A Radical Approach to Who Gets In

Report by NACAC and NASFAA calls for major changes in the systems used to admit and award aid to students. Failure to do so, the report says, will perpetuate racial inequity.

January 24, 2022

The admissions system should be totally overhauled to make it more fair, especially for students of color, said a report issued Wednesday by the National Association for College Admission Counseling and the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

A major reason that colleges developed the current system, with its tests, essays, grades and recommendation letters, said the report, is to promote selectivity. The report adds, “Selectivity exerts a fundamentally inequitable influence on the path to postsecondary education. It does so not because the system is designed on a complete definition of ‘merit,’ which remains elusive and ill-defined, but because in many cases it is designed to exclude even highly qualified students and because its current configuration relies upon an inequitable system of inputs.”

In addition, colleges should “rethink the financial aid application process into one that is less burdensome for students and families, and no longer requires them to continue to ‘prove they are poor,’” said the new report.

The reason for proposing such changes? Racial equity depends on them, the report says, and specifically equity for Black students.

“In this report, admission recommendations focus on Black students first and foremost, and financial aid recommendations focus on all underserved populations more broadly,” the report says. “To be sure, racism casts destructive effects on many populations in American society. This report’s focus on Black students is a direct outgrowth of the need for a historical reckoning related to the treatment of Black Americans that reached a crescendo in 2020. This exclusive focus is not intended to minimize or diminish the effects of racism on Indigenous peoples, Asian American students, Latinx students, or other marginalized student populations.”

The report adds, “One cannot paint all Black students, or to a larger extent, students of color, with the same brush. Differences in personality, skills, interests, traits, etc. are as numerous within racial/ethnic populations as they are in the population at large. In this project, following larger societal trends, there are commonalities between, for instance, low-income students, students who are the first in their families to attend college, and Black students. But we wish to make clear that this project was designed specifically to address race and racism without regard to a student’s socioeconomic background.”

As to how admissions plays a role in racial disparities, the report said that “while many Americans view higher education as a means for upward mobility, America’s public policy has not corrected for calcified social stratification and has increasingly treated postsecondary education as a private good. Moreover, the reduced state/federal role in funding higher education and corresponding reliance on tuition revenue by publicly assisted institutions places additional demands on many colleges’ ability to support students with financial assistance. In a system that is increasingly reliant on private wealth for access and for institutional survival, students who have the fewest resources to contribute are most at risk of being excluded.”

Further, the report said, “A great deal of inequity results from the access advantaged students have to the resources needed to augment their secondary school record, including (but not limited to) multiple standardized test sittings, test preparation activities, essay assistance, and private college counseling. Black students, on the whole, have less access to college preparatory coursework and fewer school counselors, as well as fewer financial resources to take or retake admission tests, thereby lacking access to the very levers students must pull to enter selective postsecondary education.”

Rethinking the Application

The report focuses more on the questions colleges should ask than the answers.

Related Stories

To advance Black students, the report said, the admissions system must be rethought to focus on what really matters. The report particularly criticizes parts of the admissions process that promote selectivity, rather than the value of finding a place for everyone who wants to go to college.

“The ‘reputational model’ of higher education is based on a fundamental preoccupation with exclusivity,” the report said. “The roots of selective college admission are deep and extend to the very origins of the modern institution. For many institutions that were transforming in the early 20th century, ‘selective admissions would present the discovery of the best material from among all applicants and the university would prepare them for positions of responsibility.’ This viewpoint was rooted in a time when eugenics and racism were openly accepted as facts of life. Since that time, our understanding of human abilities, social influences—most importantly for this project: racism, systemic inequities, and education—has progressed to a point where these old assumptions about ‘the best material’ no longer apply.”

The report added that “institutions make a choice to be exclusive,” and “by adhering to a selective process that favors variables only some students can attain, these highly selective institutions validate an admission model that is designed to admit students who are able to access these extracurricular variables and exclude those who can’t. Regardless of intention, the design of this type of system prioritizes students with access over those without.”

What to do about these problems? “Rethink the meaning of selectivity in the institutional context,” the report said. “Examine whether the purposes of selective admission policies can be equally well-served by methods of student selection that minimize the ways in which racial bias enters the process of selecting qualified students for enrollment.” While that may sound easier said than done, some experiments have already started (more about that later).

Further, colleges should rethink the application. “One thing became clear: The current application process evokes anxiety and hardship, particularly for students of color.”

To alleviate some of that anxiety, the report suggests a more “student-centric” application system, in which a student could simply select the colleges to which they want to apply and their records would be shared digitally between high school and college, with no additional action from the student.

How to Make It Happen

NACAC and NASFAA created a panel to study these issues.

Justin Draeger, president and CEO of NASFAA, said, “I think the most important piece from the financial aid perspective is to internalize the fact that complexity has costs on all students, but most especially on historically disadvantaged students. The challenge is how do we simplify what is often an inherently complex process? The report takes aim at the most complex aspects of admissions and financial aid that can be overlooked because they have become so ingrained in our processes.”

Angel B. Pérez, chief executive officer of NACAC, said, “The college admission profession is rooted in a history and in systems that have disadvantaged the most marginalized students in our society. We must reckon with that history and begin to tackle the bigger issues that affect who has access.”

Specifically, he cited rankings and test scores as areas on which NACAC has already been quite critical. He cited teacher letters of recommendation as another topic to consider, since those who attend private schools benefit from small classes and close relationships with teachers that may be impossible to forge for a low-income student in an understaffed public school.

Pérez acknowledged that some colleges would remain competitive. But he raised questions about why everyone has to view them as the model.

Jenny Rickard, president and CEO of the Common Application, said she supported the ideas of the report. And while the Common App is a traditional application, it is changing. She noted that it recently dropped questions on school disciplinary records and military discharges—because the questions discriminated against the disadvantaged.

“One example is our direct admissions pilot,” Rickard said. “We partnered with three HBCU member institutions last year to offer automatic admission to students who met admission criteria. Direct admissions flips the script by increasing transparency and instead giving students the agency to choose a college that’s best fit for them. We’re excited to continue this pilot this year with six institutions participating and targeted outreach to 18,000 students.”

Rickard added, “It’s no secret that there needs to be a major overhaul of the college admissions process. It’s great to see other organizations in the higher education sphere like NACAC and NASFAA also dedicated to tearing down barriers for students to apply and afford college, and Common App looks forward to working with them as we continue to get more students to and through college.”

Share Article

Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

Back to Top