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Many colleges "continue to use admissions policies that disproportionately and gratuitously benefit students from white and affluent families," according to a new report on admissions from the Institute for Higher Education Policy, financed by the Joyce Foundation.

"Such policies judge applicants based on factors like whether and where their parents attended college, the resources and connections of the high school they attend, and their ability to afford expensive test preparation materials, rather than their academic potential," says the report, "Realizing the Mission of Higher Education Through Equitable Admissions Policies."

"The nation was understandably outraged when news of the Varsity Blues scandal broke, revealing both how far some affluent families are willing to go to ensure their children attend well-resourced institutions and how the admissions process can be manipulated to accommodate them," the report adds. "While the federal investigation made clear the illegal ways those with resources can work the admissions process to their advantage, there are many legal and widely accepted ways that students from privileged backgrounds benefit from recruitment, admissions, and enrollment policies and practices."

As a result, the report says, "white students are consistently overrepresented at colleges and universities in ways that cannot be explained by the demographics of nearby communities. This is especially true at selective institutions, which is troubling given that Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and underrepresented AAPI communities and students from low-income backgrounds who attend such institutions are more likely to graduate and experience stronger post-college outcomes than those who attend less selective institutions."

Specifically, the report takes aim at eight policies used by many colleges:

  • Colleges should adjust their policies on recruiting students to focus on minority students, poor students and students who may not be the colleges’ prime target. "Research suggests that many institutions -- particularly those best positioned to invest financially in underserved students’ success -- prioritize recruiting white and affluent high schoolers to the detriment of students of color and low-income, first-generation, rural, adult, and community college transfer students." In particular, the report criticized public colleges: "Public universities too often devote resources to recruiting wealthy out-of-state students." (This criticism echoes a recent paper published by Karina Salazar of the University of Arizona and Ozan Jaquette and Crystal Han, both of the University of California, Los Angeles.)
  • Rethink "demonstrated interest" policies. These policies favor applicants who have shown interest in a college by, for example, visiting the college or calling a faculty member to talk about the college. "When any institution -- even those with equitable recruitment strategies in place -- considers demonstrated interest in admissions decisions, it privileges students who can afford to visit campus," the report says. "Travel costs make participating in on-campus events too costly and difficult to access for many rural students and students from low-income backgrounds. For example, at one medium-sized selective university, 81 percent of students who made in-person visits to catch the eye of college recruiters identified as white and lived relatively close to campus."
  • Eliminate early-decision programs, which require applicants who are admitted to enroll. "Applying to college is a multi-step process that requires applicants to make many decisions about where to apply and when they will submit their application. Many colleges and universities offer multiple deadlines to submit applications, including ‘early decision’ or ‘early action’ deadlines," the report says. "Through early admissions policies, institutions have created a tiered approach to their application deadlines that turns a positive unwritten rule -- being an ‘early bird’ -- into a policy that advantages applicants with the most resources. Students who submit early decision applications receive a boost in their admissions chances simply because they can apply early in the admissions cycle to one institution -- a luxury many students from low-income backgrounds do not have."
  • End legacy admissions, which favor the children or other relatives of alumni. "These separate and unequal pathways are deeply problematic," the report says. "Our higher education system has historically been closed to Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and underrepresented Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities, while rising tuition costs deter students from low-income backgrounds from enrolling. Legacy policies reinforce those inequities by typically privileging White and wealthy students whose families have had access to college for generations, while limiting the economic mobility that can come from a college degree for non-White and non-wealthy students." The report also notes that one reason colleges give for legacy admissions policies may not be true. "Institutions may believe they cannot eliminate legacy preferences because doing so will reduce alumni giving and hurt their endowment growth. However, an analysis of the top 100 universities in U.S. News & World Report between 1998 and 2008 shows that prioritizing legacy students in admission decisions has no statistically significant impact on alumni giving behavior, even if the university has high levels of alumni giving. Also, the seven universities in the study that dropped legacy policies between 1998 and 2007 saw no immediate decline in donations after making the policy change."
  • Eliminate the use of standardized tests. "While test-flexible and test-optional policies represent incremental progress, they do not necessarily offer a guaranteed path to increasing campus diversity. When given the option, first-generation college students, students of color, women, Pell Grant recipients, and students with learning differences are most likely to be ‘non-submitting applicants,’ meaning they opt out of including test scores in their application for admission," the report says. "However, just allowing students to forgo submitting scores does not necessarily change which students are accepted and ultimately enroll. A study of more than 100 liberal arts colleges between 1999 and 2014 found that going test-optional led to higher average SAT scores -- since students with lower scores were less likely to submit those as part of their application -- but enrollment among students of color did not increase."
  • Eliminate questions about experience with the criminal justice system. Asking questions perpetuates racist experiences of many minority individuals with the criminal justice system, the report says. "Adult Black men are 5.7 times as likely and Latinx men are 2.5 times as likely to be incarcerated as their White counterparts. Women are less likely than men to face incarceration, but here again, Black women are 1.7 times more likely and Latinx women are 1.3 times more likely than White women to experience incarceration."
  • Strengthen transfer pathways for students. "The traditional pathway [from high school] is not the only pathway, and failing to account for that means failing to meet many students’ needs."
  • Invest in need-based financial aid. "Many selective institutions choose to recruit and financially support out-of-state students, those with high test scores, and those from high-wealth families, a misallocation of limited financial aid dollars that has the effect of sacrificing access and diversity. This institutional choice leaves Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and underrepresented AAPI students, and students from low-income backgrounds, with a gap between what their family can afford and what they must pay."

Many of these points have been made before, as the report acknowledges. But now may be the best time to raise them again, it says, with the Black Lives Matter and other movements gaining ground.

David Hawkins, chief education and policy officer of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, is thanked in the report for reviewing it.

So does he think admissions professionals will embrace the report?

"Admission professionals will likely have a mixed reaction to the report’s recommendations, all of which will be quite familiar," Hawkins said. "But while there will be a range of responses to individual recommendations, this is a time when everyone across the admission profession is evaluating the impact of their institutional policies and practices in light of the pandemic, which had an intensifying and magnifying effect on issues related to access and equity. As such, the timing of these recommendations is important, and will prompt further discussion and evaluation of the impact each institutional practice has on access and equity. There is also an ongoing conversation about the institutional contexts to which some of these policies are a response, which will require further conversation about state and federal support for postsecondary education."

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