Last week a faculty colleague asked me if I was excited about the results for this year’s senior class. My reply surprised both of us.
I told him at this point in the year I am more likely to feel relief than excitement. That doesn’t mean that I don’t feel joy for my students who receive good news and pride in those who make a final college choice after thoughtful consideration and reflection, but I am more likely to come to the end of the admissions cycle feeling like a reality-show contestant who has made it to the end of the episode without being voted off the island.
I’ve been wondering why that is. Do I know too much about the vagaries of the college admissions process and all the things that could go wrong in any given year, things over which I have limited control? Or is there somewhere in the DNA passed down by both of my parents a pessimism that is finally manifesting itself?
I felt a similar sense of relief when I saw the results of two recent surveys on public perceptions of college admission conducted following revelations of the Operation Varsity Blues scandal. NORC at the University of Chicago, a research center, did the surveys and found that the public is divided on whether the college admissions process is fair, with “fair” in this case being a synonym for “just” and not “so-so.”
The NORC surveys show the public giving those of us in college admissions a so-so grade for fairness. Thirty-eight percent of respondents consider the college admissions process to be fair, while 36 percent say it is unfair, with another 25 percent in neither corner.
I was relieved that the support for college admission fairness was as high as it was, given the less-than-positive coverage of college admission over the past six months due to the court case involving Harvard University's admissions process and treatment of Asian American applicants and the elaborate criminal conspiracy labeled as Operation Varsity Blues. While both issues are related to a small segment of colleges that aren’t representative of the whole of the college admission world, and while Operation Varsity Blues was not an admissions scandal per se but a scandal with the goal of obtaining admission, the negative publicity engendered by both is a serious threat to public trust in what we do and how we do it.
Should we be concerned? Are the poll results evidence that the public doesn’t understand the complexities of college admission or that it understands all too well and doesn’t like what it sees? The answer is probably a little of both.
Poll results often raise as many questions as they answer. The NORC surveys ask about the importance of grades and test scores and about the role of “hooks” such as legacy status, athletic talent and ability to pay. For each category those surveyed were asked how important each factor is in the college admissions process and how important it should be. In every single case, the survey indicates that the factor should be less important than it is perceived to be currently.
Take grades and test scores, for example. Eighty-one percent of those in the survey believe that a student’s high school performance is important for colleges in making admission decisions, while 76 percent agree that should be the case. That raises an obvious question about the remaining 24 percent. If grades shouldn’t be important for admission, then what should? Seventy-five percent say test scores are important, with 68 percent believing they should remain important.
The survey shows far less support for nonacademic factors. Fifty-four percent of those responding think that colleges value athletic ability, but only 32 percent believe athletic talent should be considered in making admission decisions. Thirty-seven percent believe that legacy status is important, but only 11 percent believe it should be. Close to half (46 percent) believe that ability to pay is a plus factor in admission, but only half as many (23 percent) believe it should be. Forty-four percent of those responding believe that making a donation influences admission, but only 13 percent believe it should.
What conclusions should we draw? We could borrow language used in other venues and claim that we have been “completely vindicated,” but hopefully we have too much integrity for that. We might also claim that we were victims of Rick Singer and the parents and tutors who perpetrated Operation Varsity Blues, but if we’re honest we should wonder if the emphasis on selectivity as a measure of prestige was a contributing factor and if the current system has flaws that were exploited.
The first question to delve into is do we care whether the selective college admissions process is fair. I think the answer is yes, but a qualified yes. The process isn’t intentionally unfair, but fairness is probably low on the list of priorities for most colleges in selecting a class. Colleges and universities use the admissions process to help achieve institutional goals ranging from academic profile to diversity to revenue, and institutions fortunate enough to have far more applicants than spaces available have the luxury of sculpting a class. That’s certainly more than fair for the college or university, but maybe not as much for individual applicants who don’t possess any of the talents or qualities that help meet institutional objectives.
Applying to selective colleges can all too often seem like applying to a country club, and there’s a reason for that. Jerome Karabel has argued persuasively in his history of admissions at Harvard, Yale and Princeton Universities, The Chosen, that many of the accepted conventions of college admission, from recommendation letters to the concern for character and leadership, were established nearly a century ago as ways to promote values that benefited WASPs and made it harder for Jewish applicants to be admitted. I don’t believe that those conventions today are designed to discriminate in favor of those from privileged backgrounds, but they have that consequence. Those with money and privilege either move to the front of the line or have a separate entrance.
The reliance on test scores benefits those from good family backgrounds and good school environments. Legacy privilege serves as a form of property transfer from one generation to another. It may be the case that legacy applicants have credentials stronger than the average applicant to selective colleges, but should someone get into college because of who their parents are or because of who they are?
Big-time athletic programs serve the advancement arm of a college or university, not the academic mission, so why don’t we pay recruited athletes as public relations employees rather than pretend they are “student athletes”? Are teams in “country club” sports like squash and crew side doors to admission even when coaches aren’t being bribed? Can’t some teams be filled with students who get in without coach support?
It is easy to argue that the advantages that wealth and privilege provide in college admission reflect the advantages they have in society in large. But college admission should aspire to be countercultural, to serve as an engine promoting the values of access, equity and merit.
We have an opportunity to clean up our house, and if we don’t, we shouldn’t be surprised when government seeks to step in and clean it. The NORC survey results should relieve us, but not satisfy us.