Wisconsin Ideals

Madison professors call for the university to adjust admissions policies to make the student body more representative of the state's socioeconomic diversity, joining a debate about the definition of merit.

May 10, 2013

About 61,853 students graduated from high school in Wisconsin in spring 2012. About 8,400 of those students applied to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and 3,515 ended up enrolling. About 2,760 students from outside the state joined them.

The process of selecting who got to fill the 6,279 seats in the 2012 freshman class was complicated, weighing many aspects of each student – from test scores to essays to race to state residency. Like the admissions process at many public flagship universities, it is widely perceived by the public as a process that digs through mountains of applications to find and enroll “the best” applicants.

Faculty members say it could be better.

On Monday, a committee of faculty members, students and administrators at the UW–Madison presented to the university’s Faculty Senate a series of recommendations about the “qualities and characteristics of an ideal first year class at UW-Madison,” obstacles that would have to be overcome in order to enroll such a class, and recommendations for what steps could be taken immediately toward that ideal.

While stating that the university “seeks to educate exceptional, highly motivated students,” the report contains an implicit critique that the university isn’t doing enough to enroll low-income students and under-represented minorities who might not appear as qualified on traditional measures of “merit” or who might not even be applying to the university. Two aspects of the report stand out: a call to be more representative of the state’s income spectrum and a call to be more representative of the geographic distribution of high-school graduates in Wisconsin.

UW-Madison, like most selective public universities, sees fewer applicants and fewer enrolled students from certain demographics, particularly low-income students, urban students and rural students, relative to their share of high school graduates in Wisconsin. Suburban students tend to make up a larger share of university applicants and students than their high school graduation numbers would suggest. Median family income of students enrolled at Madison is about 20 percent higher than the state’s median, the committee report states. The university also enrolls a smaller proportion of students from Milwaukee County, the state’s largest, than its share of high school graduates and applicants would suggest. The share of the student population from the city of Milwaukee relative to their share of the overall population was of particular concern for the committee.

UW-Madison administrators said the university has been working hard for many years to overcome many of these issues. "Whether we're doing it enough or doing it effective enough, those are things we can debate," said Provost Paul DeLuca. "But we're doing things in spades."

Ideal Freshman Class

The Wisconsin committee laid out several goals that the university should strive to meet:

No less than 60 percent of the entering class should be residents of Wisconsin.

The median family income of Wisconsin resident students on the Madison campus should reflect the median family income of the state.

The geographic distribution of Wisconsin residents at Madison should reflect the geographic distribution of high school graduates in the state.

The geographic variation among out-of-state and international students should be maximized.

The committee’s recommendations hit on an issue that most selective public universities struggle with, particularly as demand for seats at such institutions increases: How to balance the desire to be representative of a diverse state when many forces – both societal and institutional – are working against such representation, particularly the desire to select students primarily on the basis of “merit.” Implicit in that struggle is the question of what obligation state universities have to compensate for broader social patterns that hinder such representation.

The answer to that question, according to the Wisconsin committee and admissions officers at other highly selective flagship institutions is “a big one.” “That’s the statement of the Wisconsin idea,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of education studies and sociology who chaired the committee, referring to a policy adopted by Wisconsin public universities at the start of the 20th century that calls on the institutions to work to solve problems in the state. “It is written into the charters of the public universities in the state. We do have a role in these issues. We’re supposed to be working on applying our work to solve the state’s problems.”

“It’s our mission as a public university,” said Amy Jarich, assistant vice chancellor and director of admissions at the University of California at Berkeley. “We are supposed to be delivering an education to all qualified and prepared students in the state.” For fall 2013, 43,154 California residents applied for freshman admission to Berkeley and only 9,219 were admitted.

To improve the representation of traditionally under-represented groups in both the admissions pool and the freshman class, the Wisconsin committee made several recommendations. Recommendations such as improving the strategies used to recruit low-income and minority students, fund-raising for need-based aid, and rethinking retention practices are not likely to be controversial.

But a few of the committee’s recommendations could be met with some headwind from inside and outside the university. Of particular interest are a calls to examine test-optional admissions and geographically-weighted admissions. If Wisconsin adopts a test-optional policy, it would join a small but growing group of mostly private institutions that have moved away from requiring standardized test scores. A handful of other public universities, such as the University of Texas at Austin, consider test scores only when certain class rank or grade point average levels are not met.

Research suggests that such changes would increase the institution’s socioeconomic diversity. But adoption of such criteria – a process that would likely take several years at Wisconsin, if it happened at all – would likely be controversial, since it would complicate an already opaque admissions process and suggest to some that students were being selected on criteria that much of the public would say falls outside the classic definition of merit: standardized test scores and grades in college preparatory courses.

In 2011, a report by the Virginia-based Center for Equal Opportunity found that black and Hispanic applicants were more likely to get admitted to the university even though they had lower test scores. The center's chairwoman told the Associated Press it was "the most severe undergraduate admissions discrimination that [the Center for Equal Opportunity] has ever found in the dozens of studies it has published over the last 15 years." A small group of faculty members has reiterated the report's findings in subsequent columns, calling for more, not less consideration of traditional measures of merit in the admissions process. Diversity advocates at UW-Madison criticized that report.

Why Change?

Academic studies have repeatedly shown that typical measures of “merit” – including standardized test scores, access to more rigorous curriculum and college readiness – track closely with income. Students from wealthier backgrounds tend to have access to better public and private schools, test-preparation resources, help from family members and a better cultural understanding of the admissions process.  

So the student bodies at institutions that focus on these metrics in the admissions process tend to skew wealthy unless alternative considerations, such as affirmative action, are part of the process.


The Wisconsin committee laid out a series of challenges the university will have to overcome:

Highly unequal rates of applications from students based on family income and geography.

A reliance on standardized test scores as part of advertised admissions criteria.

Insufficient communication strategies to share information about the already-available campus resources to support students from all family backgrounds.

An array of administrative complexities and resource deficits related to need-based financial aid.

A lack of rigorous and repeated evaluation practices to ensure the cost-effectiveness of enrollment management strategies and outcomes.

“We want to make sure that what seems like merit to us is actually merit and not just privilege,” said Stephen M. Farmer, vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which, like Madison, struggles to be both representative and selective.

Institutional forces also work against enrolling a diverse population. Recent research suggested that as states have decreased the amount they appropriate for public higher education on a per-student basis, the pursuit of greater tuition revenue has decreased overall institutional diversity. That's because when state universities step up out-of-state recruiting, they tend to focus on those who don't need aid and can afford a higher tuition price.

That paper even singles out the Madison campus for seeing a decline in racial diversity while increasing out-of-state enrollment.

The total number of Wisconsin residents who apply to an enroll in the University of Wisconsin-Madison has increased recently. But their share of total enrollment at the university has dropped. Only 56 percent of the freshman class that entered the University of Wisconsin-Madison came from Wisconsin. Students from Minnesota, which has a reciprocity agreement with Wisconsin that lets residents of each state attend the other’s universities at in-state tuition rates, make up 12 percent of the student body. While students from Wisconsin have a median family income of $80,000, Minnesota students’ median family income is $105,000, and the median family income for other domestic non-resident students is $130,000. Median household income for the state of Wisconsin is $52,374, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The university's incoming chancellor, Rebecca Blank, has already talked about recruiting more high-paying out-of-state students.

There is also the problem that, for a variety of reasons, low-income students are also less likely to apply to and enroll in selective flagship institutions than their wealthier peers. A recent, well-publicized report by Caroline M. Hoxby and Christopher Avery found that the majority of high-achieving low-income students do not apply to selective institutions.

The Old Merit

The struggle to tailor admissions processes to make a state flagship more representative of the state’s population is not distinct to Wisconsin, nor is it new. In fact, for much of the 20th century test scores and grades were used as a way to find and enroll talent in under-represented areas.

But because of increased competition for seats and the fact that such metrics tend to skew in favor of wealthier and whiter populations, colleges added more considerations to the process. Often this takes the form of holistic review of applicants, considering not only test scores, class rank and grades, but also teacher recommendations, writing samples, personal experience and race and ethnicity. At many state universities, this means a boost for minority applicants who didn't attend the best high schools. Such policies can also help ameliorate the under-representation of rural students -- many of them white -- since flagship university administrators want to boast to legislators that students come from all over the state.

In a survey of college admissions officers conducted by Inside Higher Ed in 2012, 13 percent of admissions officers at public four-year institutions agreed strongly with the statement “My institution is expanding the use of nontraditional admissions criteria as part of its admissions review process.” Seven percent agreed strongly with the statement “We are reducing the role of standardized test scores in undergraduate admissions decisions.” Forty-four percent strongly disagreed with the statement, indicating that many might be moving the other way.

But “nontraditional considerations” – particularly the consideration of race, ethnicity and gender – have proven controversial, in part because the country has widely come to understand metrics like test scores as an objective measure of merit. That is why the issue of affirmative action is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“I’m hoping that they’ll completely take race out of the issue in terms of admissions and that everyone will be able to get into any school that they want no matter what race they are but solely based on their merit and if they work hard for it,” Abigail Fisher, the Texas woman bringing a lawsuit against the University of Texas, told The New York Times.

While the types of consideration the Wisconsin faculty committee are pushing have not been as controversial as race and ethnicity, they could become so, particularly if the Supreme Court prohibits the consideration of race.

Redefining “Merit”

One way to get around those potential controversies is to try to convince the public that merit means something different than many people think.

A term that comes up repeatedly in conversations with admissions officers at selective universities that view institutional diversity as a goal was the phrase “strivers” – those students who took the most advantage of the opportunities presented to them. A student who took the only two Advanced Placement classes that her high school offered might be considered different from a student who took two of 10 AP classes offered at her school.

“We try to reward strivers,” Farmer said.  

“Much of what we do as part of the selective admissions process is to look at student's academic work in the context of what they are offered,” Jarich said.

“We especially encourage applications from students who bring uncommon life experiences and extraordinary skills to our community,” the Wisconsin report states.

There are a couple reasons why this mindset has taken hold in the admissions office. For one, research shows that factors other than test scores – particularly “performance metrics” like grades and class rank – tend to be better predictors of success. “When I think of my best students, the ones who are most engaged in class and make the greatest contributions, it is rarely the ones with the highest test scores,” Goldrick-Rab said.

Rewarding “strivers” also allows institutions to admit students who have diverse life experiences, including racial and ethnic minorities that might have lower test scores than their counterparts. But institutions also run the risk of losing places in popular rankings, since factors such as diversity are rarely weighed.

Jarich said that with each applicant from a California public school, the admissions office can see the school’s Academic Performance Index – a statewide comparison measure of how well the school improves student outcomes.

But that type of consideration isn't always embraced by the public, particularly the families of students who are not admitted. "We'll often hear, 'Well, how is it possible that someone from that school got in?' " Jarich said.

Because these are public institutions, politics likely play into the calculus. Institutions that find themselves too far from their state’s ideals of either representation or merit could be pushed in one direction or the other by lawmakers. Several states have passed laws that prohibit the consideration of race in admissions. Some states, with large, diverse populations that have been disadvantaged by the current admissions paradigm, have shown a willingness to change it.

Texas adopted a law in 1997 that guarantees that students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school class get a seat at the University of Texas at Austin, in order to promote greater racial and ethnic diversity.

Goldrick-Rab said Wisconsin’s population is likely to be receptive to the university’s ideas of fostering a more diverse class. “I think this is a culture that doesn’t like elitists,” she said. “The people of Wisconsin want their state institutions to be as responsive as possible to the people of this state. They realize that the future depends on it.”

But while attempting to change the conversation around merit, admissions administrators realize they can’t stray too far from the more traditional definition. External metrics that are often tied to colleges' ability to recruit and enroll high-achieving (and wealthy) students, including popular rankings, often heavily weigh standardized test scores, class rank and high school grades. Average standardized test scores have been increasing at most public flagship universities, even as universities weigh other factors. The average SAT score for incoming freshmen at UC-Berkeley grew from 1998 in 2008 to 2068 this past fall.

Institutions also realize that the students they admit have to be prepared to be successful at the institutions.

Farmer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill says that while the admissions office has some role in overcoming societal disparities, it should not be the only component of the university addressing these issues.

The university pays recent graduates to work in schools in underserved areas of the state as college counselors. "If we can give talented kids a fighting chance at a real college search, that's a good service to the state," Farmer said.

A New York Times article Wednesday highlighted the University of California system’s efforts to cultivate a diverse applicant pool, often starting as early as when students are in middle school. The university spends about $7 million a year on outreach efforts, which range from assistance on applications to advice on what courses to take to prepare for college. Jarich also said there is a large network of affiliated organizations working explicitly with racial and ethnic minorities, since the university is prohibited from doing so.

“We’ve worked very hard to widen the pipeline, and there is still an enormous need to do more,” the Times quoted Mark G. Yudof, president of the University of California system, saying.


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