One of the underlying assumptions about college admissions departments is that they provide a certain amount of value to the college’s bottom line. Admissions departments add an increased likelihood of cultural diversity, the allure of selectivity, and/or the money from students whose families can pay full tuition.

However, individual rationality can sometimes lead to collective irrationality. There’s a (mostly) fixed number of students planning to go to college, and there’s no magic wand that increases the number of high-income, underrepresented, high-scoring students so that every college can achieve its goals. In an important sense, the money spent on admissions is mostly wasted in competition with other colleges to net students who will be assets to their community. If every college jointly decided to expend less money searching for ideal students and simply admitted students on test scores and ability to pay, most colleges as a whole would be better off in terms of resources spent.

A zero-sum worldview of admissions may not be the complete picture, since some distributions of college students may be better than others. For instance, Harvard may wish to trade some diversity in exchange for greater financial returns. Yale might be willing to sacrifice selectivity in favor of a wider variety of undergraduate majors. Such sorting may be preferable to a situation where the chips fall as they may.

This coordination goes beyond the realm of academic affairs. Coordination between various universities is also important for managing finances and collective reputation. For instance, admissions standards act as a lever against specific colleges from trying to poach desirable students from other colleges. For example, If Penn decided that standardized tests and GPA cutoffs prevented them from making progress on their goals of wealthy and diverse college majors, and they scrapped them, this may result in them being ranked lower, making them less desirable to future students.  Yet, coordination can overcome individual stigma.  During the pandemic, most colleges removed test scores from their requirements, allowing them to select for students on other bases. Other examples of coordination are the hollowing out of need-blind admissions, which allowed colleges to explicitly select for family wealth.

The question remains about which economic model of coordination best explains the goal of college admissions. Gale and Shapley, argue that college admissions are about trying to get the best ‘fit’ between students and colleges, similar to coordinating marriages. Colleges can’t accept all qualified students because not all students would accept, nor would they necessarily be the students those administrators want. Qualified students may want to go to a specific program but are limited in their ability to express preferences. Deferred admissions, and the creation of the waitlist can provide better information, allowing actors to better coordinate.

Challenging this ‘marriage model’ is the effort of elite colleges to bring their admissions below double-digits. Many colleges mail students recruiting information only to later reject them. This behavior suggests that some colleges have a desire to signal prestige and exclusivity, rather than merely trying to find students most fitted to their campus. Behaving in this way creates an arms race among students, who in order to stand out, become involved in oftentimes expensive and time-consuming activities to demonstrate their unique value to campus. Other colleges take the strategy of accepting almost everyone who applies.

Admissions data is  puzzling. To this day, certain aspects of the process are shrouded in secrecy.  It’s convenient for admissions offices that it isn’t clearly known which coordination problems affect admission, which makes it hard to judge whether the decisions made by admissions officers are adding value to the university, or taking it away.


Isadore Johnson is a campus free speech advocate, an economics and philosophy student, and regional coordinator for Students for Liberty.