College Admissions: 'the Equitable Distribution of Unhappiness'?

April 15, 2009

Winston-Salem, N.C. — Christoph O. Guttentag, Duke University’s dean of admissions, has thought a lot about why sports matters so much to so many people. In a world of ambiguity, games provide clarity, an end result—a win, a loss, or a draw.

By contrast, admissions outcomes can seem arbitrary to those outside the profession, Mr. Guttentag said here on Wednesday: After all, in sports, unlike admissions, he said, “there are obvious rules.”

Speaking on the first day of Wake Forest University’s “Rethinking Admissions” conference, Mr. Guttentag suggested that colleges do more to explain the admissions process to students and parents. Namely, that admission decisions are not always about them — and that admissions is “not simply a meritocratic process.”

“We as colleges define success in admissions for ourselves,” Mr. Guttentag told an audience that included many admissions officials. “We have multiple, overlapping, and competing priorities that we have to deal with.”

So what is it, exactly, that admissions deans do for a living? Mr. Guttentag’s answer drew knowing laughter: “The equitable distribution of unhappiness.” —Eric Hoover