Real Admissions Reform

It's time for a system that acknowledges that most applicants to top colleges can succeed there, and the luck behind getting in, writes Michael L. Satlow.

April 29, 2019

To most anyone who has spent any amount of time in higher education, the latest college admission scandal, while notable for its scope and brashness, wasn’t very surprising. The admissions process at most selective colleges never was, and was really never claimed to be, “meritocratic.”

Colleges routinely define what they mean by “merit,” often preferring metrics that advantage the already privileged, and then engineer their admissions processes to create “ideally balanced” demographic classes. “Merit” might help a student garner a second look from the admissions department, but from that point on the process, however well intentioned, is subjective, political, and happens in a black box that affords little insight or accountability.

So the question isn’t, Does the admissions system have serious flaws? It is, rather, Can we imagine a better one? As the shocking, newly released numbers on the admissions to New York City’s Stuyvesant High School show, “objective” clearly does not work in advancing the powerful, widely shared communal goal of holding out equal opportunity to all. What, though, is the alternative?

I believe that there is a simple adjustment that we can make to the admissions process that could make a profound impact, not just advancing the goal of providing equal opportunity but also reforming several aspects of our higher educational system. In short, I propose that the admissions office focus solely on the question of whether a student would or would not thrive at the given college.

Many admissions officers have told me that even at the most selective colleges they could see 30 to 45 percent of the applicant pool meeting this standard. Simply going over this bar could put a student into the admissions pool. The pool can then be tested, and slightly adjusted, according to the demographic character of the college; criteria used for testing, and exactly how the pool was adjusted, should be publicly released each year. Actual admits are then determined by lottery.

Such a system might work like this. Since the character of each college is different, there is not, and should not be, a single measure of “merit.” Instead, each college makes its own determination of whether each student, individually, would fit and thrive at that college. At the same time, there are legitimate reasons that a college might want to assure diversity over a broad range of criteria, such as sex, race, test scores and socioeconomic status. Colleges should determine these ratios in advance, and then use them to test the entire pool of applicants who were deemed to be suitable for admission. The pool can then be adjusted so that it hits the demographic targets.

To discourage colleges from simply using this step to reinforce privilege (by, for example, assuring that 25 percent is composed of alumni children), colleges would then publicly release their target metrics, the composition of the unadjusted pool and the number of adjustments made to the pool to reach their desired metrics. Colleges might still create pools of students with the most privilege, but they would be forced to publicly account for and defend their actions.

From this adjusted, pool, admission would occur by lottery. In the letter that students receive (accepting, rejecting or placing on the wait list), they would learn whether they made it into the pool or not, and if they did, their actual lottery number and the cutoffs. The whole process would be transparent.

There would be a few disadvantages to this new process. Colleges would lose a lever to cultivate and reward big donors, probably impacting their fund-raising efforts. The athletics programs (as well as orchestras and similar programs that depend on targeted admissions) would suffer. While a college should hit demographic goals over time (and within any four-year cohort), there would be no guarantee that each class would be balanced.

But the potential upside is more significant. With its frank acknowledgment of the role that luck plays and its transparency, the lottery system would increase accountability and seriously mitigate the frequent hubris of both colleges and their students. It allows colleges to work more for the common good (as defined both by their missions and their nonprofit tax status) than to self-perpetuate themselves as finishing clubs for the privileged. With the reduction of their role as sorters of “elite” from “nonelite” students, colleges might then be able to focus more on what they do best, which is to educate.

The effects further downstream, though, might be even more profound. The college ranking system -- which many colleges today regard as a necessary evil -- would be thrown into disarray and perhaps be forced to focus on a range of other, more important factors (such as true competency acquisition). Secondary schools, and parents, could themselves focus on helping students to achieve to the lower standard of “above the bar”; there would be no advantage for going beyond that and no need for “excellent sheep” or “tiger moms.”

Serious change may or may not come in light of the latest college admissions scandal, but if it doesn’t, we can be certain that we will see another sooner rather than later.


Michael L. Satlow is a professor of religious studies and Judaic studies at Brown University.


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