Pushing for Radical Change in Admissions

Senators urged to end financial aid at colleges that use legacy preferences and early decision and to ban research grants to universities that do not use a lottery system to admit applicants.

February 25, 2019
 
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In January, several Democrats in the U.S. Senate sent out letters to higher education experts asking for ideas on how to narrow racial and ethnic gaps in student debt and access to higher education. The results that have come in include numerous ideas about Pell Grants and loan programs, as one might expect.

One group, New America, is going for changes that it termed "radical" (along with plenty of other proposals that aren't). Officials at New America believe these ideas just might get more attention this year than they would have previously. The group is proposing that colleges that have a preference for alumni children lose access to federal aid programs. Ditto for colleges that have early-decision programs. And the group wants to require universities that seek federal research grants to replace admissions systems with ones in which a lottery plays a prominent role (among applicants who have made it over some bar).

The ideas would involve an assertive role for the federal government, and are certain to draw strong opposition. But New America says it is trying to prompt debate by challenging conventional wisdom about college admissions being meritocratic. In addition, the proposals come at a time of growing concern that a loss for Harvard University in the lawsuit it is facing over its affirmative action programs could reduce the diversity in the student bodies of leading American colleges. And the proposals come as Democratic politicians are increasing their focus on racial inequities -- and are speaking out about what they see as flaws in college admissions.

Here's what New America has proposed on legacy admissions and early decision: "Historically, the college admissions landscape at highly selective institutions has been sustained by policies that favor the white and wealthy, propping up a status quo that blocks access to low-income students of color. Chief among those policies is the practice of giving preference to legacy students. While race-conscious admissions policies are the constant target of undeserved scrutiny, legacy preference has gone mostly unchallenged legally, to great effect … Congress should withhold Title IV aid [federal student aid] to those highly resourced and highly selective institutions that engage in legacy admissions and other preferential admissions treatments that overwhelmingly favor wealthy and white families, including early-decision programs."

The lottery requirement proposed by New America would be imposed on any college or university seeking either federal student aid or federal research grants. Traditional admissions systems would have to be replaced by a lottery. Colleges could have minimum requirements based on SAT/ACT score and/or high school grades, to assure that only those able to do the work would be admitted. But all applicants who get over the bar would go into the lottery. No preferences for legacies. No preferences based on race or ethnicity. And to show just how radical this idea is, the proposal specifically states that athletes would also be admitted through this lottery, without any special treatment.

A lottery would "make the admissions process more transparent to students and families," New America's proposal says.

Some of the ideas alluded to have been much debated in higher education for years. Early decision has been criticized and defended, and appears to be not only surviving but growing in popularity among elite colleges and their applicants. (For good examples of the debate on this topic, consider this 2017 essay by the late Harold O. Levy and a response from Robert Massa.)

Legacy admissions, though widespread, have only periodically received much attention and public criticism -- although that has grown considerably during the trial in the Harvard suit. There has been no public debate over the lottery idea. The National Association for College Admission Counseling reports that it has not taken a position on either of New America's proposals. (NACAC's ethics code has rules about early decision but has not urged it to be banned.)

In past legal reviews of legacy admissions, officials have said that it promotes a sense of connection with alumni -- a connection that results in contributions.

While many colleges don't go out of their way to talk about legacy preferences, many have them. In last year's Inside Higher Ed survey of admissions leaders, 42 percent of admissions directors at private colleges and universities said that legacy status is a factor in admissions decisions at their institutions. The figure at public institutions is only 6 percent. (In some cases, the preference at public institutions is to grant alumni children in-state status even if they are from out of state, and that can make a significant difference in a candidate's odds of admission.)

Sue Cunningham is president and CEO of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, an organization that includes college fund-raisers and also those who run programs to engage alumni.

She sent this statement about why she does not favor New America's proposal: "CASE fully and enthusiastically endorses access and diversity goals in the education sector, and has launched a number of programs to enhance and sustain diversity in the professions we serve. We believe, however, that the proposal to entirely eliminate legacy status in college and university admissions decisions does not take into account the fact that such decisions are part of a complex set of factors as institutions 'model' an incoming class.

"What prospective students are most likely to be successful? What students to whom an offer of admission is made will actually enroll, and at what tuition rate? What prospective students can pay more for their education (based on their estimated family contribution …), and in so doing underwrite part of the cost of admitting and educating students whose EFC is much lower? What mix of students comprises a class that will take best advantage of the varied curricular offerings of the institution, that will after they graduate become both ambassadors for and supporters of the institution? Legacy status by itself is not deemed to be sufficient for admission; nor should legacy status count against an otherwise qualified applicant."

Rachel Fishman, deputy director for research with the education policy program at New America, said that legacy admissions needs to be evaluated in the context of the legal battles over whether colleges can consider race and ethnicity in admissions. "Legacy admissions help to guarantee that a class of students at a school continues to have a proportion of students who are whiter, wealthier, and therefore full-pay at many elite schools, many of whom are often admitted with lesser academic credentials compared to the nonlegacy pool of admitted students," she said. People call affirmative action "unfair," but that only "tips the scale, all other qualifications being equal," she said.

In the past, some colleges have abandoned legacy preferences after courts made them stop considering race in admissions. Texas A&M University did so after a federal appeals court barred public colleges in Texas from considering race in admissions.

Fishman said that she doubted that Harvard would make such a move, even if it loses the case. "That's why the federal government would have to get involved," she said.

While New America's ideas may stun some people, Fishman said, that's a good thing if they step back and think more about college admissions at highly competitive institutions.

"Higher education admissions is not a meritocracy," she said. With "enormous wealth gaps" in the United States, opportunities are far from equal. While "selective higher education institutions like to make students believe that anyone has a shot," some applicants "have better shots than others, and not because they were working harder or deserve it." Maybe even the idea of a lottery will prompt discussion, she said. And an actual lottery would produce classes that are more representative of the population, she said, with no advantage for being wealthy.

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