Prisoner’s dilemma

I criticize the College a lot. In previous opinions pieces, I’ve argued that it overspends on administration (“Misplaced power,” Oct. 23, 2013), that it overvalues legacy students (“Favoring the advantaged,” Sept. 18, 2013) and that for these reasons and others, we should not donate to the College (“Rethink your donation,” Feb. 12, 2014). Williams spends too much money on things like sports, fancy buildings and the Oxford program, and financial aid and education suffer. Other schools produce more socially optimal outcomes. All of this is still true. (I also wrote an op-ed saying more people should go to Images Cinema (“Nostalgic Images,” Dec. 5, 2012). Also still true.)

One counterargument is that we must do these things because everyone else does. Unfortunately, this is also true. We’re in a trap, a gigantic version of the prisoner’s dilemma, in which everyone’s individual incentives lead to an outcome worse for everyone.

The optimal scenario is this: Every school spends in a way that optimizes education outcomes for its own students. Students choose schools that best fit their learning styles, willingness to work, career goals and so on. Potential employers evaluate each student individually.

Here is where it goes wrong: Harvard and Yale develop reputations for producing productive, smart alumni. Fine, as long as employers continue to select students individually. Then, Jim Smith at Goldman Sachs realizes that if he only looks at graduates from Ivies and examines them less thoroughly, he can hire more people in less time. This gives him more time for other parts of his job, which looks good to his boss. If one or two hires turn out to be useless, he can say, “Look, they came from Princeton and I vetted them, they just slipped through.” There’s no downside for Smith. But his colleague Susan Jones looks bad by comparison. She knows that it will result in worse employees, but she switches to only looking at Ivy League alumni, too, to compete.

Eventually, every Goldman hire comes from an Ivy. Every junior analyst is back to the same relative position. The average hire is slightly worse, and students from other schools are out of luck. Everyone is worse off. But who cares? Why do we want all our best students going to Goldman anyway? Well, because Goldman focuses entirely on the Ivies, it takes less time on hiring. It can spend slightly more on other things and make more money. So JP Morgan follows suit to compete. Then the whole financial sector is hiring on reputation alone, depleting the pool of good hires from prestigious schools. In order to get those kids, everyone else needs to do the same thing. Eventually, Planned Parenthood, Dow Chemical and Marvel follow suit. The pool of great Ivy students is used up, it’s harder for other students to get hired and the absolute quality of the employees of every firm has declined, while relative positions are unchanged. Everyone is worse off. Then Morgan Stanley realizes if junior analysts hire their college friends, it can hire even faster. AIG follows suit, and the cycle repeats itself.

Simultaneously, students, wanting jobs, try harder to go to the Ivies. The best students do. Because student quality is a major determining factor in educational outcomes, the Ivies do even better relative to other schools. At the same time, the preponderance of alumni in high-paying jobs means the Ivies get more donations. This helps them further improve educational outcomes.

Then Bowdoin realizes that if it spends extra money on food and fancy buildings and inflates grades, it will look better to both students and employers. Bowdoin draws better students, sends students to better jobs, gets more donations and can spend more on education. Education outcomes improve. To compete, Amherst does the same things. Eventually, everyone is spending more on food, dorm rooms and expensive architects than before, and everyone is back in the same relative position. Bowdoin no longer attracts better students or more donations. It returns to the same conditions it had before, but now it’s in debt. Everyone is worse off, and the cycle continues. Berkeley realizes sports proficiency will draw more alumni donations, and spends eleventy trillion dollars on a new stadium. Everyone follows suit.

The process ends in an entirely prestige-based system of higher education. Every school has every incentive to shift money into things other than education or be outcompeted. Eventually, Princeton is a dating service for future corporate lawyers that also happens to conduct high quality research. Everyone is worse off.

You’re saying two things now: “Chris, this is depressing!” or “Chris, this isn’t true!” Again, both true, and it is in the second that the hope for the first lies. Williams does overspend on administrators, buildings and sports facilities. But it also doesn’t inflate grades and continues to provide a great education. Amherst has only one dining hall, but successfully recruits more low-income students. Swarthmore doesn’t have a football team.

The lesson here is that we aren’t all totally captured by this trend and that schools can be incentivized to do things that are better for the world. Amherst gets credit for its success in achieving some class diversity. Employers know that Williams students’ grades are not inflated. To reverse the negative trends, however, there need to be positive forces. Williams, with the reputation it has, actually has the clout to make changes, get credit for them and encourage other schools to follow its lead. And we, as Williams students and alumni, need to use our power to make Williams shift its priorities.

Christopher Huffaker ’15 is a math and French double major from Calgary, Alberta. He lives in West.