Who Gets In -- and Why

What are the roles of race, money and athletic talent? How is merit defined? A sociologist spent 18 months in an admissions office, and shares the tensions and idealism he found.
September 7, 2007

The image of admissions officers as gatekeepers is a powerful one in American culture. High school students concoct ways to impress them. Movie plots show how applicants will win them them over by any means necessary (think of the caricatures of admissions officers in Risky Business or Orange County). Their work is so important that Sandra Day O'Connor was called upon to tell them what they may and may not consider -- and Chief Justice John Roberts may do so in the future.

Part of the mystique is that what they do goes on behind closed doors. Mitchell L. Stevens has a book out this month about getting behind those doors. The admissions office at an elite liberal arts college that he doesn't name (but we will, later) allowed Mitchell, currently an associate professor of education and sociology at New York University, to work there for 18 months. He helped organize trips to high schools, tours of the campus, answered calls from applicants, shoveled snow, and sat in as the college decided whom to admit. In Creating a Class: College Admissions and the Education of Elites, from Harvard University Press, Stevens shares what he saw.

The admissions officers described (all with pseudonyms) come across sympathetically. Stevens returns again and again to the theme that they care deeply about students and the college, want to help as many students as they can (within a limited budget), and are conscious of the importance to applicants and their families of the decisions made. The admissions officers are seen doing plenty of agonizing, really weighing decisions and worrying about their impact. In an interview, asked what reforms he would make of admissions, he said that the biggest reforms needed in education aren't in admissions.

"I would say that we need to stop expecting so much of the selective college admissions process," he said. "If we are really interested in educational opportunity, we should be looking elsewhere. One problem with our public conversation on educational opportunity is that we focus too much on the admissions process and not on the systems that deliver young people to the system."

But the reality, of course, is that, given the current system, admissions officers have lots of dilemmas. How to attract more students, how to attract enough students who can afford tuition so that money is left over for those who can't. How to keep coaches happy. How to keep alumni happy. The anecdotes Stevens shares show admissions officers to be spending a lot of time on details, and not feeling particularly powerful.

When arriving at a high school 15 minutes early, the admissions officers know that a guidance counselor doesn't have extra time and probably has an overflowing waiting room, so the college's admissions officers wait in the car until just before the agreed upon time. When a student on the borderline has been rejected, an admissions officer who presented her file worries that because she was 28th out of the 30 he presented that day, he may have not done as good as job as he should have, and so pushes for another chance -- to avoid the prospect that his flaws in presentation may have hurt her chances at admission.

At the same time, other parts of the admissions process shown are less idealistic. Money is discussed openly and frequently, as in whether the students have enough money to pay tuition and, in some cases, whether students' parents have the potential to become major donors. One student discussed -- also not a clearcut admit -- is evaluated in part because her father is a major donor to Dartmouth College. The admissions officers feel that if the student is rejected for early decision, she'll apply and be admitted to Dartmouth (her sister, with weaker credentials, has been admitted). "He's generous with Dartmouth, who knows, he might be generous with the college, too," one admissions officer says.

Something Stevens stresses, however, is that even in cases like this, multiple factors are at play. The admissions team didn't doubt that the student could do the work at the college. And there was excitement about the applicant's high school -- a school with many good students that hadn't sent many of them to the college. Many of the decisions come about because of "evaluative story telling," Stevens writes -- or the sum of a presentation about the applicant.

That's not to say that some of the controversies of American higher education don't stand out in the book. There's affirmative action, for example. The college is portrayed as constantly struggling to recruit more minority students from a limited pool of those with both the grades, test scores and interest to enroll.

The beautiful, rural setting -- with more history than diversity -- is portrayed as an obstacle, so everything must be right. Stevens describes being told how to improve the odds. When groups of minority would-be applicants are on campus, you don't want them to run into the minority professor who once told a similar group that they might not want to apply. When asked about the percentage of minority students, one could say 10 percent (the total), but Stevens is encouraged to use the better figure from the most recent class (14 percent). He's not told to lie, but to use "the most flattering accurate defensible numbers possible."

The book also describes the sense in which admissions officers -- out of their desire to have enough money to let in low-income minority applicants -- might not look as favorably on other applicants needing money. The college was receiving more applications from recent immigrants to New York City from Eastern Europe, students who had overcome plenty, had worked hard, and had little money. As one admissions officer recalled for Stevens, "they'd be very expenseive, just as expensive as the multicultural kids, but we couldn't take them."

Asked if he thought passages like that would meet the legal standards set by the Supreme Court for when race and ethnicity can be considered, Stevens said that it wasn't his place to say.

The subject on which Stevens said he was most surprised was athletics. For all the talk about preferences for minority or legacy applicants, Stevens said that the preference that counted the most was sports ability. There are some anecdotes that will reinforce the stereotypes of many academics about jocks. Some coaches would, with some regularity, push for the admission of athletes who were not top students. Admissions officers in the book are particularly critical of the "helmet sports" -- football and hockey.

But Stevens also discusses coaches who consistently would come to the admissions office with lists of desired applicants who were as strong in the library as on the field. There were many coaches he saw who put enough emphasis on recruiting the right kind of mental talent that their lists were people who would have been admitted without extra help.

"I would say one of the largest intellectual surprises of my career was to be able to set aside the notion that sports are a pollutant on the main business of higher education and to see sports as part of the business of higher education," Stevens said. For many academics, "the notion that sports pollutes is deeply ingrained in your identity," but that's not really the case, he said.

While admissions officers nationally complain about fending off coaches, Stevens notes in his book that coaches attract much of the (academic) talent because they are constantly on the road, looking for high schoolers who might fit in well. "Coaches may be the people who bug you, but they are also a really valuable part of the whole recruitment machinery," he said.

Perhaps more important, he added that working in admissions drove home for him as never before that many smart high school students want athletics as part of their college experience. "There are a whole lot of very serious 17 year olds who care about this," he said.

One tradition described in the book (which the college's current admissions dean says is no longer in place) is "the rule of one pick," which allowed each admissions officer to select one applicant without the support of any of his or her colleagues. This was the spot to save for the applicant with whom an admissions officer felt offered something special to the college, but whose test scores or background didn't attract the support of others. Stevens said he liked the symbolism of the tradition. "It was recognition of the complexity and humanity of the process. The rule of one pick said that you can't always make the decision you think you should make. Here's an opportunity for you to make the decision -- one time a year -- that you think you should make because it's right."

Asked if the rule might also reinforce the idea of the admissions officer as a powerful gatekeeper, Stevens said that might be the case, too. "That's the inherent contradiction with which admissions officers work every day. They are important arbiters of opportunity. But they are elaborately constrained."

Books about admissions, and books promising an inside look at admissions, are hardly a new idea. In The Gatekeepers, for example, Jacques Steinberg followed a small group of applicants through the admissions process of Wesleyan University. Asked, as a sociologist, why so many admissions books focus on the elite liberal arts colleges, which after all are attended by only a minority of students, Stevens offered this thought. "I think these schools serve as the conscience of higher education in this country. Undergraduate education is the symbolic core of higher education and these colleges represent what we think the best schools in the country should be doing for our most accomplished young people," he said. "These are places where you can put utopia into practice."

Why did Stevens set out to look at these issues? His previous book was also a behind-the-scenes education study: Kingdom of Children: Culture and Controversy in the Homeschooling Movement (Princeton University Press). He said he wanted to apply a similar, personal approach to college admissions, and he was especially curious about the way decisions were made "in cases that appear to be quite similar" but result in different outcomes.

At the time, Stevens taught at Hamilton College and the college's institutional review board (the federally required board to approve research involving human subjects) approved the plan, in which Stevens said he would keep the college studied and all individuals anonymous. His plan also involved him working in admissions, not just taking notes on the side. He told everyone he worked with that he was a researcher preparing a book, used his real name, and did his job. While he was present for admissions decisions, that was a task he did not perform.

"The participant part is important," he said, explaining why he wanted to do actual work in admissions. "This is an emotional, embodied process. Admissions officers have feelings. They have relationships with applicants, with colleagues, with colleagues at other schools. I saw that."

(Spoiler alert: If you want to read the book without knowing the college he studied, end here.) Many descriptions of the college studied are changed in somewhat generic ways so that details do not give away the institution (or at least not too much). But in part because Stevens used his real name when he undertook his research, it isn't too hard to determine that the college studied was in fact the one where he worked at the time. While the descriptions of the college in the book appear accurate, the description on the book jacket may be trying to divert attention as it identifies the college as being in "bucolic New England." Hamilton is in a bucolic part of New York State.

IRB concerns aside, Stevens said that he was happy to leave the name of the college out because he was writing the book to look at a class of institutions, not one, and because he believes most of the issues (if not every detail) are representative. He said that he mailed copies of the book this week to all of those in it for whom he had addresses and had yet to hear back from anyone.

It's important to note that in admissions personnel (not to mention athletic or administrative personnel), the six years between the end of Stevens' research and today is a lifetime. Many of the key players at Hamilton today are new. Key policies have changed. Hamilton, after an experiment, went SAT-optional. Just this year, Hamilton announced a shift designed to focus more of its aid dollars on low-income students: The college ended the use of merit aid so all funds would be awarded based on need. Those and other policy shifts have increased the minority and low-income applicant pool.

To judge from a few calls to admissions deans at similar institutions, there are few ways to make an admissions dean happier than to tell her about the book, have her wonder why you are calling her, and then to tell her that you are not calling about her institution. At Hamilton, Monica Inzer is dean of admissions and financial aid. She arrived in 2003, after Stevens finished his research. Asked if she was told during the interview process that a book might appear detailing the inner workings of her department, she said that No, it never came up. But Inzer, who has read the book, said she wasn't bothered by it.

While some details wouldn't be the same today, "I think the book does ring true for what selective college admission is like at many colleges, including Hamilton," she said. "I think the book portrays a positive place with good people who care about students."

What she most liked about the book, she said, is that "although the admission process can be very numbers- and data-driven, he shows the human process -- that there are real people making real decisions who care about each individual applicant."

So much of the staff is new, Inzer said, that she can't even identify many of those in the book, and that's OK with her, too. Admissions procedures change, she said, and in Hamilton's case it has attracted more applicants. The point she said she tries to stress when talking about admissions (and it is consistent with the picture that emerges in Creating a Class) is that most of admissions isn't about weeding out the qualified from the unqualified. "I would guess that 75 percent of the people who apply to Hamilton would be really successful here," she said. "Everyone we admit is strong and lots of kids we don't admit are strong," she said.

Rit Fuller, an education consultant, preceded Inzer, and he is the one who signed off on the idea of letting Stevens work in the admissions office. Fuller hasn't read the book yet, so he said he couldn't comment on it specifically. Asked why he agreed to let the project go ahead, he said: "Hamilton College does things right and I didn't feel that we had a lot to hide or be ashamed of," he said. "I'm proud of the fact that we felt good enough about the process to do this."


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