Anemona Hartocollis, New York Times, April 17, 2021
Jianna Curbelo attends a career-focused public high school in New York City, works at McDonald’s and lives in the Bronx with her unemployed mother, who did not graduate from college.
So when her high-school counselor and her Ph.D.-educated aunt urged her to apply to Cornell, on her path to becoming a veterinarian, she had her doubts. But she also had her hopes.
“It was one of those, ‘I’ll give it a shot, boost my ego a little bit,’” she said, laughing infectiously, of her decision to apply.
Then she got the unexpected news: She was accepted. She figured she was helped by the fact that Cornell, like hundreds of other universities, had suspended its standardized test score requirement for admission during the coronavirus pandemic. She also said she believed that protests kindled by the death of George Floyd had caught the attention of admissions officers, inspiring some to draft essay questions aimed at eliciting students’ thoughts on racial justice and the value of diversity.
“Those protests really did inspire me,” she said. “It made it seem like the times were sort of changing, in a way.”
Whether college admissions have changed for the long haul remains unclear. But early data suggests that many elite universities have admitted a higher proportion of traditionally underrepresented students this year — Black, Hispanic and those who were from lower-income communities or were the first generation in their families to go to college, or some combination — than ever before.
The gains seem to reflect a moment of national racial and social awareness not seen since the late 1960s that motivated universities to put a premium on diversity and that prodded students to expand their horizons on possible college experiences.
“I would say the likelihood is that the movement that arose in the wake of George Floyd’s murder has exerted some influence on these institutions’ admissions officers,” said Jerome Karabel, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and a historian of college admission.
Consider Jaylen Cocklin, 18, of Columbia, S.C., the son of a retired police officer and a state worker. Jaylen, whose two older brothers attend historically Black institutions, decided in middle school that he wanted to go to Harvard, but the events of the past year were a part of his thinking as he weighed his opportunities.
He also suspected that Harvard might be thinking it had some duty to young men like him “because of the social outcry.” And, now he says, it appears that he was right.
The growth in minority admissions at top schools, both private universities and state flagships, has been driven in part by an overall explosion in applications there. Although the total number of students applying to college this year increased only slightly (though slightly more for Black, Hispanic and Asian students than white ones), the number of applications to top schools increased drastically across the board — by 43 percent to Harvard and 66 percent to M.I.T., for example.
At the University of California, Los Angeles, freshman applications rose by 28 percent, and even more for racial minorities — by 48 percent for African-Americans, by 33 percent for Hispanic students and by 16 percent for American Indian students.
The easing of the reliance on standardized tests, which critics say often work to the advantage of more educated and affluent families who can afford tutors and test prep, was most likely the most important factor in encouraging minority applicants.
Only 46 percent of applications this year came from students who reported a test score, down from 77 percent last year, according to Common App, the not-for-profit organization that offers the application used by more than 900 schools. First-generation, lower-income, as well as Black, Hispanic and Native American students were much less likely than others to submit their test scores on college applications.
At N.Y.U., this year’s admitted class is about 29 percent Black or Hispanic students, up from 27 percent last year, and 20 percent first-generation students, up from 15 percent.
At Harvard, the proportion of admitted students who are Black jumped to 18 percent from 14.8 percent last year. If all of them enrolled, there would be about 63 more Black students in this year’s freshman class than if they were admitted at last year’s rate. Asian-Americans saw the second biggest increase, to 27.2 percent from 24.5 percent, which could be meaningful if a lawsuit accusing Harvard of systematically discriminating against Asian-Americans is taken up by the Supreme Court.
The percentage of Black students offered a spot at the University of Southern California rose to 8.5 percent from 6 percent, and Latino students to 18 percent from 15 percent.