How should a university go about deciding its admission process? Before we can answer that question, we need to understand the goals of the admission process.
First and foremost, an admission process is a process of predicting who will perform well in the future. This is not a simple statement, of course. What does one mean by "perform well" and "future."
Performance could be getting good grades in various courses of the academic program that the student will do (and admission could be targeted for each individual program), or it could be an expectation that the student will get good grades in any program of the university that the student chooses to do. Clearly, if you are admitting a student to a specific program as opposed to admitting to the university and letting him/her follow any of the programs offered by the university, the predictor function is likely to be different.
Performance could also refer to students doing well in going to the next step. Some universities may specifically train its students for certain kinds of jobs, while others may want their students to go for higher education, and performing well may refer to getting a job or getting admission to a good university for higher education.
Performing well could also refer to what alumni achieve several years after graduating from the university. Again, it could mean success in a relatively narrow area, or success in a broader sense of the word.
As one may notice, design of a good admission process must start with deciding the goals of the university and what type of students does it want to admit. Is it interested in students who are likely to do well academically in a specific program for which it is giving admission, or is it interested in students who will be successful citizens of the world a couple of decades later.
Prediction is a very difficult process in any sphere, but when it comes to human behavior and performance, it becomes a much more difficult process. Past performance or knowledge of some topics can only predict so much. It is also important to predict whether the student will have motivation and interest to continue doing well in future. If the university is looking for performance in terms of long term success, then soft skills and life skills become important too. A uni-dimensional testing can hardly predict future performance or success. It works only when you have millions of kids interested in thousands of seats, and you never do a scientific study to figure out if you could have had “better performing alumni.”
Prediction process would normally take into account, not just the past performance, but also the circumstances under which that performance was achieved. For example, most universities, who have humans to go through admission applications, would consider 90% marks by an urban student with both parents rich and educated as being worse than 85% marks by a rural student with no role models in the family.
Is admission process all about defining the kind of students one want, and coming up with a predictor for that. Both these are very difficult problems, but unfortunately, admission process is even more complex than that.
For example, what if your predictor function results in a group which lacks diversity. The performance or success of individuals also depends on the peer group that those individuals are part of. It is well known that one learns better (in a broader sense) in a diverse group. What this means is that while the predictor function is operating on individuals, simply picking up the top N applicants may not be as good as offering admission to a few applicants lower down in that list, those who come from diverse backgrounds. Diversity here could mean students from different cultures, languages, religions, etc. It could mean that if there is a serious gender imbalance, and a more gender balanced class is expected to perform better, then introduce preference for the gender which our primary predictor function is not able to capture. If exposure to sports and cultural activities is likely to improve the performance of the class, then having a few students who are good in those activities may be considered.
Besides diversity, there may be other more controversial issues to be considered in the admission process. Consider the following. If a university has to admit 100 students, which it was going to admit based on the admission process built based on the discussion so far. Before it could offer those admissions, it receives an offer. If a particular student is given admission, then someone will do something to make sure that the quality of learning for the other 99 would be at a much better level. For the sake of argument, let us assume that that student has a decent record in whatever the university was looking for, but did not make the cut because the university could offer only a limited number of admissions. For example, if someone offers a Rs. 10 crore donation, which could revamp all the labs, stock up the library, increase the Internet bandwidth, attract additional faculty, or whatever.
This is a difficult decision. Obviously this improves the performance and success rate of the group that is being recruited by the university, which was really the goal of the admission process. We have already said that it is alright to offer admission to some students who did not make the cut based on our predictor function, because we wanted to have some diversity, give preference to sports, culture, etc., because we believed that that would improve the group performance. Now, this is yet another situation which will improve the group performance.
But, typically, no good university would like to offer admission to someone based on bargaining power of someone else. However, most universities would use admission as a carrot to get things which are likely to improve the learning and success of its students and alumni. So they may not offer admission to someone whose father is now offering to donate 10 crores, but they may offer admission to someone whose father donated 10 crores last year. (I want to re-emphasize that the student must be meeting all the expectations of the university in terms of his/her past performance.) Some universities have “political quota” whereby they may offer admission to wards of presidents and prime ministers and other top folks in the world, since it is expected that such associations will bring certain benefits to the university, which gets passed on to the students and alumni. Some universities have “alumni quota” for similar reasons. In Indian context, I have seen an example of a college offering admission to ward of an IIT faculty, if IIT faculty promises to join as a visiting faculty and offer some courses to the class. More generally, use admission to wards as an incentive to attract faculty members to the university. Again, in every such decision, the university has to think whether this is being done to improve the quality of education of the group that is being admitted.
In this context, I recall an incident at LNMIIT, Jaipur, just when I joined there in 2008. We used to admit students only through AIEEE ranks. One day, office of Mr. Lakshmi Mittal (the steel king, who was our Chairman and promoter of the Institute) sent an application of a student, and asked whether this student could be given admission. This was an excellent application. His 12th class performance was very good. He had represented a state in national games. He was very good at some performing arts, which I now forget. But his AIEEE rank was just a little below the last student whom we had admitted. He was the kind of student, we would love to have in our university. His family knew Mr. Mittal well and had approached him for admission. However, we had to inform his office that our processes did not have any scope for discretionary admission, and thus we could not admit him.
But this made us think that we should have some way of admitting such students. So we made a proposal, which essentially said that besides the 240 students that we admitted, we may admit up to 4 additional students based on criteria other than entrance exam performance. Two students were to be “management quota” but the recommendation would have to come from Academic Council, and two students were to be wards of staff of the university, and again would have to have good performance in something other than entrance exam (say, 12th class boards). We took the proposal to the board, where Mr. Mittal spoke against the idea of management quota but supported the seats for wards of staff. He said that management quota would result in pressure to admit weak students. His famous lines were, “to give admission to my relative would result in average performance of class going down, while giving admission to wards of staff would result in attracting good faculty, which will ensure that the average performance of the class goes up.” (Of course, LNMIIT later decided not to offer admission to wards of staff also, but that is another story.)
Coming back to admission process, if we look around us, we find that hardly any university has given a thought to the kind of students they want, and what would be the right method for selecting those students. Rank in a single entrance test is used for admission to a large number of universities and in very diverse set of programs. The focus of admission process is strictly on logistics and whether the process will stand a judicial scrutiny. And there is tremendous pressure from potential students, their parents, and also from alumni and faculty to keep things that way. In IITs, for example, it is not clear whether we are trying to predict good performance of the students within the academic program, or success later in life. If we are trying to predict good performance in the academic program, then how can the same prediction function be good for as diverse fields such as Computer Science, Physics, Mathematics, and Economics. If we are trying to predict success in life, then how can you do that without any aptitude test, language skills, other soft skills and life skills. I used to argue that JEE is so bad that it is difficult to think of a worse admission system (till IIT Council proved me wrong – lesson for me here – never underestimate others).
The students and parents in India think that it is their god given right to be considered for admission in every program in every university across the length and breadth of the nation. And since the process must be convenient to them, we must have only a few tests (if not a single test), common merit lists, joint counselling, and so on. Government and government appointed educationists look at vote banks. Alumni think that by changing the admission process, a message is being sent that the previous selections were not good. And faculty wants to make sure that their time is not wasted in court cases over admission process, which is a hugely exaggerated fear.
Frankly, if the nation wants excellence, it can only come about by several people trying out a lot of different things. Common processes can only lead to mediocrity and worse.