The truth about col­lege ad­mis­sions

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION - By Sara Har­ber­son Sara Har­ber­son is the founder of Ad­mis­sion­sRevo­lu­tion.com, a sub­scrip­tion col­lege coun­sel­ing web­site. She is the for­mer as­so­ciate dean of ad­mis­sions at the Uni­ver­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia and the for­mer dean of ad­mis­sions and fi­nan­cial aid a

In May, 60 groups filed a com­plaint with the Jus­tice and Ed­u­ca­tion de­part­ments claim­ing that Asian Amer­i­cans are held to a dif­fer­ent stan­dard — a higher stan­dard — than other stu­dents ap­ply­ing for ad­mis­sion at elite uni­ver­si­ties. They be­lieve that “holis­tic ad­mis­sions” is be­ing used as a mod­ern­day form of racial dis­crim­i­na­tion.

I worked in ad­mis­sions at the Uni­ver­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia and at Franklin & Mar­shall Col­lege, and I can tell you some­thing about what goes on. Elite uni­ver­si­ties — public and pri­vate — prac­tice what is called “holis­tic ad­mis­sions,” a pol­icy based on the idea that a test score or GPA does not com­pletely re­flect who a stu­dent is and what he or she can bring to a col­lege com­mu­nity. It al­lows a col­lege to fac­tor in a stu­dent’s back­ground, chal­lenges over­come, ex­tracur­ric­u­lar in­volve­ment, let­ters of rec­om­men­da­tion, spe­cial tal­ents, writ­ing abil­ity and many other cri­te­ria. Pri­vate schools and many public uni­ver­si­ties can in­clude race among the char­ac­ter­is­tics they con­sider, as long as they don’t ap­ply racial quo­tas..

In all, holis­tic ad­mis­sions adds sub­jec­tiv­ity to ad­mis­sions de­ci­sions, and the prac­tice makes it dif­fi­cult to ex­plain who gets in, who doesn’t, and why. But has holis­tic ad­mis­sions be­come a guise for al­low­ing cul­tural and even racial bi­ases to dic­tate the ad­mis­sions process? To some de­gree, yes. As an ad­mis­sions pro­fes­sional, I gave stu­dents, fam­i­lies and guid­ance coun­selors a list of what it took to be ad­mit­ted — the ob­jec­tive ex­pec­ta­tions of a com­pet­i­tive ap­pli­cant. I didn’t men­tion that racial stereo­typ­ing, money, con­nec­tions and ath­let­ics some­times over­shadow th­ese high bench­marks we all pro­moted. The veil of holis­tic ad­mis­sions al­lows for th­ese other fac­tors to be­come key el­e­ments in a stu­dent’s ad­mis­sions de­ci­sion.

The most heart-wrench­ing con­ver­sa­tions I had were with stu­dents who hit all the listed bench­marks and didn’t get in. I would tell them about the over­all com­pet­i­tive­ness of the ap­pli­cant pool and the record low ad­mit rate we had. But af­ter I hung up the phone, I knew I wasn’t be­ing trans­par­ent.

There was al­ways a rea­son. Once in a while, it was some­thing con­crete, like the stu­dent got a low grade in an aca­demic course even though his or her over­all GPA re­mained high. Of­ten, it had to do with the fact that the ap­pli­ca­tion had no “tag.”

A tag is the prover­bial golden ticket for a stu­dent ap­ply­ing to an elite in­sti­tu­tion. A tag iden­ti­fies a stu­dent as a high pri­or­ity for the in­sti­tu­tion. Typ­i­cally stu­dents with tags are re­cruited ath­letes, chil­dren of alumni, chil­dren of donors or po­ten­tial donors, or stu­dents who are con­nected to the well con­nected. The lack of a tag can hin­der an oth­er­wise strong, high-achiev­ing stu­dent. Asian Amer­i­can stu­dents typ­i­cally don’t have th­ese tags.

Asian Amer­i­cans are rarely chil­dren of alumni at the Ivies, for ex­am­ple. There aren’t as many re­cruited ath­letes com­ing from the Asian Amer­i­can ap­pli­cant pool. Nor are they typ­i­cally ear­marked as “ac­tual” or “po­ten­tial” donors. They sim­ply don’t have long­stand­ing con­nec­tions to th­ese in­sti­tu­tions.

And the fact is that Asian Amer­i­cans of­ten don’t use the “con­nec­tions” they do have. In all my years in col­lege ad­mis­sions, I never re­ceived a phone call or a visit from a well-con­nected politi­cian, chief ex­ec­u­tive or other leader to ad­vo­cate for an Asian Amer­i­can stu­dent.

Tags alone are not the only rea­son highly qual­i­fied Asian Amer­i­can ap­pli­cants are turned away in droves from elite pri­vate in­sti­tu­tions. Nowa­days no­body on an ad­mis­sions com­mit­tee would dare use the term racial “quo­tas,” but racial stereo­typ­ing is alive and well. And although col­leges would never ad­mit stu­dents based on “quo­tas,” they fear­lessly will “sculpt” the class with race and gen­der per­cent­ages in mind.

For ex­am­ple, there’s an ex­pec­ta­tion that Asian Amer­i­cans will be the high­est test scor­ers and at the top of their class; any­thing less can be­come an easy rea­son for a de­nial. And yet even when Asian Amer­i­can stu­dents meet this high thresh­old, they may be des­tined for the wait list or out­right de­nial be­cause they don’t stand out among the other high-achiev­ing stu­dents in their co­hort. The most ex­cep­tional aca­demic ap­pli­cants may be seen as the least unique, and so ad­mis­sions of­fi­cers are rarely moved to fight for them.

In the end, holis­tic ad­mis­sions can al­low for a gray zone of bias at elite in­sti­tu­tions, work­ing against a group such as Asian Amer­i­cans that ex­cels in the black-and-white world of aca­demic achieve­ment.

This doesn’t mean that holis­tic ad­mis­sions should be outlawed. I’m con­vinced that em­pir­i­cal bench­marks can’t be the only thing that mat­ters in col­lege ad­mis­sions. Holis­tic ad­mis­sions can be truly glo­ri­ous to watch in ac­tion. To see an ad­mis­sions com­mit­tee ad­mit a stu­dent for the story and back­ground he or she brings is ex­actly what Amer­ica, ed­u­ca­tion and op­por­tu­nity are all about.

One way to im­prove the sys­tem for Asian Amer­i­cans — and ev­ery­one else — is to add more trans­parency to the process. That would mean com­ing clean about tags and their in­flu­ence in the ad­mis­sions process. In ad­di­tion, all col­leges should be re­quired to make public the de­mo­graph­ics of their ap­pli­cants and the per­cent­ages ad­mit­ted. This is al­ready the prac­tice at many public uni­ver­si­ties, such as the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia.

Bet­ter yet, schools should also break down their ad­mits’ high school GPAs and test scores by race and eth­nic­ity. Know­ing ac­cep­tance rates by iden­ti­fi­able char­ac­ter­is­tics can re­veal in­sti­tu­tional ten­den­cies, if not out­right bi­ases; it can push schools to bet­ter jus­tify their prac­tices, and it would give ap­pli­cants a look at which schools of­fer them the best op­por­tu­ni­ties.

With­out more trans­parency, holis­tic ad­mis­sions can be­come an ex­cuse for cul­tural bias to dic­tate a process that is sup­posed to open doors. We are bet­ter than that. And our youth will de­mand that we do some­thing about it.

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