Adrienne Leinwand Maslin
College Admissions Through an Equity Lens
College admissions is going through some transitions. And not unbidden either. As many institutions in our country take a look at their processes through an equity lens they discover that some of the traditional practices may not really be as fair as they thought and colleges and universities are rethinking some of their admission requirements and policies. There are three I wish to examine in this article: whether taking calculus in high school is critical for admission to the most selective colleges, making the SAT optional, and legacy admissions.
Calculus: To Take or Not to Take, That is the Question
Many students and their families believe that calculus, that all-important sub-discipline of math that deals with instantaneous rates of change, is a critical course for getting into the most competitive colleges and universities. And, indeed, it is essential for students wanting to study particular disciplines including physics, chemistry, economics, or finance. However, a new report from two organizations, Just Equations and the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, disputes the need for students to take calculus and suggests that removing the emphasis on calculus would make for a more level playing field when it comes to college acceptance for those students whose high schools do not offer the subject. College admissions counselors, those all-important people who hold the future of America’s high school seniors in their hands, have generally placed a premium on calculus although they typically don’t say so out loud. Now, however, they are coming around to a new way of thinking; a way of thinking that mathematicians seem to agree with as well.
What are math organizations saying? They are saying that focusing on taking Algebra in 7th or 8th grade—a necessity if a student is going to take Calculus in high school—may not be the wisest choice. According to the research, A New Calculus for College Admissions,
For years, leading math organizations have cautioned against this pattern. Not all students have the opportunity to accelerate through mathematics. Many who do miss out on foundational math learning and encounter problems later. Even many students who successfully complete high school calculus end up taking calculus again—or even a lower-level math course—when they get to college. Plus, the emphasis on calculus, a course that has changed little in 50 years, can crowd out the teaching of statistics and data science, subjects that are likely more meaningful for many students’ lives and career goals. (https://justequations.org/wp-content/uploads/Just-Equations-2021-Report-New-Calculus-Final-Digital.pdf)
According to the Just Equations report, academic departments at colleges and universities are recognizing the importance of quantitative reasoning skills as applied to statistics and data science, for example, and further recognize that the career paths of many students do not require calculus. However, this way of thinking is just starting to trickle down to college admissions officers. Once it gains traction with that group, it is quite possible that high school counselors will view other math courses, such as statistics, on a par with calculus. This would open up more math options for high school students without the fear that calculus is the only course that will help them achieve acceptance at an elite college or university.
What Does Optional Really Mean When It Comes to the SAT and ACT?
Prior to the pandemic, many U.S. colleges and universities were experimenting with the idea of test optional admissions policies. The confusion caused by the Covid-19 pandemic—not being able to administer a standardized test in a high school classroom when schools were closed and people were told to stay away from crowded spaces—propelled even more colleges into the realm of test optional. The results of these policies, at least from the perspective of the colleges and universities that implemented them, have been mixed. Mixed based on both anecdotal evidence as well as a survey conducted by Maguire Associates, a market research firm. According to the survey, “It’s not obvious that test-optional is here to stay.”
The biggest advantage of test optional, from the perspective of both public and private institutions is that the number of applications from low-income, underrepresented, and first generation students increased. This was more so at public than at private colleges but both types benefited greatly. On the minus side for many test optional institutions was their inability to accurately predict their “yield” rate. (Yield rate is the percentage of admitted students at a college who choose to actually enroll at that college. Any shifts in admission policy and practice, such as occurred when the Common Application came into widespread use, can cause a temporary disruption in the yield rate making it difficult for colleges to plan for the upcoming academic year.) Whether the disruption to the yield rate is temporary or might be continuous is hard to predict. Having a steady yield rate is important to knowing such things as what the overall college budget will be, how much residence hall space is needed the following year, how many courses to put on the class schedule, how many adjunct faculty have to be hired, and how many students can receive a discounted tuition rate. Many colleges that have gone test-optional still use SAT or ACT scores to determine how much tuition discounting they do so if a student wishes to be considered for some kind of scholarship or financial aid, it seems advisable to take one of the standardized tests. Such tests are also frequently used for placement purposes in math and English courses, thus eliminating the need for a new student to take a separate placement test.
There do not seem to be enough data to know whether test-optional admissions policies do, in fact, decrease inherent bias in the admissions process. Certainly, removing standardized tests from the equation eliminates any inherent bias such tests may bring. It also reduces the need for students to take SAT coaching courses, something that not everyone can afford. But, what of the bias that creeps in when evaluating student grades, overall GPA within the context of a particular high school, the difficulty of the courses taken—such as the above issue with calculus, an evaluation of extracurricular activities, and letters of recommendation. There is always some bias, some balancing, some way to justify admitting one student over another. So for right now, this is a wait and see.
Where is Legacy Admissions Headed?
The last aspect of the admissions process I want to address is legacy admissions. Legacy admissions is when a college makes it easier for the children of alumni to be admitted; their “legacy” status gives them an edge over other, non-legacy, students. Legacy admissions has traditionally benefitted applicants who are wealthy and white as these students are more likely to have family members who preceded them at the college or university they are applying to and contradicts the concept of merit, which most colleges claim they favor.
The history of legacy admissions is about 100 years old, dating back to the 1920s. During this time, elite universities, the Ivy League institutions in particular, were concerned with maintaining their elite status by admitting students who were from the upper classes. In his book The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, Jerome Karabel explains,
But this changed in the 1920s, when the traditional academic requirements no longer served to screen out students deemed “socially undesirable.” By then, it had become clear that a system of selection focused solely on scholastic performance would lead to the admission of increasing numbers of Jewish students, most of them of Eastern European background. . . Their response was to invent an entirely new system of admissions . . . The defining feature of the new system was its categorical rejection of the idea that admission should be based on academic criteria alone.
The new admission policies focused on characteristics that were not easily measurable such as character. This less than tangible characteristic was combined with “manliness,” “personality,” and “leadership” and served to exclude not only Jews but women and people of color.
How legacy admissions is practiced today varies from college to college. Most colleges will tell you, however, that students who are admitted as legacies are qualified to be admitted on their own and that their legacy status is really used more as a tie-breaker between applicants. And it is certainly the case that being a legacy does not guarantee a student admission to a particular college. Legacy students still have to submit the strongest application possible.
So, should legacy admissions end? Many colleges think so, including Amherst, MIT, Cal Tech, and Johns Hopkins which do not cling to this practice. The state of Colorado has already eliminated legacy admissions at its public institutions and Connecticut and New York are also in favor of eliminating legacy admissions and are hoping state legislators will pass laws to do away with it. Other colleges are not so sure. Some say that the financial donations made by alumni, in the hope that, down the road, it will help their children be admitted, helps to fund financial aid for lower income students and therefore gives them more ability to diversify their classes.
When we consider legacy admissions we again look at yield rates. In their article in Inside Higher Ed (https://www.insidehighered.com/admissions/views/2022/03/21/eliminating-legacy-admissions-wont-bring-about-much-access-opinion, March 21, 2022), Robert Massa and Bill Conley explain that only in the institutions with the highest yield rates will the elimination of legacy admissions make a difference. Take Harvard, for example. The yield rate for the class of 2025 was 85% meaning nearly all of the students who were admitted chose to attend. Therefore, if a legacy student who may be less qualified is admitted, a better qualified student won’t be. At an institution with a lower yield rate, more students have to be admitted for the college to achieve a full complement of students to create its incoming class. Therefore, it is much less likely that one student’s admission will preclude another student’s admission assuming both are well-qualified.
Yield Rates for the Class of 2025
September 13, 2021
New York University
University of Pennsylvania
University of Virginia
Washington University of St. Louis
It’s my own opinion, having been a college admissions counselor and higher education administrator for a very long time, that the admissions process is full of all sorts of vagaries. We’ve all heard the stories: a student whose academic profile is good but not stellar but was accepted at a highly selective college; the student at the top of her high school class, a tuba player, fencing star, and a volunteer fire fighter who is rejected from her top four institutions. It is frequently hard to understand what goes on in the minds of college admissions staff and the college community that provides the admissions office with its particular admissions philosophy.
The irony in all three of the admissions issues I’ve presented is that the same reliance on less measurable factors that were once used to keep certain groups of students out of college are now being relied upon to allow students into college. The California State University system, which has eliminated the use of test scores, a measurable factor, is looking to create a “new index” which, in addition to high school GPA as the primary decision criterion, will also
“incorporate secondary factors to replace the test scores. These may include completion of college preparatory coursework beyond the minimum requirements; school context, such as the percentage of students receiving free/reduced-priced meals; and other student attributes or activities like extracurriculars, community engagement or first-generation status.”
In trying to do a good thing—leveling the playing field so all students have an equal crack at the college of their choice—the Cal State system will still be incorporating some subjective criteria. But times change. The 2020s are not like the 1920s and using some of the more subjective criteria might be appropriate for this day and age. As a former admissions professional, it is difficult for me to envision a time when subjective criteria would be completely eliminated.
What I do know is that the admissions process will never be fully understandable to those of us who stand at the window watching while the admissions committee does its deliberations. I applaud the measures that are being taken to try to make the admissions process more equitable. With dedication to purpose on the part of admissions staff, and a little bit of luck, these measures will be helpful. But they will not eliminate the intangible aspects of the admission process and a perfect process is not at hand.