Admissions Shocker: Life Isn't Fair

Georgia Tech administrator tries new approach to dealing with complaints from parents and others that flood competitive colleges this time of year. Could this work?

June 5, 2017

Richard Clark started a recent blog post with two real examples of complaints he has recently received:

  • “How can you waitlist my son? He has 30 points higher and two more APs than your average. And we know someone down the street who got in that....”
  • “Something is wrong with your process if my daughter who has been through as many medical issues as she has and still has a 3.8 is not getting in. Talk about not being fair...."

Clark, director of undergraduate admission at Georgia Institute of Technology, wasn't writing just to commiserate with colleagues. Nor did he use those comments as starting points to defend competitive college admissions as precise and fair.

Rather, he argues that it's time to share what admissions professionals know: their business is not fair. He doesn't say admissions decisions are being made in unethical ways, but that any sort of objective "fairness" just isn't possible in competitive college admissions.

"[U]ltimately, the admission process for schools denying twice or three times or sometimes ten times more students than they admit is not about fairness. It’s about mission," Clark writes.

He hopes that by talking about the issue he will encourage those rejected (and their parents) to move past the averages or ranges for test scores and grades and think about the particular qualities a college might be seeking.

For example, the most obvious "unfairness" at Georgia Tech is the vastly differing admissions rates for in-state and out-of-state applicants. The university's overall 23 percent admit rate reflects a 42 percent rate for Georgians and an 18 percent rate for those from out of state.

Clark said in an interview that the focus of admissions guidebooks on overall numbers helps to perpetuate an idea of what is "fair" and who is entitled to admission.

And the problem with that focus, Clark said, is that those numbers don't tell of the incredible credentials of those getting rejected. At Georgia Tech, the entire applicant pool has an SAT average of just under 1400 and each applicant has taken and done well in an average of eight Advanced Placement courses. So credentials associated by some with assuring admission are really just about assuring that one is logical in the applicant pool.

About 85 percent of those who apply to Georgia Tech could succeed there if admitted, Clark said. Admission at competitive colleges has long since ceased to be about weeding out those who can't succeed.

While some competitive colleges can deal with such a situation by growing, that's not possible for all. Georgia Tech has, at the master's level, used online education to expand its student body. But that's not possible for every program, Clark said.

Clark said he wrote the piece in May, not April, because he finds that there is a "delayed reaction" to rejections and that the fairness complaints come in May, not right after admissions decisions have gone out.

While Clark said he hopes to help change the discussion about fairness, he stressed that he understands that fielding complaints comes with the territory of leading a competitive admissions program.

He said that he realizes that "all the emotions build up" when parents aren't happy about an admissions outcome, and that admissions professionals need to remember the motivations. "We tell our staff all the time that this comes from a place of love," Clark said. "It's because they love their kids."



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