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A large sign on a university campus that reads "Office of Admissions and Recruitment."

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We will be hearing a lot about polls this year in conjunction with the presidential election. We’ll hear far less discussion about whether covering elections like horse races is a good idea, or whether the votes cast by those who live in one of the three to five “battleground” states should count more than everyone else’s.

I am a skeptic, and perhaps even a cynic, when it comes to polls and survey results. I have never been contacted by a pollster, nor known anyone who has, and I’m not sure I would be forthcoming about my opinions. I suspect I’m not alone. The polling industry underpredicted Donald Trump’s election performance in 2016 and overpredicted the Republican “red wave” that never materialized in 2022.

That doesn’t mean I’m not fascinated by some of the nuggets that can be found in survey results. For many years I taught a class in public speaking, and I always began the course by referencing a famous survey on things people fear. The survey dated back to the 1970s, and I always cautioned my students that some of the things that might appear on a list today—things like climate change, global pandemic and threats to American democracy—were not in anyone’s consciousness when the survey was done. The number one fear in the survey was public speaking, and in fact the survey results indicated that by a two-to-one margin people were more fearful of speaking in public than of dying. That always seemed a bit extreme.

There was one answer in that survey that always baffled my students and made them wonder about those being surveyed. One of the fourteen answers, receiving something like 5 percent of the vote, was “escalators.” That always led to a discussion about how escalators are probably more dangerous than they appear.

I had my own “escalators moment” the other week when I looked at the results of a recent survey conducted by the Associated Press in conjunction with the University of Chicago’s NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. The survey examined attitudes on public policy issues, especially those related to education, of a group of 1,068 AAPI (Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander) adults.

The survey results for the most part contain few surprises. The attitudes of the AAPI adults surveyed don’t vary significantly from those of the population at large, and party affiliation tends to explain differences on specific issues. Compared to the general public, the AAPI respondents are more likely to see parental income and the community one grows up in as “integral” factors contributing to individual success. About half of AAPI adults viewed state and federal governments as having a large responsibility for the financing of higher education.

My focus is on college admissions, and, as a result, I was particularly interested in what the survey said about the use of various admissions criteria. It asked the following question: “Do you think it is fair, unfair, or neither fair nor unfair for colleges and universities to make decisions about admitting students based on the following factors?”

Here are the results:

Factor% Very/Somewhat Fair% Neither Fair Nor Unfair% Somewhat/Very Unfair
High School Grades79155
Standardized Test Scores651914
Hardship or Adversity453023
Athletic Ability243242
Ability to Pay232848
First Generation to Attend College192754
Race and Ethnicity182753
Legacy Status (Parent or Grandparent)92069
Source: Associated Press/NORC Center for Public Affairs Research

At first glance there is nothing surprising in the relative rankings for those criteria, but there was one survey result that captured my attention. Seventy-nine percent of those surveyed considered high school grades either very fair or somewhat fair as an admissions factor. That’s four out of five, which seems impressive until you think about it. Why isn’t the percentage higher? Where are the other 21 percent?

The “four out of five” statistic is similar to one used in a 1970s ad for Trident sugarless chewing gum, where the claim was that “four out of five dentists surveyed recommend sugarless gum for their patients who chew gum.” In both that ad and the AAPI survey, what is significant is not what is said, but what is left unsaid. Why would one out of five dentists think that gum with sugar in it is just as good for you as sugarless gum, and why would 21 percent of survey respondents be less than enthusiastic about high school grades as a criterion for college admission?

Perhaps the most interesting statistic is that 5 percent of the survey respondents view the consideration of high school grades to be somewhat or very unfair. There is no such thing as perfect admissions criteria, and rampant grade inflation and the challenges of educating and evaluating students post-pandemic certainly make high school grades less reliable than once upon a time, but if high school grades are unfair, what would you substitute for them? Test scores were never intended to take the place of academic performance in high school, but rather to provide a standardized context for students coming from very different academic backgrounds and experiences. As the survey results suggest, other possible criteria are far less appealing.

Going to college is first and foremost going to school, and it would seem that, even if imperfect, the best predictor of future success as a college student is a student’s past record as a student. That’s true even for those who prefer to avoid polls, escalators and sugarless gum.

Jim Jump recently retired after 33 years as the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Va. He previously served as an admissions officer, philosophy instructor and women’s basketball coach at the college level and is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

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