Are Admissions Gatekeepers Diverse Enough?

Article renews debate over whether too-narrow definitions of merit and too-homogeneous admissions staffing limit the diversity of those who are admitted.

February 5, 2018
 
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Leaders of American colleges talk regularly about the need to diversify their student bodies, especially at selective institutions with relatively few black and Latino students. These educators -- and politicians, pundits and parents -- discuss what kind of recruitment is appropriate, what kinds of measures are best for colleges to use in evaluating students and the merits of considering race and ethnicity in admissions.

But what about the diversity of admissions office staffs? Are they sufficiently diverse to recruit and admit diverse classes of students? Does their diversity matter -- or do colleges need only people from any background who are committed to recognizing potential?

An article in Pacific Standard is attracting attention from admissions professionals because it links the diversity within the profession to admissions outcomes. The article is by Nadirah Farah Foley, a Ph.D. student at Harvard University, who studies race, inequality, culture and education. Previously she worked as an admissions officer at the University of Pennsylvania.

In her article, Foley notes that many people and groups have criticized the way selective colleges admit and reject applicants.

"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," she writes. "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 … All of the above should give us pause about the degree of confidence we place in these metrics, which have a veneer of fairness but also quietly work to continue to secure the position of the children of privilege. 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."

A key part of changing the way colleges define merit, she writes, is to encourage the hiring of different kinds of people as admissions officers.

A 2014 report from the National Association for College Admission Counseling found that women, black and Latino admissions professionals see their representation in the field decline as positions become senior. The proportion of black people in the admission profession decreases from 11 percent of counselors and assistant/associate directors to 5 percent of vice presidents/deans. For Latinos, the decrease is from 8 percent to only 2 percent. (Women are overrepresented at entry- and midlevel admissions positions, but underrepresented at senior levels.) The NACAC report urged colleges to work harder to recruit more diverse admissions staff members -- at all levels of admissions, not just the entry level.

One comment posted on Foley's piece questioned the idea that a more diverse admissions staff would make a difference. "I agree that the definition of merit needs to be expanded. But I don't see how this is going to be accomplished just by changing the demographic composition of admissions staff. What reason is there to think that a person who succeeds in his or her own Horatio Alger story is going to want to provide opportunities for others to do the same?" asked the comment.

Foley offers evidence that diversity does matter in admissions staffing. She cites a 2017 study (abstract available here) in Research in Higher Education that looked at the backgrounds and decisions of 311 admissions officers at selective colleges. The study -- by Nelson Bowman of the University of Iowa and Michael N. Bastedo of the University of Michigan -- found evidence that many competitive colleges rely on their own alumni. Almost half of those studied worked at their alma mater.

The study also found an impact of members of different groups working in admissions positions.

As part of the research, the admissions officers were given a simulation on admitting certain fictional candidates with various qualifications and backgrounds. Those admissions officers from historically underrepresented groups were more likely than others to say they would admit low-socioeconomic-status applicants. Those employed by their own alma mater, and those with longer time in admissions, were less likely than others to say that they would admit such applicants.

In an interview, Bastedo said that the Foley paper raised important questions. "I do think admissions offices care about staff diversity, and offices commonly have staff members that are specifically appointed to recruit underrepresented students," Bastedo said. He added that "our paper is the first evidence that professionals from underrepresented backgrounds may score applicants differently, and that working for your alma mater may be an unrecognized bias. But we need a lot more research on this."

Angel B. Pérez said he thinks, from his personal experience, that Foley is correct. Pérez is vice president for enrollment and student success at Trinity College, in Connecticut. There and at his previous job, leading admissions at Pitzer College, he led the process of going test optional as part of a series of steps to attract more diverse applicants. At Trinity, he has see seen gains in applications from first-generation students after adopting a policy to waive application fees for all first-generation students.

Of the ideas in Foley's article, Pérez said, "I talk about this all the time with my colleagues. We at elite liberal arts colleges are great at replicating ourselves. We hire people with the same background and pedigrees, and that absolutely impacts who we admit."

At Trinity, he said, the admissions staff includes alumni, but "we've also been hiring people who worked at nonselective institutions, at public institutions, from other backgrounds," he said. "I didn't want everyone who came through traditional private school, boarding school background," he said.

He also said leadership is needed from the top of a college, as some diversity efforts -- while admitting students who are in every way qualified -- may not boost average SAT scores and U.S. News & World Report rankings.

Pérez was born in Puerto Rico and grew up in the South Bronx, in a very poor family. He has achieved success in life, he said, because Skidmore College admitted him despite lower test scores than were the norm for the college. An admissions officer saw his potential, he said. "When I look at those I admit without high test scores, I see students who went on to become Fulbright winners, doctors and more," he said. "We need to think differently about talent. I want enrollment management to think differently."

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