Some Thoughts on College Admissions

Buck Goldstein
Entrepreneur in Residence and Professor of the Practice UNC-Chapel Hill

When we wrote Our Higher Calling, we hoped it would add to the critical conversation about America’s colleges and universities and their relationship to the broader public. It quickly became clear we should have paid more attention to admissions, especially now that the whole admissions system seems to be on the verge of blowing up.

I’m not sure anyone could have predicted the Hollywood-ready details of the Varsity Blues bribery scandal. But even before the FBI blew open the secret world of malign influence in college admissions, it was clear that public trust was on the wane.

The vast majority of colleges and universities in America aren’t very selective, which means the drama of high-stakes admissions involves a relatively small number of families. But those families are highly influential; as a group, they have an outsized impact on the delicate partnership between higher education and the public. And many of those influential families are frustrated by a system that feels neither fair nor transparent, even to those most likely to benefit from it.

There is now a raging debate about the advantage given to large donors and legacy admits, along with new questions about the fairness of standardized testing and the whole process of “holistic admissions.” The 2018 announcement by the University of Chicago of a test-optional policy and the prospect that the entire University of California system will follow suit only adds to the calls for reform. The avalanche of books on the subject of admissions and testing suggests that at least the book-buying public has become obsessed, as affluent parents try to sort out the new rules of the game and ensure their children receive a fair hearing — or an outright advantage.

At the same time that admissions among selective colleges are under great scrutiny, overall college applications are down nationally, leaving hundreds of schools in financial distress. Among smaller, less well-known colleges, a new closing or merger is announced almost weekly. While the validity and appropriateness of the SAT and the ACT are being questioned, more students than ever are taking these exams and this number is expected to continue to grow.

In an effort to make sense of these contradictions, I gathered a group of colleagues and friends for an off-the-record conversation which proved to be both informative and surprising to me even after a year or so of discussing and reading about admissions.  I’ll provide a brief summary of what was discussed:

Public Dissatisfaction. 
The pushback against K-12 standardized tests becomes stronger when combined with the data showing that test scores are highly correlated to income and family background. This discovery has drawn opposition to standardized tests for college admissions from all ends of the political spectrum. The Varsity Blues scandal highlighted the fact that large donors, legacies, and others have traditionally been advantaged in the admissions process.  In addition, most college applicants have a gripe of one kind or another with the SAT or ACT because their scores were lower than they expected. More students than ever are receiving rejection notices from colleges (largely because they apply to many more schools than in the past). These factors have combined to form a perfect storm that has negatively shaped the public narrative on admissions.

Admissions is a group exercise with singular consequences.
When schools make admissions decisions, they’re thinking about the whole class. They’re not really weighing the subjective worth of any individual student, but figuring out what combination of traits, skills, and demographics they want on campus right now. But students experience admissions as a deeply personal, individual decision. That disconnect fuels an enormous amount of angst and misunderstanding.

High school GPA is the single best predictor of performance in college.  GPA and test scores together are slightly better than grades alone. Tests can, at best, predict 1/3 of the variance in the GPA of first-year college students. Most students opt to take admissions tests even if they are optional because they believe not taking the test will work against them, even if this isn’t the case. The most pernicious impact of standardized tests is when they are used as part of a minimum admissions requirement.  The requirement denies admission to students who might well succeed; this is proven by data that indicates when the requirement is waived there is no evidence that students perform worse than the students who met the requirement. 

Impact of Admissions Decisions.
For most students, the selectivity of the college admissions process is irrelevant. Only 17 schools in the United States admit less than 10% of their applicants. Even flagship state universities admit about half or more of those that apply from in-state, and hundreds of public and private schools operate under essentially an open admissions model. Moreover, the data suggest, with a few exceptions, that it doesn’t much matter where you go to college. So long as you graduate with a reasonable amount of debt, you’ll do fine.  However, for a statistically small number of students who apply to selective schools, college admission is viewed as the first of a series of rankings they will receive, and they are convinced a less-than-optimum result will negatively impact them for the rest of their lives. As a result, the objectivity and transparency of the admissions process at selective schools has an impact far beyond the actual numbers of students affected. For better or worse, public attitudes toward higher education are disproportionately shaped by admissions decisions at a handful of big-name schools.

The Number of Students Taking Standardized Tests Continues to Grow. 
Notwithstanding the test-optional movement, the total number of students taking the SAT and ACT is growing and that growth is expected to continue.  This is largely due to school districts and state governments replacing home-grown achievement tests with the SAT/ACT tests.  The rationale typically follows that the tests can be given during school hours; therefore more students will take them, and they are a better measure of achievement than the tests they are replacing.  Another rationale is that widespread testing increases the number of students interested in applying to college. Sometimes this universal testing uncovers exceptional students who would otherwise fall through the cracks and not apply to a selective college that might love to have them.

Community College Is Not the Silver Bullet For Increasing Diversity. 
A joint program between two and four-year schools that allow students to attend an inexpensive school close to home and then transfer to a four-year college for the final two years appears to be an attractive alternative for increasing class diversity. Typically these programs do not require standardized tests for admission. However, community colleges are, in most cases, no better suited than four-year schools to deal with the challenges faced by economically disadvantaged students. In many respects, mostly in per-student funding and extra support services, they’re actually less capable of serving struggling students. Well-crafted partnerships make sense but should only be a part of a set of thoughtful holistic admissions processes.

Schools Must Be Clear About What They Are Attempting to Achieve.
The admissions process is engineered to achieve a particular result but that result is not always clear either to the admissions officers themselves or to the public at large. For schools attempting to move up in the published ratings, high school GPA, acceptance rates, rejection rates, and test scores may be most important.  For others, assembling a class that makes all students better may be the goal. For schools in financial distress, admitting those students that can pay full tuition is a justifiable priority. Admissions should be an extension of the mission and the strategy of the institution. Too often, however, it is the other way around.


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