From the moment I walked outside to meet Morty Schapiro, the President of Northwestern University, I knew we were in for a treat. We stopped for a short visit at the ETHS-Northwestern Partnership office and proceeded through crowded hallways to the Upstairs Theater.
District 202 Superintendent Dr. Witherspoon made a few comments, and told students that they were very smart to be there. President Schapiro is one of the world’s leading authorities on the economics of education. He has testified before both the Senate and House, and written eight books and over 100 articles. Before serving as the President of Northwestern, he was the President of Williams College.
President Schapiro began by speaking about his work. He stressed that while his day job is President of Northwestern, he really is an economist. He said he is very different from other university presidents because he is not that good with people (I care to disagree.) He talked about how he is better with remembering numbers than names (I guess there’s hope for me!) President Schapiro is known for his dry sense of humor, and is very down to earth. It’s one of the reasons I have so much respect for him: he says precisely what the thinks. When speaking about Northwestern’s dorms, he said: “Some of our dorms are okay, some are disgusting,” when any other president would say: “Our dorms represent a traditional college experience.”
After reflecting on visiting the White House, he gave the first of many pieces of advice to us: “You know no matter what happens in life, if you’re in a position to do things you only dreamed about as a kid, you just gotta pinch yourself, and not be so stinkin cool that you think it’s a normal part of your life.”
President Schapiro spent much of the time speaking about college admissions. He stressed that the most beneficial thing someone can do is to apply early decision or early action. Although many admissions offices state that it is no easier to get in early action or decision, it certainly is. After looking at an applicant who (using data analysis) has a 33% chance of getting in regular decision, President Schapiro and other economists have determined the same student has on average a 30% higher (this varies by school) chance of acceptance after applying early decision. Thus, applying early decision boosts the applicant’s chance of admission to 63%. Applying early decision basically is the equivalent of adding 2 points to an applicant’s ACT score.
President Schapiro then moved on to talk about yield rates, the percentage of admitted students who actually matriculate. He wrote a formula that uses a student’s statistics and information about the school to accurately predict the student’s yield rate. Surprisingly, one of the best things a student can do to raise their expected yield rate is to attend the on-campus tour. This alone raises a student’s yield rate about 10%.
The expected yield rate is important to admissions because colleges want to admit students who will likely matriculate (or really want to attend their school). Unfortunately, this has lead to a new trend called “yield protection,” which causes an overly qualified applicant to be waitlisted from a school due to their low expected yield rate. Colleges also use expected yield to calculate merit aid. Merit aid (which President Schapiro calls “buying test scores”) is awarded to overqualified applicants with low expected yield rates. To give merit aid to a student with a high yield rate is “throwing the money away.” President Schapiro gave a great example: If you go to a BMW dealer and try to buy a car, and tell the dealer about how you love BMWs and will only buy a BMW, and then ask for a discount, he won’t give you a discount. But if you go to a BMW dealer, talk about how you love Mercedes, but you figured you’d look at a BMW, you would probably get a discount. Unfortunately, this process forces prospective students to be strategic about college applications. President Schapiro debated whether it really is right to ask 18 year olds to be strategic. He also stated that sometimes his formula is used for awarding need-based aid, which he feels is extremely unethical.
President Schapiro also addressed whether it really matters which college one attends. Citing a report by economist Alan Krueger, there is no difference in lifetime expected earnings if a white male attends his safety school, or his reach school. However, for a white female, there is justifiable difference in earnings between attending a reach school over a safety school, and for an African American male, lifetime expected earnings are double should they attend a reach school over a safety school.
A question on everyone’s mind was why college costs so much, and how do we justify increases in tuition? President Schapiro responded that to understand why college is so expensive one must put it in perspective. It costs about $60,000 a year to incarcerate someone, and universities spend about $80,000 a year per student. By charging $60,000 a year, they offer everyone a $20,000 subsidy. Tuition rates are raised at a rate very similar to the increase in income for the top 5% of Americans, the only people who pay full tuition (most other people pay about $28,000). He stated that college is a better investment than ever: it now only takes 10 years to cover all costs of college vs 23 years in 1970.
He offered what he felt was the solution to student debt: contingent loans. President Schapiro said it would never work in the United States for social reasons. The basic premise is that you pay your loan back if you’re at Goldman Sachs or Baker and McKenzie, but if you become a teacher, it’s waived. Contingent loans have been implemented in Australia.
President Schapiro also spoke about strengthening Northwestern’s relationship with ETHS and providing funding for ETHS programs: “If we have good ideas, I’ll find the money to fund it.” “This is a great school, it’s one of America’s great, great, public schools.” He then addressed the students of ETHS directly: “If you guys are interested in Northwestern, bring it on.” “I’ve taught a whole bunch of ETHS kids, and I’ve had nobody better, nobody better prepared, and nobody more interesting than kids from here.”
Perhaps the part of the speech that most influenced me came after a very specific question about what qualifications help chances of admission. President Schapiro began talking about how admissions offices rate you on academics and non-academics. He then advised students that if they wanted to get into highly selective private schools, they should specialize, and be national level at something over trying to be good at too many things. He then went on to apologize, and said that getting into college is not what life is about. President Schapiro’s words were so remarkable I have to share the following quotes in their entirety:
At the end of the day, it’s not just maximizing your chances of getting into Yale. It’s enjoying your life and becoming a well rounded person, and unfortunately, that’s very much nowadays at odds with selective admissions, which is why when I greeted the 16 ETHS kids in the freshman class along with the other 2,025 students, the first thing I did was apologize. I don’t say “You’re the best and brightest” and all that bs, you know what I say is I’m sorry that for a lot of you, you took APs you didn’t want to take, you didn’t take courses that you were interested in because they were too challenging, you didn’t really do the things you wanted to do because you were trying to get into Northwestern, or some other school. Now that you’re at Northwestern, we have to rebuild your love of learning. Some of you loved [high school] but some of you were crushed by it, and now my job is to say we’re going to rebuild that love of learning, and also rebuild a sense of fun.
He then offered advice which really made me do a lot of thinking:
I mean if you’re not enjoying what you’re doing, you’re out of your mind. The problem these days with some millennials is they’re fixated: “I’m getting into Wharton as an undergrad, and then I’m going to Yale Law, or I’m going to Kellogg MBA, and I’m going to Goldman Sachs.” You know they have these things, and at the end of the day, what my fear is, they’re gonna be old, I’m 61, and they’re going to have checked off everything except enjoyed my life. I enjoy the hell out of my life. I’ve made a lot of sacrifices for my career, I’ve still been very lucky, but in order to enjoy my life. But at the end of the day it’s about your friends and your family. It’s not about how much money you’re making, it’s not about how prestigious your school is. But unfortunately, very different than it was in previous generations, that the maximizing your chances of getting into a great public or private [university] is increasingly, for many people, at odds with really enjoying high school, the social experience, and the intellectual engagement, and that’s why I apologize.
President Schapiro’s words caused me to evaluate everything I have done in high school. I feel lucky that most of the time I have had the ability to pursue my passions. I have been very conscious about protecting time for my interests, but still sometimes fall victim to the process. Unfortunately, I’ve met far too many students who, when trying something new, thinking about signing up for a class, or joining Investment Club, the first question they ask is: “How will this look to colleges.” It’s a disease that’s decimating the lives of our high school students, and I wonder how college admissions policies can be changed to help restore a sense of fun in high school.
Doing what you love has been a recurring theme throughout the speakers we’ve had this year, and it has been making me rethink what I really want to do with my life. I recommend everyone who’s reading my blog, whether you’re in high school, college, or beyond, to reevaluate what, and why you’re doing what you’re doing, and whether you’re really pursuing your passion.
I would like to thank President Schapiro for speaking to the ETHS Investment & Business Club, and offering such valuable advice. I hope everyone at the talk took away as much from his speech as I did.
This post was written by Noah Silverman. Photos by Benjamin Silverman.