Fair to whom?
Fair to under-represented populations from impoverished educational background no matter their cultural background?
Fair to hard-working students who have not been accorded the best experiences money can buy?
Fair to ambitious students who belong to groups constituting the great majority of applicants?
The truth is that college admission has never been fair. Well, admissions offices are fair to their college or university, following institutional mandates in order to meet the institution’s mission.
A coalition of Asian-American students recently brought a complaint against Harvard University, registering their frustration with Harvard’s practices to the U.S. Department of Educations Office of Civil Rights. Behind their action is the growing conviction among Asian-American applicants that a quota system limits their number at the most selective institutions.
Colleges and universities, including Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, have established quotas in the past and, in fact, openly acknowledged the practice of establishing a quota. Known as Numerus Clausus (Limit the Number) by these Ivies, the practice in the 1920’s and 30’s limited the number of Jewish students to be admitted in any year. Unacknowledged quotas (of students of color, for example) were in place throughout much of the first half of the Twentieth Century. Asian-American students may be correct in suggesting bias but will have a tough time finding evidence of quotas set by institutional mandate.
Although he majority of colleges and universities are pleased to accept most fully qualified candidates, the colleges that are seen as most desirable attract so many applications for a limited number of available spaces; these are the “hot colleges”, but what identifies a “hot” college?
And nothing improves selectivity like turning candidates away. The process by which a class is selected – or by which some impressive number of applicants is turned away – is directly related to the most immediate needs of the college in that admissions season. Before the first application has been read, the admissions office is mindful of certain conditions which are beyond their control.
The first, and least discussed, issue as to do with gender. There is, in fact, a quota in place at virtually many institutions of higher learning; no more than a set percentage of enrolled applicants can be female. The issue is not about housing for the most part; it’s about the college’s profile and its viability in the recruitment of men. Even though young men may seek a coeducational experience, they are concerned when a disproportionate percentage of the student community is made up of women. The most selective colleges are fortunate in finding almost equal numbers of men and women in the applicant pool; they are able to accept about the same percentage of men and women.
Stanford has a slightly higher proportion of men in its applicant pool, but accepts about 5% of the women who apply and about 5% of men. Yale recently received applications from about 15,000 men and from about 16, 000 women, accepting 7% of the men who applied and 6% of the women.
Highly selective colleges, such as Kenyon or Carleton see a slightly different picture. At Carleton, roughly 3500 applicants are women and 2700 are men. Carleton accepts about 25% of the men who apply and about 21% of women. Even so, Carleton is approximately 53% female and 47% male. Kenyon receives approximately the same number of applications, but about 2500 are from men, and about 4100 are from women. Kenyon recently accepted about 27% of men who applied and about 24% of women. Nonetheless, Kenyon’s enrollment is about 55% female.
There are two more pre-existing sets of criteria that the admissions office cannot escape. The first of these can be considered necessary obligations, the second might be termed compensatory obligation. In current terminology, these considerations are called “tags”.
Colleges and universities are expensive. Tuition costs are high for enrolled students, but the true coast per student is not met by tuition income. These beautifully manicured, elaborate facilities cost a bundle each year. Fixed expenses jump for colleges as they do for families; everything is more expensive year after year.
The only hedge a college has against devastating costs is in its management of a healthy endowment, and that endowment is grown by calling upon the gratitude of the college’s most successful graduates. Those with close connections to the university, children of graduates, grandchildren of graduates, are known as legacies. Legacy applications are advantaged from the start. Generally a legacy application will receive careful consideration, and in the last round of selection, the legacy applicant is likely to win out over a similarly profiled non-legacy applicant. In almost every instance, a higher proportion of legacy applicants are admitted. Another “tag” in the same conversation is the “prospect”. Families with enormous financial clout can make a huge difference in the development of an institution’s viability. It isn’t easy to track the advantage of great wealth (or celebrity); anecdotal evidence has to suffice.
Another set of tags has to do with the many programs a college or university has to maintain. Obviously, recruited athletes make up some proportion of those “necessary” admits, but other sorts of skills and potentialities are also highly valued. Does it matter that a candidate plays the oboe or the harp? It might. Piano? Not so much. Guitar? Probably not.
The compensatory tags are more difficult to describe because each college has its own institutional history. Some tags, such as geographic diversity, are mildly advantaged; others having to do with the enrollment of traditionally under-represented populations can have significant impact.
Is there a bias against Asian-Americans?
There are two different propositions to assess. Many institutions receive a high proportion of their applications from Asian-Americans; in those cases, those applicants are not an under-represented population, certainly in the application pool. It can be said with certainty that Asian-Americans are not an advantaged group in the admissions process. To the degree that other populations are more actively sought, Asian-Americans compete for fewer places in the final group of admitted students. Of course, that can be said of other highly represented groups as well.
The trickier question has to do with whether applicants are discounted because they are Asian-American. Is more expected of the Asian-American applicant? That is hard to demonstrate.
Is the process fair? Probably not entirely, but transparency helps to make the playing field identifiable if not level.