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Most elite colleges and universities describe their admissions policies as "holistic," suggesting that they look at the totality of an applicant -- grades, test scores, essays, recommendations, activities and so forth.

But a new survey of admissions officials at the 75 most competitive colleges and universities (defined as those with the lowest admit rates) finds that there are distinct patterns, typically not known by applicants, that differentiate some holistic colleges from others. Most colleges focus entirely on academic qualifications first, and then consider other factors. But a minority of institutions focuses first on issues of "fit" between a college's needs and an applicant's needs.

This approach -- most common among liberal arts colleges and some of the most competitive private universities -- results in a focus on non-academic qualities of applicants, and tends to favor those who are members of minority groups underrepresented on campus and those who can afford to pay all costs of attending.

The research is by Rachel B. Rubin, a doctoral student in education at Harvard University. Her findings will be presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, which starts later this week.

Many studies of admissions decisions ask colleges and universities what qualities they value (almost always, grades in college preparatory courses rank first), and which they value the most. For colleges that admit large percentages of their students, or colleges that have precise formulas (promising admission to those with certain grades or test scores or class ranks), these questions reveal a great deal. But Rubin's focus is on the elite colleges that admit small percentages of their applicants and that generally say the vast majority of applicants are capable of succeeding academically.

So in a survey (answered by 63 of the 75 most competitive colleges, mostly private, with just a few public flagships) and in follow-up interviews, she focused on the winnowing process: How do colleges decide who gets further consideration for the coveted slots and who doesn't? To encourage frank answers, colleges were given anonymity.

Rubin found that all of these colleges that publicly describe their admissions systems in similar ways, stressing holistic review, actually aren't all the same after all. "Contrary to public opinion, selective institutions are highly systematic with regard to their admissions processes and practices within individual institutions," she writes. "However, there is a great deal of inconsistency across institutions, potentially creating the illusion that student selection is arbitrary."

Almost all of the colleges that provided information first do a winnowing of one of two sorts that yields the group that gets a more thorough review. The most common winnowing process (used by 76 percent of the colleges that answered Rubin) is some measure of academic merit. This may be based on grades, rigor of high school courses, test scores and so forth. While there is some difference in the relative weight given to various factors, there is a straightforward value on doing better than others in whatever formula the college uses.

A minority of elite colleges and universities (21 percent) starts off on measures of "institutional fit." These colleges do the initial cut based on student essays, recommendations and specific questions of whether particular students will thrive at and contribute to the college in various ways. In an interview, Rubin said she believed that these colleges also valued academic merit, but that the vast majority of applicants had an appropriate level of academic merit, so that could be weighed later, while other parts of "creating a class" needed to dominate at the point of first cut.

For those colleges that look at institutional fit first, the two most favored factors are underrepresented minority status and "exceptional talent" (which she said could mean many things: "lacrosse recruits, flautists, etc.").

Most Important Variables in Determining Institutional Fit (for Those Who Start With Focus on Fit)

Factor % Viewing as Most Important
Underrepresented race/ethnicity 42%
Exceptional talent 42%
Recruited athlete status 7%
Likelihood of enrolling 7%
Fund-raising potential 2%

Rubin's paper says that whether the first cut is done through academics or fit, most colleges then report a more formal system in which two readers review the application portfolio, with a third reader or an entire team involved in difficult calls. At this stage, academic issues are discussed at institutions that started with "fit" issues, and "fit" is discussed at places that started with academics.

One of her findings here could be controversial in light of the Supreme Court discussion of affirmative action in higher education. Rubin writes the following, based on her interviews and surveys:

"When an applicant has an exceptional talent (e.g. music, athletics) or is part of a severely underrepresented group at the institution, the applicant may not compete for admission against the larger applicant pool. Instead, he/she may compete only among those with the same talent or within the same group. In these circumstances, sets of applications are considered separately based on a university’s institutional needs. As a result, disparities may arise between the levels of academic merit of certain subgroups of students. One private university dean noted, 'The hardest part is that everyone [in the school community] wants more of something and it’s a balancing act -- it's a zero sum game. Size [of the school] is fixed, but faculty, trustees, etc., want more students of color, more athletes, more great pianists.... But who will you cut out to have more of those people? We get so many of those really strong kids who don’t have that extra something.... It's starting to make the world angry with us.'"

That finding is potentially significant because it appears to contradict (when it involves racial/ethnic status) the Supreme Court's directives on how minority status may be considered.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's 2003 opinion in the Supreme Court case upholding the consideration of race in the admissions process at the University of Michigan law school cites limits set out by the 1978 decision in the Bakke case: "To be narrowly tailored, a race-conscious admissions program cannot use a quota system – it cannot 'insulat[e] each category of applicants with certain desired qualifications from competition with all other applicants.' Bakke, supra, at 315 (opinion of Powell, J.). Instead, a university may consider race or ethnicity only as a 'plus in a particular applicant's file,' without 'insulat[ing] the individual from comparison with all other candidates for the available seats.' Id., at 317. In other words, an admissions program must be 'flexible enough to consider all pertinent elements of diversity in light of the particular qualifications of each applicant, and to place them on the same footing for consideration, although not necessarily according them the same weight.'"

Asked if she thinks her research suggests a legal vulnerability for some colleges on how they admit some minority students, Rubin said, "I think there is." She added that "regardless of any Supreme Court decision, there's obviously a huge need in the country to make sure there are higher numbers of minority students and first-generation students" at elite colleges and universities, and those institutions are criticized "if they don't get higher numbers."

The system she found in use was that "if we see that we have only 3 percent black students" (using regular reviews), the officials say "let's look at all the black students again and see what we can come up with, where can we find merit in these applications."

While this practice may raise legal questions when used to consider minority students' race and ethnicity, it is identical to the approach used for many other groups, Rubin said. Nonminority students may be the biggest beneficiary of this approach, she said, especially at colleges that don't have enough aid money to admit all students without regard for financial need.

"I think that happens most often not for minority students but for students who can pay full tuition," Rubin said. After a college has used its allocated aid budget, it compares the merits of students who can afford to pay all expenses, and they are not competing against the full pool. "That's what's happening," she said.

Rubin's finding is consistent with the results of last year's Inside Higher Ed survey of admissions directors, which found intense interest in adopting a variety of policies to admit more applicants who don't need financial aid.

Asked if she thought elite colleges should be more clear to applicants on the way holistic admissions actually plays out at their institutions, Rubin said she was of two views. "I always think more information is better and transparency is better, but I worry applicants might tailor their applications too much" if they knew more, she said.

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