws be gamed too?