Harvard-Yale Competition

Do Harvard and Yale compete for the best students? Greg Mankiw

certainly thinks


If the optimal strategy puts Harvard at a competitive disadvantage, then

we had better rethink our policy…

The interesting question is whether a significant number of top candidates,

once admitted by Yale, will choose to forgo a Harvard application altogether.

If that happens, then Harvard will, from a game-theoretic point of view, have

to revise its new admissions policy.

I think we can all be quite happy that Harvard hasn’t put a game theorist in

charge of its admissions program. The issue which is getting Mankiw so excited

is that of early admissions – something which Harvard no longer offers,

but which Yale does. That being the case, Mankiw is worried that "students

who act strategically" are more likely to go to Yale than to Harvard, and

that, as a consequence, Harvard might lose out on some of the best students.

A commenter connects the dots:

There are two kinds of students: those who apply strategically and those

who don’t. I would predict that those students who applied strategically,

all other qualifications equal, who do better in college and in the real world.

I’m far from convinced. The most qualified cohort of college applicants every

year vastly outnumbers the number of places at Harvard and Yale combined. The

admissions officers at both universities have a large and necessarily somewhat

subjective set of criteria which lead them to choose some subset of that cohort

for admission. And that subset, which gets admitted, invariably does very well.

But any other subset, once admitted, would also do very well.

In any case, the colleges have good reason to pick candidates based on much

wider criteria than how well they think they’ll do "in college and in the

real world" – indeed, that’s why Harvard gave up its early admissions

in the first place. The early-admissions system produced stellar graduates,

to be sure, but the vast majority of them came from extremely privileged backgrounds,

and the university felt that it had a meritocratic obligation to level the playing

field and try to attract more students from the lower half (or more) of the

socio-economic spectrum.

So we’re left with the question of whether Harvard should make some attempt

to include a certain number of "strategic thinkers" in its admissions

– with that term being defined, very narrowly, as "people who apply

to Yale and don’t apply to Harvard because of the difference in early admissions

policies". My feeling is that Harvard should be more than capable of finding

a large number of strategic thinkers within its current pool of applicants.

And more than that, I think that Harvard is – and should be – defined

much more by what happens to students after they’re admitted, than

it is by the quality of students, however defined, on their first day as a freshman.

In other words, it really has nothing to worry about.

Besides, Harvard has a high-profile econoblogger on staff: Mankiw himself.

Yale, on that front, doesn’t compete at all.

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