The last post dealt with fairness in the college admissions process. In that post I talked about selective college admission as an example of Distributive Justice, a kind of ethical dilemma where the challenge is to devise a fair means of distributing a scarce resource or opportunity.
I also mentioned an article I wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education back in 1988 where I argued that the fairest way to fill a freshman class in a highly selective admissions environment is to use random selection from among those identified as being qualified for admission. It was my first article about college admission, and it is old enough that it does not exist in the Chronicle archives, but my tech person at school (who also happens to be my son) helped me scan it and convert it so I could reprint it as a blog post. You will note that I was even more verbose back then than now.
You will also note that ECA has a new home. That is also at the urging of my son the tech guru (read the previous phrase by channeling your favorite Jewish mother character from television or the movies). He has been encouraging me to develop a website to house the blog and other work, and so here we go. We hope to add content and features in the coming months.
I’m also hoping to adapt the blog somewhat, or at least return to my original vision from its founding three years ago. At the time I planned for a mixture of long and short posts, a mixture of news notes and opinion pieces, but the blog has become more about the longer opinion pieces (sermonettes). I am going to try to post more regularly with a mixture. On Monday I’ll try to post a summary of this week's oral arguments on affirmative action before the Supreme Court in the return of Fisher v. Texas.
Thanks as always to all of you who read and comment on Ethical College Admissions.
The Only Fair Way for Elite Colleges to Choose Their Freshman Classes Is by Random Selection
EVERY SPRING, thousands of high-school seniors across the country anxiously watch the mail for a letter from the admission office of one or more of the so-called selective colleges and universities, the contents of which will profoundly affect the course of the recipient's life, The fortunate minority receive a thick letter of acceptance, opening the door to an exclusive club and all the privileges of membership. The rest receive a thin letter of rejection and, along with it, a lesson in the disappointments of adulthood.
It can be a hard lesson to swallow. As a college-admission counselor at a high school l spend a lot of time trying to console talented young people who have suddenly discovered, after four years of outstanding performance in their school work and extracurricular activities, that they are not good enough. I try to persuade them not to take the rejection personally, to convince them that they are simply victims of a process that is essentially unfair. To understand that, they have to know about how college admission works and what it is that makes an institution "selective." For all colleges, l tell them, admission is first and foremost a numbers game. Each institution seeks to enroll a certain number of freshmen. To reach that goal, admission offices must send out more acceptances than there are places, since not every accepted applicant will enroll. For the selective colleges the difference between the two numbers is relatively small.
An institution is defined as "selective" if qualified applicants always outnumber the spaces it has available and it routinely has to reject some candidates who fully meet its standards for admission. The competition for admission to the 50 or so truly selective institutions in this country is intense: a handful of those colleges admit fewer than a quarter of the students who apply.
Most applicants for admission at selective institutions are not just qualified; they are superbly qualified, with high-schooI grades and Scholastic Aptitude Test scores at the top of the scale. In 1982, Princeton accepted only one-third of the high-school valedictorians who applied, and barely half of the applicants with S.A.T. scores in the 750-800 range. In 1984, the mean score on the verbal section of the S.A.T. for the 2,492 students accepted at Georgetown was 628. Last year, Stanford turned down 60 per cent of the applicants who had all A's on their high-school transcripts, and 70 per cent of those whose S.A.T. scores were above 700, To choose a freshman class from a large group of exceptional applicants, admission committees must subject them all to rigorous and exhaustive scrutiny. At most selective colleges, anywhere from two to five people read each application and evaluate the candidate's grades, courses, activities, test scores, essays, and recommendations. Being a superb student isn't enough, Personal qualities are also considered, and applicants are given both academic and non-academic ratings.
lN PUTTING TOGETHER A CLASS, the committee gives major consideration to "diversity," not only to assure students a broad educational experience but also to achieve other goals, ranging from increasing minority enrollment to satisfying the demands of alumni. No one can deny that the process is thorough, but is it fair? The huge gap between the number of highly qualified applicants and the spaces available forces admission committees to make fine (and usually subjective) distinctions among applicants with almost identical credentials. It is part of admissions mythology that individual merit is the yardstick by which candidates are judged.
The problem is that little agreement exists on what constitutes merit, how it can be measured, or how to compare applicants of diverse background and interests. The admission process should be an exercise in just distribution, in finding a fair means of allocating a scarce resource--places at an elite institution--among too many qualified candidates.
To be fair, selection must be based on clearly defined objectives and relevant, easily measured criteria, and the judges must accord due process and equal consideration to each applicant. By those standards, the process as presently conducted is far from fair--institutions rarely, if ever. spell out their objectives; special preference is customarily given to certain candidates; and the judgments underlying admission decisions are mostly subjective and arbitrary.
Is the purpose of the process to identify and select the applicants most likely to succeed academically, or those most likely to benefit from the educational opportunity? Or is it simply to reward past performance? The answer is None of the above. The real purpose is to admit the candidates who can best help a particular institution achieve the goals (which in most cases are more political than educational) hidden behind the concept of diversity. To reach those goals, the committee may give candidates in certain categories special preference, with the effect that those candidates compete only among themselves rather than with all applicants.
For example, if the institution's goal is a champion football team, and a fullback is the missing link, the fullbacks will compete for admission only against other fullbacks. If the goal is to maintain balanced proportions of men and women in the student body, then candidates of the sex that predominates will find it more difficult than the rest to gain admission. If the goal is to increase the number of students from certain minority groups, then applicants from those groups will have the edge. And because all institutions have fundraising goals, children of alumni and of the rich and famous will usually get preference.
Diversity is clearly a laudable objective, particularly given the history of minorities' limited access to higher education, but should it be achieved at the expense of fair, equal consideration for all applicants? In the name of diversity, the likes of Brooke Shields, Patrick Ewing, and the Kennedy kids get the chance to receive their education at elite universities, while other talented young people, with equal or superior credentials, do not.
The way in which selective colleges guarantee the diverse make-up of their entering classes is only one of the factors compromising the fairness of the process. Another is the unlimited discretion the colleges exercise in deciding whom to admit. Obviously, the more subjective and arbitrary the decision, the less fair it is.
One reason for such subjectivity is that grades and test scores, the objective measurements most commonly used to predict success in college, are of little use in making close distinctions among the superior students who apply to selective institutions. Their grades and test scores predict success for all of them.
Unfortunately, not all can be admitted, and, because the differences are statistically insignificant, it is impossible to predict which applicants will be most successful. Another reason is the committees' lack of accountability. Selective colleges have far more qualified applicants than they can admit. Without objective information with which to make fine distinctions, the committee is free to decide arbitrarily. It has the luxury of knowing it will choose a superb freshman class, no matter how it decides. The undeniable fact that there are always too many applicants for too few places provides immunity from criticism of its choices.
The excess of qualified candidates also distorts the way in which applications are evaluated. Because many well-qualified applicants must be turned down, admission committees are put in the position of looking not for reasons to admit but rather for reasons to exclude. Numbers are of overriding importance. Every year, quite a few applicants on the accepted list end up being cut, because of concern that more on the list will enroll than there is room for. They are rejected at the last minute, never knowing how close they came to getting in.
The only fair way to choose a freshman class from among too many qualified applicants is by some type of random selection. One way would be to have the qualified applicants draw lots. Another would be to accept candidates when their credentials are complete and they are judged qualified, until the class is full. A third, which an admission officer of my acquaintance has long recommended, would be to put every qualified applicant on a "waiting list" and admit the ones who respond first.
Random selection has several clear advantages. It would guarantee equal consideration, and it would make rejection easier to take, since not getting in would be due to bad luck rather than to personal failure. It would also be easier on admission committees. Not only would it save a great deal of the time and money currently spent splitting hairs to select a freshman class, but it would also restore the committees to their proper function of determining who is qualified, rather than who among the qualified should be admitted, Despite the advantages, however, random selection is probably not an idea whose time has come. The benefit to selective colleges of being able to use discretion in choosing a freshman class is too great. Also, many admission professionals actually believe it's possible to make informed choices among equally qualified candidates and, ironically, so do some students.
It can be argued, of course, that admission to a selective college has nothing to do with just distribution, because higher education is not a scarce resource. There are over 3,000 colleges and universities in the United States, the argument goes, and no one who wants a higher education is denied the opportunity to get it. That being the case, selective colleges, particularly those that are privately owned, should be free to admit whomever they wish.
Such reasoning ignores the fact that the elite institutions occupy a special place in American society.
Therefore, they have a special obligation to uphold the national ideals of fairness, equality of opportunity, and due process in allotting the coveted places in their freshman classes. Unless they do so by instituting a means for just distribution of places, the qualified candidates who get thin envelopes will have to continue either to accept the rejection as an authoritative judgment of their worth (and perhaps allow it to ruin their lives) or take it as a challenge to go out and prove through their accomplishments that the admission committees blew it.