MSN chose Tuesday, June 15, for some reason, to feature an article from the Wall Street Journal last March on the topic of famous people who were rejected by institutions of higher learning like Harvard. The intention, no doubt, was kindly: knowing that you are in the same boat as Warren Buffet or Meredith Viera brings some comfort. Unfortunately, if that’s the purpose, many of the examples are not ideal. Buffett was turned down by Harvard Business School, but got into Columbia. No tragedy in that. Scott McNealy (founder of Sun Microsystems) wasn’t really turned down by Harvard at all. He attended Harvard College and the business school refused to waive an expectation of real life experience and admit him right away. He waited three years and went to Stanford. Poor baby.

A more instructive article would be one profiling people who did get into Harvard but ended up total losers anyway. This would teach more vividly that fate is arbitrary, nothing is a free pass, and it’s never too late to fail.

Telling people, especially kids, “no” must be the least pleasant part of an Admission Officer’s job. Still, from the rejection letters I’ve seen, they do it badly. The emphasis tends to be defensive—all about how hard they worked, how carefully they studied each applicant’s materials, and so on. Frankly, I would rather hear at that moment that the decision was essentially random, the process was wildly inconsistent, and I might well have been turned down because the assistant dean didn’t care for his lunch that day. I imagine that this is closer to the truth anyway, especially at schools that pride themselves on minimal reliance on test scores. Even if most applicants can be rejected on a reasonably objective basis, and a few are sure-fire admits, there must be at least three or four applicants for every space who are more or less indistinguishable.

My own sermonette on this subject, which I like to deliver before the envelope arrives rather than after, has two parts. One is that where you go to college or graduate school probably will affect your life and career, but not in any way you can predict. At any good college you may be inspired by a teacher and find your vocation. Or you may meet the love of your life. Or you might get strung out on drugs, or hit by a bus. In terms of how they affect your overall lifetime happiness, these chance factors are far more important than the difference between one good college and another.  We obsess about this college versus that only because that’s the only factor we can obsess about.

Second, just think about how much harder it is to get into any particular college than it used to be. There’s something complacent and a bit obnoxious about the common observation, "You know, I probably couldn’t get in today." But this bromide is truer than most of those who repeat it realize. Just consider:

  • As recently as the mid-1970s (and yes that is, too, recent) most Ivy League schools excluded women or, like Harvard, effectively restricted them to a fifth of each class through the fiction that they went to a different school (Radcliffe). Coeducation alone doubled the competition for a place at, say, Yale.
  • White males, who had a virtual monopoly on places at top schools, now must share with African-Americans, American Indians, Latinos, and so on. These minorities now add up to more than half of Harvard College admissions. Without getting into any arguments about standards or fairness, or quotas, we can note that simply opening the institution to previously ostracized groups increases competition for everybody else.
  • The population of the United States has increased by half in the past 40 years, from slightly over 200 million to slightly over 300 million. That increases competition from within the United States by half.
  • Competitive-admission colleges have greatly increased the number of students they take from abroad. (They say this is for a diverse and interesting student body, but in part it is that the foreign students they take are the ones who  can pay full freight. Not many Americans can anymore.) At Harvard, the share of foreign students has about doubled, to a bit over ten percent.
  • On the other hand, the size of a Harvard class has increased by about ten percent.
Putting it all together, a white male aiming for Harvard (or similar school) will be competing with something like four times as many people as a generation ago. His chance of getting in is about one fourth of what it used to be.

There. Feel better now?

More From Michael Kinsley
'Vicious' Inflation and National Debt (6/14)
Nausea, Henry James, and Lord Byron (6/11)
Worthwhile Canadian Initiative (6/9)
Risks, Large and Small (6/7)
Discrimination in the Top Tax Bracket (6/03)
A Grain of Salt (6/02)