Ethical College Admissions: Standard Strong, ALDCs and Lops

The Harvard affirmative action ruling provides important lessons on how the university admits students, writes Jim Jump.

October 7, 2019

The number 3 has always had a special magic or power. Theologically we have the trinity, constitutionally we have three branches of government and culturally we have three stooges, three little pigs, three rings in a circus and three outs in an inning. Depending on your perspective, the proposition that things happen in threes is either a superstition or an abiding truth.

College admission has certainly lived the rule of threes in 2019. First there was the Operation Varsity Blues scandal, raising questions about the fairness of the selective admissions process, followed by the Department of Justice investigation into the NACAC Code of Ethics and Professional Practice. It is hard to know which of those will have more impact on the future of college admission and college counseling.

Many of us had been waiting for the third shoe, the decision in the federal court case involving affirmative action and Harvard’s treatment of Asian American applicants, to drop. Last Tuesday, while many of us were still recovering physically and emotionally from the NACAC conference and vote in Louisville, Ky., U.S. District Court Judge Allison Burroughs issued her long-awaited decision in the case.

In a detailed 130-page opinion, Judge Burroughs ruled that Harvard’s race-conscious admissions process does not discriminate against Asian American applicants. That decision will reassure those within higher education who believe that race-conscious admission continues to be necessary to achieve the educational benefits of diversity in colleges and universities, but the reality is that affirmative action hasn’t been released from the hospital but merely taken off life support. Both parties in the case expect that it will ultimately end up in the United States Supreme Court, and this issue is one of the reasons that Mitch McConnell has attempted to stack the court with judges whose “conservatism” doesn’t include respect for legal precedents.

I have been following this case with interest for the past four years. In May of 2015, I was interviewed by Arun Rath for NPR’s All Things Considered, and his first question was whether Asian Americans face an unlevel playing field in college admission. The question caught me off guard, because it had not come up in my preinterview with the show’s producer, but a coalition of 60 Asian American groups had just filed complaints with the Department of Justice and Department of Education regarding Harvard’s practices. My answer was that I didn’t see intentional discrimination, but that other issues ranging from holistic review to crafting a class might work against any particular applicant or group of applicants.

Judge Burroughs's decision reaches a similar conclusion. She finds Harvard’s admissions process to be well thought out and nondiscriminatory, if not perfect, and as a result determined that the court would not dismantle a “very fine admissions program that passes constitutional muster.”

I’ll leave it to others to parse the legal issues, but Judge Burroughs’s opinion provides new insight into the admissions process at Harvard, both with regard to the rating system whereby applicants are rated on a 1-to-4 scale and also inside-baseball terms like “standard strong,” “ALDCs” and “lops.”

Let’s start with the rating system. Each applicant to Harvard receives an academic, extracurricular, personal and athletic rating. The athletic rating is obviously used to identify recruited athletes, as only 10 percent of applicants receive a rating of 1 or 2, compared with 42 percent for academics, 24 percent for extracurricular activities and 21 percent for the personal rating. In my All Things Considered interview, I talked about my belief that the rarer any talent or quality is, the more valuable it becomes. That would appear to be the case with athletic talent at Harvard. According to Judge Burroughs’s opinion, 86 percent of applicants with an athletic rating of 1 are admitted. It is an understatement to point out that is substantially higher than the overall admit rate. White applicants receive a high athletic rating at three times the rate for Asians.

It is relatively rare (27 percent) to receive a rating of 1 or 2 in more than one category, and extremely rare to receive a 1 or 2 in three or more, with only 7 percent of applicants falling into that group. Seventy percent of those with three or more top ratings are admitted, and they make up 46 percent of the entering class.

The most controversial rating is the personal rating, and that is at the heart of this case. It is relatively easy to make judgments about a student’s academic record, and that is true to a lesser extent with regard to extracurricular commitments, although the activities part of the application is ripe for résumé building and puffery. An applicant’s personal qualities should certainly be part of a holistic review, but how do you measure character, motivation, selflessness and grit? Are those subjective and susceptible to implicit bias? According to the court decision, fewer than 10 applicants per year receive a personal rating of 1, begging the question of what one needs to do to earn a 1. The tempting answer is “cure cancer,” but that would be an extracurricular activity.

Asian American applicants receive the highest percentage of top (1 or 2) ratings for academics (60 percent compared to 46 percent for whites) and extracurriculars (28 percent to 25 percent) but receive lower personal ratings than any other group. Is that evidence of discrimination? The court decision concludes no, but acknowledges that implicit bias may be present either in admission officers or in school or teacher recommendations for Asian students.

Or is there a different kind of bias present? The court decision refers to a term used within the Harvard admissions office, “standard strong.” The term refers to applicants who have strong credentials but nothing to sufficiently distinguish them. A sample study of 10 percent of the applicants for the Class of 2018 included 255 identified as “standard strong,” none of whom were ultimately admitted. Asian American applicants are slightly more likely to receive that designation, with some identified as “quiet” and wanting to be a doctor. That begs a question about whether the selective admissions process at places like Harvard disadvantages quiet, thoughtful kids who aren’t comfortable blowing their own horn. There is certainly nothing wrong with being “standard strong,” but how many of those in that category are even aware that there is another level beyond?

The admissions process at Harvard definitely doesn’t disadvantage ALDCs. That acronym covers athletes, legacies, faculty children and students on the dean’s list (not an academic honor, but rather tied to donors and other families of interest). Nearly 44 percent of those on the ALDC list are admitted, eight times the overall rate, and ALDCs constitute 30 percent of the entering class. Judge Burroughs concluded that Harvard has the right to determine how those special interests are considered. I suspect that discussion about the role of preferences of all kinds is just getting underway.

Then there are “lops.” One of the hidden secrets of college admission is that a student can be in the admit pile at some point in the process and yet end up wait-listed or denied. At the end of the process, a college may determine that there are too many acceptances and make adjustments, or “lops.” The lop process is where admission offices pay attention to shaping the class, and students who don’t help achieve institutional priorities may find themselves “lopped.” The plaintiffs in the Harvard case argued that Harvard uses the lop process to achieve racial balancing.

Last week’s decision was reassuring to those worried that college admission as we know it is headed for an apocalypse. Harvard fouled off the third strike. Let’s hope there’s not a fourth horseman around the bend.


Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Virginia. He has been at St. Christopher's since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women's basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.


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