Home > Uncategorized > The Competitive College’s Efforts to Diversify Backfire

The Competitive College’s Efforts to Diversify Backfire

October 15, 2018

In 1996 when my younger daughter was a college senior applying to colleges I was living in Western Maryland in a county that was identified as being a part of Appalachia. My daughter was a strong student and by virtue of pursuing her natural interests, drama, distance running, and writing, she ended up with a “good resume” that enabled her to apply for a get accepted into two “elite” New England colleges: Brown and Amherst. Once accepted into these colleges, she attended their recruitment weekends where the admissions office tries to persuade its pool of accepted applicants to chose their school over others. At both of these colleges we heard the same message from the Admissions Office: they had waded through thousands of applicants and “created” an incoming Freshman Class that reflected a cross section of America that was heterogeneous geographically and culturally but all capable of succeeding in college. That ability of admissions officers to create such a heterogeneous cohort is now under fire.

The recent news that Harvard is being sued by Asian American students is the latest case of an elite institution being sued for “reverse discrimination” of one kind or another, and in “Elite College Admissions Are Broken” Atlantic writer Alia Wong contends that racial discrimination is only a symptom of a much deeper problem: the outsize demand for entry into these colleges is driven by the questionable motive of status-seeking… and colleges can’t really “fix” that problem. As Ms. Wong writes:

How do you stop Americans from associating, to borrow the words of the Harvard law professor and affirmative-action scholar Lani Guinier, “selectivity with excellence”? Universities—both elite and open-access, private and public—are heavily reliant on students’ tuition money and research-grant funding, and are thus forced to compete with each other to stay on top. And even they wanted to band together in an effort to fix the admissions system, those fixes would likely be prohibited by federal antitrust law, as The Atlantic’s Jeff Selingo has reported; many of the proposed solutions would require colleges to share information about applicants with each other and thus cooperate, violating laws pertaining to corporate competition. As one college-admissions expert concluded in a 2012 interview with Inside Higher Ed, students and colleges just keep “chasing each other around a round table.”

And when colleges have thousands of applicants, the ultimate decisions about whom to accept can turn on very arbitrary factors. Ms. Wong quotes college admissions “coach” Naomi Sternberg to illustrate this point:

“You can do everything ‘right’—have a 35 [out of 36 on the ACT]; have a lot of leadership, whatever that means; have all the things on some fictitious checklist of things you assumed you need to do—and you are just as likely or exceedingly not likely to get into insert-whatever-premium-university-here,” Steinberg says, stressing how arbitrary the process can be. “Admissions officers are thinking, ‘I need a red-headed, ambidextrous tennis-star-slash-tuba-player,’ and now they can’t take your application that was thoughtful and wonderful because of the directive that just came down. … They just need a student to fill that spot on the beautiful mosaic they’re creating.”

I recall hearing a variant of this from the Admissions Officer at Amherst when we were visiting there the first time to discuss whether my daughter might qualify for financial aid. He said that if the first oboe in the orchestra was scheduled to graduate an oboist would get in before a Valedictorian with high SAT scores, a response that, to me, was common sensical and reasonable.

What makes even more sense to me is the need for competitive colleges to preserve space for low income students who are attending colleges for the first time. In order to accomplish this, many elite colleges instituted a “holistic” approach to admissions— though, as Ms. Wong notes, their motives were not necessarily high-minded:

In the early 20th century, the country’s handful of elite universities began to request essays, teacher recommendations, and other information regarding candidates’ “background” and “character” beyond an entrance-exam score in their effort to surreptitiously restrict the number of Jewish students on campus. But the scope and purpose of this “holistic” approach to evaluating students has evolved since then, and today in its most genuine form evaluates each applicant through the lens of her context—her interests and personality, yes, but also her race and parents’ educational background, for example, and the ways in which that identity may have hindered her opportunities. These days, elite colleges tend to “laud it as a legally viable method to reduce inequality and promote college access,”according to a 2017 University of Michigan policy brief co-authored by the higher-education professor Michael Bastedo. Holistic admissions can be very effective at achieving those goals: A recent study by Bastedo and several co-researchers published in the Journal of Higher Education that analyzed higher-education institutions across the U.S. found that those that use holistic admissions are far more likely than those that don’t to enroll low-income students. 

But “holistic” approaches defy objective standardization and are thus suspect in the minds of those who believe anything “subjective” is suspect.

As readers of this blog realize, this valuing of standardized “objective” scoring is not limited to those who challenge college admissions standards: it is clearly a part of the ranking systems used by US News and World Report… and the rankings imposed on public education by NCLB, RTTT, and now ESSA. If we ever hope to restore the ideal of our entire nation as a “beautiful mosaic” instead of a shark tank we need to re-think the entire college application process… by making college available to any student who wants to attend at any time in their life.

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