In Chapter 1 of Numbersense, I describe a bag of tricks a statistician can play to "game" school rankings. The obsession about these rankings is unhealthy - but the reality is that people cling to imperfect measures even when they are known to be imperfect - it's the something-is-better-than-nothing school of thought. Because parents and prospective students use these rankings, school administrators have to pay attention to them.
In the book, I looked at the impact of the Common Application form in college admissions in which a student fills out one form, and sends it to a set of schools. I also discussed the effort to reach out to under-privileged sections of society by elite universities. Both of these efforts have the effect of increasing the number of applicants much more than they are able to raise the number of accepted students, thus pushing up the selectivity rate.
Until this year, Princeton has not allowed transfer students for a long time.
The admission rate amongst transfer applicants is 0.9 percent (13 out of 1,429). The admission rate for all applicants is reported to be 5.5 percent (see here). Therefore, if we mix transfer and regular applicants, the blended admission rate is pulled lower. In this case, it becomes 5.3 percent.
The math part is not controversial. If any school adds applicants, and especially if it recruits applicants who have a lower-than-average chance of getting admitted, such as under-privileged communities, or transfers, such policies directly lead to a numerical improvement in selectivity.
However, I am not criticizing the transfer policy for the following reasons:
- The math does not tell us about intention. Rising the selectivity rate is either an intended or an unintended consequence of the policy. I'm not making a judgment.
- Most other universities already have a transfer applicant policy so their blended admission rates already are deflated.
- Rating or evaluation bodies probably require excluding transfers from the official selectivity rate (although I'm not sure about this).
- If the proportion of transfers is small (in Princeton's case, the first year transfer applicant pool is about 4 percent of total applicants), the transfers may have a negligible impact on the average. (On the other hand, for rating purpose, even a small percent shift matters.)
In the meantime, I'm watching the scandal around Temple's Business School. The dean there seemed to have acted like the Devious Dean in Chapter 1 of Numbersense, finding various ways to falsify the data sent to U.S. News. Here is the Inquirer's take on the developing scandal.