HEADLINE:  Ethical College Admissions Mentioned on NPR All Things Considered!

Several weeks ago I was interviewed for a story on the weekend version of NPR’s signature program, All Things Considered. If you by chance missed it, you’re not alone.  It aired on Saturday, May 23, in the midst of the Memorial Day holiday weekend, meaning that the listening audience numbered around 41. Even I missed it, because I wasn’t sure if and when the story would be reported.  Anyway, here’s a link.

How did this come about?  On the previous Wednesday afternoon, I received an e-mail from a producer at NPR.  She said that they were looking to talk with someone about “the current landscape of how colleges choose their incoming class” and that she had read an article I had written a couple of years ago for Eric Hoover’s Head Count blog for the Chronicle of Higher Education asking if the college admissions process is measuring the right things.  She mentioned grit and how one assesses it and racial preferences in admission as possible topics, and that they were hoping to do the interview before the end of the week.

The timing was less than ideal.  Our seniors were graduating that Friday, and Thursday marked the beginning of what we affectionately refer to as the “24 hours of hell,” with four major events crammed into a short span.  We have our Awards Assembly at 2, the Baccalaureate service at 5, and the Athletic Banquet at 7, then have Commencement at 10 a.m. the next morning.  For those of us with responsibilities in several of those events, it is exhausting and stressful.

I therefore responded that it was a hectic time, but that I might be able to find a couple of windows either Thursday or Friday.  Within five minutes the producer e-mailed that she would call in fifteen minutes.  During that call we talked about a couple of other possible topics, including how college admissions and higher ed have become a business, and we set the interview for Thursday afternoon, meaning that I would miss Baccalaureate.

The next morning she called again to confirm that they would send a radio producer to my office to record the phone interview with Arun Rath, the weekend host for All Things Considered.  That made me wonder if this might be different from the interviews I’ve done with newspaper reporters, where a fifteen minute conversation shows up in the story as a one-line quote.  She also asked an interesting question.  How do you know anything about college admissions when you don’t work at a college?  That question, usually unstated, is not unfamiliar to those of us who work at the secondary level, and it raises an interesting larger question. Does someone who works in the admissions office at one institution understand the landscape of college admissions better than someone who deals with lots of institutions? I cringe when I think about how little I knew during my admissions days, but that may be me.  In any case, I answered by citing my years of experience, NACAC leadership, and work with the blog, but wondered if they were looking for a perspective different than I could offer.

I tried to prepare for the interview with some notes and talking points regarding the admissions landscape.  One point I especially wanted to make was that there is not a single college admissions landscape.  There are at least two landscapes in the college admissions universe.  Most media coverage of college admissions focuses on the competition for places at highly-selective colleges and universities, but that landscape includes only 10% of the institutions of higher education in this country.  The other 90% are in a landscape where any qualified student will be admitted, and I have seen statistics that 80% of students are admitted to their first-choice schools.

I never got the chance to make that point, because the interview went down a different path than I expected.  With the exception of one question about “grit,” the rest of the interview was about whether Asians are discriminated against in the college admissions process, a subject I wasn’t prepared to discuss.  To be fair, the producer had mentioned that issue in passing in our pre-interview, but not that it would be the primary focus, and I had also missed a news story several days before that a coalition of 64 organizations had filed a complaint with the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights alleging that Harvard discriminates against Asian-American applicants in the admissions process.

So there I was, being interviewed for a national radio audience, asked to comment on Harvard’s treatment of Asian-American applicants.  I knew full-well that I was in a minefield where it would be easy to say something that might easily be misconstrued.  I saw my job as providing context about how admission works rather than defending it.  So I talked about how in my view the hidden currency of selective admissions is uniqueness, that the more of any talent or quality the less valuable it is.  I talked about holistic admission as a way to build a class and how frustrating that can be for students and parents who don’t understand why they don’t get admitted in an environment where most highly-qualified applicants are denied.  And I suggested that fairness is hard to achieve in a process where so many metrics are ultimately measures of socioeconomic privilege.

On the fairness front, one response that was edited out of the interview was my suggestion that the fairest way to admit applicants is using random selection from among those judged qualified.  I first suggested that in a Chronicle of Higher Education article in 1988, and some saw it as satire, akin to Jonathan Swift arguing for eating children.  But if selective admission is an exercise in Distributive Justice, allocating a scarce resource fairly, then random selection achieves fairness even as it prevents shaping the class.  When I originally made that proposal, neither students nor admissions officers found it compelling, and apparently the same is true for NPR.

Throughout the interview I felt off my game, and when I ended I was convinced it would never be used, especially after Arun Rath started to ask a follow-up question, then said “Never mind.”  But thankfully it didn’t sound as bad as I feared.

In the next post I will consider whether Asians are discriminated against and whether Asian students should be encouraged to look “less Asian.”