Admissions by Software

New technology, designed to help colleges attract diverse classes without legal challenges to affirmative action, will get first use in decision making.
April 17, 2008

Suppose colleges could buy software that would enable them to speed up the admissions process and admit classes that are more diverse -- without fear of being sued by foes of affirmative action. Would institutions purchase? Can (and should) colleges outsource admissions decisions to software?

That's what a professor at Auburn University is hoping to find out. Juan E. Gilbert, an associate professor of computer science, developed the software two years ago, and it attracted a brief flurry of attention. But what he didn't have then were any clients to actually use the software. Now, Auburn -- which tested the software last year -- has announced that it will use it in actual admissions decisions next year. And while Gilbert says that Auburn is the first institution to publicly admit to using the software, he says that about five other colleges have used it, although in many cases not for an entire class of undergraduates. Gilbert also now has an outside investor, having sold a minority interest in the company to the owners of Cox, Matthews and Associates, which publishes Diverse Issues in Higher Education.

It's unclear of course whether Gilbert's software business will take off. But Applications Quest raises interesting issues about how colleges evaluate and measure diversity when they assemble their classes. Gilbert's basic premise is that colleges want racial and ethnic diversity in their student bodies, that the Supreme Court's rulings allow colleges to consider race and ethnicity only in certain instances, and that many colleges are afraid of being sued.

His solution is software that helps group students based on their similarities and differences. Many colleges, Gilbert notes, effectively have three groups of applicants: those who don't meet minimal standards and are thus rejected right away, those who are so superior that they are admitted quickly, and the vast middle group -- applicants who clearly can do the work, but who aren't so great that they deserve automatic admission. The Applications Quest software is designed for that group.

The software works this way: A college decides how many applicants it will admit from that middle group. Then the college picks the criteria it will use to evaluate the applicants. These would generally include a range for acceptable SAT scores or high school grades, planned major in college, status such as first generation to go to college, intended major, race, gender and so forth. Then the software clusters all of these applicants into groups equal in total number to the number of projected admits. In doing so, the software groups applicants who share the same qualities together. Then the software selects one person from each group to be admitted, but this person is the applicant who is the least like others in his or her cluster. (Details are available on the company's Web site.)

Gilbert said in an interview that this system offers key advantages. First, it removes bias from the equation, as an admissions officer can't be accused of providing more or less emphasis to any criterion based on personal interests. Second, it assures that race and ethnicity are taken into account, but not given more weight than the Supreme Court would permit. "It does what we as human beings can't do on a large scale," he said.

That's because, in part, the software only works if all of the factors count the same. "If you allow weighting, you violate the Supreme Court's rulings," he said. "Subjectivity opens the door to lawsuits."

Auburn is receiving the software free because Gilbert developed the product there. While pricing is still being finalized and may vary based on institution size, Gilbert said he anticipated selling the software for about $15,000 a year per license.

Wayne Alderman, dean of enrollment services at Auburn, said that before the university committed to using the software, he wanted to test it. So last year, while an admissions committee reviewed candidates in a traditional way, the software program also was used. The results were largely similar, with the software creating a slightly more diverse class. As a result, he said, Auburn will replace the admissions committee with the software this year, although the admissions committee will still review the outcomes and may be used in some cases.

The software, he said, "is a lot easier," and could allow the admissions staff to focus on other issues. While there is "some apprehension among the staff" about using software in this way, Alderman said that "those of us who have worked with it have a high comfort level" that the results are comparable.

While Alderman said he is certainly following the debates over affirmative action nationally, that issue was not crucial to the interest at Auburn. The protection against lawsuits "is certainly nice to have," but "for us, it was a more efficient way to achieve the same results."

Roger Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a group that opposes affirmative action, said that while he thinks this software may be "less racially discriminatory" than the way some colleges have assigned points for applicants on the basis of race or ethnicity, concerns remain. Clegg said that the software is still racially discriminatory in that it considers race and ethnicity, and that the system was designed "in order to achieve particular racial results."

Clegg said that the problems with the software are apparent if one imagines the same computer programs being used to keep black students out -- as opposed to admitting them. Just as one would oppose the use of software to exclude members of minority groups, he said, the same should be true of software with a diversity goal.

Just because the software is "more narrowly tailored" than other tools, he said, doesn't exempt colleges from rulings that have limited or barred some forms of affirmative action. "A school using it is still engaging in racial discrimination," he said, and so must meet "strict scrutiny" tests to show a compelling reason for doing so. And in states that have barred the use of race and ethnicity -- such as California -- the software could violate the law, he said.


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