Is the college admissions process fair?  Asking that question brings to mind an old joke about television.  The joke, credited to comedian Fred Allen (among others), asks, “Why do they call television a medium?”  The punch line?  “Because it’s neither rare nor well done.”

Like the joke, asking if the college admissions process is fair relies on a potential double-entendre.  By “fair,” do we mean “just” or do we mean “not that good”?

Last month in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Eric Hoover and Beckie Supiano wrote a fascinating piece on the concept of fairness in college admission.  I was quoted rather extensively in the article, so I’m not exactly objective, but they did a great job of examining the various dimensions of a principle that’s hard to argue against and even harder to define.

No one in his or her right mind would argue that the admissions process should be intentionally unfair, but what does fairness in college admissions look like? Even if we agree that “fair” equals “just,” that raises more questions than answers (which regular ECA readers know we are perfectly comfortable with).  Does a just admissions process reward past performance or predict future accomplishment?  Is fairness about equal treatment or equal consideration?  Is it fair for an institution to admit based on institutional interest and priorities? Is an admissions process based on merit fair, given that much of what passes for merit is really privilege in disguise?  

Fairness lies in the eyes of the beholder.  I learned that first hand a number of years ago when my parents divorced after thirty years of marriage. I was in graduate school at the time, and as I watched them go through that experience I had three “a-ha” moments.  The first was an odd role reversal where I found myself the adult and them the children.  The second was that each of them was happier after the divorce than I had ever seen them together.  The third had to do with the concept of fairness.  Each of them said to me in separate conversations, “All I want is what’s fair,” but they had very different conceptions of fair. 

Fairness in college admission is challenging even when focusing on a single variable.  Take SAT scores for example.  We know that they have a high correlation with family income.  If two applicants have identical scores, one from an affluent suburban school and the other from a rural high school where 10% of graduates go to college, do those scores mean the same thing?  Should a set of scores earned after spending hundreds of dollars on test prep count the same as those for a student from an inner-city environment who takes the test cold? 

The same is true for things like GPA.  Is it fair to consider a transcript without context?  Students from the same high school with the same GPA may have very different schedules, and different high schools have very different grading scales, and even more important, different grade distributions.  What’s more fair, admitting the student who earns a certain GPA without breaking a sweat, or the student who earns the same GPA in the same courses through hard work that maximizes ability?

Both of those examples make the case for a holistic admissions process as best and maybe fairest.  But making fine distinctions among hundreds or thousands of superbly qualified applicants requires either a complex calculus or the use of professional judgment that is largely subjective.

The very first article I ever wrote on college admissions was an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education back in 1988.  In the article I argued that selective college admission is a textbook example of Distributive Justice, a type of ethical dilemma where the challenge is to find a fair way of allocating a scarce resource.  I also posited that the fairest way to allocate scarce spaces in freshman classes was using random selection once admissions officers had identified those who were qualified for admission.

It was an idea whose time had not come.  For months I heard reports of my name being cursed in admissions circles, and some close friends thought I must be joking, writing a satire akin to Jonathan Swift’s proposal to eat children.  The most interesting feedback was from students who wrote letters to the Chronicle.  They were opposed to random selection, wanting to believe they were admitted because they were better than other applicants.   The article was ultimately reprinted in several venues, including a textbook on logic.  I never figured out if it was seen as an example of good logic or poor logic.  I may reprint that article in a subsequent post.

Perhaps the appropriate question is not “Is college admission fair?” but “Should college admission be fair?”  Do highly-selective colleges and universities worry about fairness in the admissions process?  At some level, yes, in that they strive for decisions that make sense within a school group, for instance.  At another level, they worry more about what’s fair for the institution.  I have heard a legendary admissions dean say that “The admissions process is rational, but not necessarily fair.”  Another well-known dean put it a different way, “I work for … university.  My job is to bring in the best, most interesting freshman class to help the university achieve its strategic goals.  It’s not my job to be fair to students or schools.”

There is probably a disconnect between what the public expects from the college admissions process with regard to fairness and the reality of the process.  Just because fairness isn’t easy to define doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth aspiring to.  If college admission serves not just institutional interest, but the public interest, then the public deserves a process that is as fair as possible.  The alternative is that we lose public confidence and trust in our profession.

The next time someone describes college admission as fair, let’s make sure they mean "just" and not "just okay."