The admissions process is out of whack. Just ask the heartbroken applicant, rejected by her dream school. Ask high school counselors, who complain that colleges don’t reward promising students for their creativity, determination or service to others. Even the gatekeepers at some famous institutions acknowledge, quietly, that the selection system is broken.
Ask five people how to fix it, though, and they’ll give five different answers. Sure, you might think colleges put too much stock in the SAT, but your neighbor’s kid with the near-perfect score thinks it should matter a lot. More than half of Americans say colleges shouldn’t give children of alumni a leg up, according to a recent Gallup poll; yet nearly half say parental connections should be at least a “minor factor.”
The debate about who gets into the nation’s competitive colleges, and why, keeps boiling over. The Justice Department has confirmed that it’s looking into a complaint, filed in 2015 by a coalition of 64 Asian-American associations, charging discrimination against high-achieving Asian-American college applicants. Also, students for Fair Admissions, which opposes affirmative action policies, has filed discrimination lawsuits against Harvard, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Texas at Austin.
Although the Supreme Court affirmed last year that admissions officers may consider an applicant’s race among other factors, polls show that a majority of Americans disagree with that decision. Critics of affirmative action see plenty of room for future legal challenges.
Whatever happens, age-old questions about fairness in admissions will surely endure. For one thing, the nation can’t come to terms with a tricky five-letter word: merit. Michael Young, a British sociologist, coined the pejorative term “meritocracy” over a half-century ago to describe a future in which standardized intelligence tests would crown a new elite. Yet as Rebecca Zwick explains in her new book “Who Gets In?” the meaning has shifted. The word “merit,” she writes, has come to mean “academic excellence, narrowly defined” as grades and test scores.
But that’s just one way to think of an applicant’s worthiness. Dr. Zwick, professor emeritus at the University of California at Santa Barbara, has long been a researcher at the Educational Testing Service, which develops and administers the SAT. She disputes the notion that testing prowess — or any other attribute, for that matter — entitles a student to a spot at his chosen college. “There is, in fact, no absolute definition of merit,” she writes.
That brings us to you, the anxious applicant, the frazzled parent, the confused citizen, all wondering what colleges want. It’s worth taking a deep breath and noting that only 13 percent of four-year colleges accept fewer than half of their applicants. That said, colleges where seats are scarce stir up the nation’s emotions. Each year, the world-famous institutions reject thousands and thousands of students who could thrive there.
Yes, rejection stings. But say these words aloud: The admissions process isn’t fair. Like it or not, colleges aren’t looking to reel in the greatest number of straight-A students who’ve taken seven or more Advanced Placement courses. A rejection isn’t really about you; it’s about a maddening mishmash of competing objectives.
Just as parents give teenagers a set of chores, colleges hand their admissions leaders a list of things to accomplish. When they fail, they often get fired.
“We don’t live in a cloud — the reality is, there’s a bottom line,” said Angel B. Pérez, vice president for enrollment and student success at Trinity College, in Hartford. “We’re an institution, but we’re also a business.”
On many campuses, financial concerns affect decisions about whom to admit. A recent report by the National Association for College Admission Counseling found that about half of institutions said an applicant’s “ability to pay” was of at least “some importance” in admissions decisions. Among other targets is geographic diversity, which is now seen as an indicator of institutional strength and popularity. (Some presidents have been known to gripe if the freshman class doesn’t represent all 50 states.) A campus might also need a particular number of engineering majors or goalies.
Indeed, a college could accept 33 percent of all applicants, but that doesn’t mean each applicant has a one-in-three chance. Success depends on what a student brings to the table.
Generally, nothing carries more weight in admissions than grades (plus strength of the high school curriculum) and ACT/SAT scores. With limited time and resources, those metrics offer a relatively quick way to predict who will succeed. But the measures have drawbacks. Grade inflation has complicated the task of evaluating achievements, and so has the variance in high school grading policies. Standardized test scores correlate with family income; white and Asian-American students fare better than black and Hispanic students do. Also, when colleges talk about predicting “success,” they usually mean first-year grades — a limited definition.
And so, many colleges rely on “holistic” evaluations, allowing colleges to contextualize applicants’ academic records and to identify disadvantaged students who might lack the sparkling credentials of their affluent peers. Did they attend low-performing high schools or well-resourced ones? Did they participate in extracurricular activities? Do they have leadership experience?
What colleges look for sends a powerful message about what matters, not just to admissions officers but in life, and students often respond accordingly.