A Radical Plan to Combat Inequality in College Admissions

Nadirah Farah Foley, Pacific Standard, January 30, 2018

{snip} When I was a new admissions officer, the importance of each application component was drilled into my head. Other factors, like legacy status or whether the student was a person of color, mattered, but those first five elements [transcripts, test scores, extracurricular profiles, letters of recommendation, and essays] were key. At first, they seemed reasonable-enough measures of potential to succeed at an elite university. But after I saw how consistently our process created disadvantages for students who are low-income and people of color, my trust in the system faltered.

{snip} I learned that the aspects of college applications that are commonly thought of as most important in promoting inclusion—like the consideration of personal qualities in addition to supposedly objective measures of academic potential—actually first became part of the application as a way to identify and exclude Jewish applicants. That realization seemed to upend the field’s expectation that those same metrics could be used to increase diversity, and helped explain my disappointment when they instead reproduced the status quo.

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I’m hardly alone in thinking admissions to be unfair. Many observers have decried legacy admissions policies as an impediment to fairness. Others, especially on the right, point the finger at affirmative action, claiming that considering race undermines what is meant to be a meritocratic process. {snip}

{snip} To begin addressing this problem, I propose three fixes: hiring more diverse admissions officers, training admissions officers to think more critically about how merit is defined and assessed, and calling on universities to think of merit as something that can be developed in anyone, rather than found only among the elect.

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Let’s start with how we assess merit. Critics have long noted that our college application process rewards the privilege of those already fortunate enough to go to “good” schools, who have money and time to develop their athletic and intellectual talents. Test scores measure class as much as they do academic aptitude; grade-point averages are as much a measure of what kind of school one attends as they are of how hard one works. Recommendation letters reflect students’ potential, but they also reflect teachers’ biases and counselors’ overburdened caseloads. Extracurricular profiles show as much about parents’ cultural capital as they do about students’ interests. And successful essays are often those that perform particular types of privilege or disadvantage. {snip} As we have seen, so long as these constructions of merit remain unchallenged, the children of the elite remain overrepresented—which would likely be the case even without added boosts like legacy admissions policies.

But we are blinkered by old ideas about what merit is, which makes it hard to imagine new ones. As it stands, at many selective universities, the people doing the work of selecting the next elites are elites themselves, steeped in dominant ideas about merit. {snip}

{snip} Were admissions officers at selective schools to come from a broader swath of the population, admissions offices might more readily contest ideas about metrics like the SAT or the application essay at the admissions committee table. In turn, they might challenge the perpetuation of privilege and admit students more representative of the full range of talents the country has to offer.

I’d like to offer a provocation though: We need to move beyond rehabilitating broken ideas of merit, and instead push for radically new ways of thinking about deservingness. What would it look like if our most well-endowed institutions of higher education viewed their purpose as using their considerable assets in the service of cultivating the best and brightest, as opposed to simply finding them? What if elite universities were viewed as high-quality not because they admit the children of privilege, but because they leverage their immense resources to improve the lives of their students and the world? University leaders thinking this way would not simply constitute a revision of our thinking on merit; they would audaciously re-conceptualize the very mission of our universities, with implications for everything from admissions to pedagogy to the ideal role of higher education in society.

{snip} But education can also be a vehicle for re-imagining and re-building society, and we should harness that transformative potential.

We could start by hiring and training admissions officers differently, raising a critical awareness of the larger sociopolitical context in which the work of admissions takes place. As it stands, admissions officers are often taught the nuts and bolts of the work, and important information about their schools, but little about the larger forces at work. This lack of training is especially troubling given the relative youth and inexperience of many beginning admissions officers. Teaching admissions officers to contextualize their work historically and socio-politically, however, would drive home the point that universities should work constantly to ensure that our processes are not simply reifying inequality.

We could also re-evaluate our admissions criteria and think carefully about whether they align with our mission. The SAT stands out as perhaps the most obvious metric that has outlived its usefulness. Although it started as a way to increase diversity and make Harvard University more egalitarian, nowadays the SAT is as much a measure of one’s parents’ income as of one’s academic aptitude, and offers hardly more information about college performance than high school grades do. There is little compelling interest in maintaining the use of the SAT, except on the part of the College Board, and of overworked admissions offices who need easy ways to stratify applicants. Are such practical demands reason enough to continue using a tool that is known to favor higher-income children? {snip}

{snip} Accordingly, universities must expand their definitions of merit, and they must also increase their commitment that all students will have the opportunity to prove themselves “meritorious.” Despite what universities say about wanting diverse students, where admissions officers spend their time on the road may not optimally support that goal. One admissions officer quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education notes that she planned her school visits schedule based on which schools had previously sent successful applicants, a strategy that is sure to skew toward elite preparatory schools and public schools in wealthy districts. As an admissions officer, my superiors encouraged me to use the same logic to plan my travel season, and so I spent a great deal of my time on the road at elite boarding schools. {snip}

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