Who Gets In?: Strategies for Fair and Effective College Admissions

Image of Who Gets In?: Strategies for Fair and Effective College Admissions
Release Date: 
May 14, 2017
Harvard University Press
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Baby boomers were told all they needed was a high school diploma and with a good job, they were almost assured a place in the middle class. To Gen X’ers, no less than a college degree could accomplish this goal. And now, in some cases, a master’s degree will get you one foot in the door on a sustainable career trajectory.

In an economy where employers requiring high-skill workers bemoan the shortage of such a labor in America and look abroad for talent, education policy experts and local school systems are driving curriculum and interventions to improve college readiness and attendance. Emphasis on attendance raises concerns over affordability, which emerged as a major theme throughout last year’s presidential race so much so that governors like New York State’s Andrew Cuomo are enacting remedies to encourage college-going and completion.

Of course, interventions geared toward sending high school students to college must manage both academic concerns and financial barriers amid heightened competition for big-name, big-brand institutions during an expanded period of skyrocketing costs to attend school.

Who Gets In? Strategies for Fair and Effective College Admissions by Rebecca Zwick is a thought provoking examination of higher education’s supply side.  When colleges consider their mission and desired student population, how do they go about achieving their goals? How is diversity defined? And what role should grit play in a high stakes common core-teacher evaluation-test score environment?

A fair and effective college admissions process opens Zwick’s inquiry by outlining the long, highly politicized battle on college campuses and in federal courts to define these goals clearly and inclusively.  Zwick articulates four broad objectives for fair and effective policies: First, colleges want to fulfill their institutional needs. This is accomplished by the admission of an institution’s preferred student: one who cultivates a very diverse campus or one who perpetuates a largely homogenous (by certain variables) student body.

Financial concerns are relevant since institutional costs need to be covered, and ability to pay often plays at least some role in admissions policies. Does the middling student whose family can pay tuition with little or no aid get accepted over a stellar student needing greater financial assistance?

Admissions policies may also reward past performance by giving substantial weight to high school GPA, test scores, extracurricular activities or so-called cultural and social capital. Socio- economic status (SES) influences on these measures may play a discriminatory role and again, fairness—however schools define this—comes into sharp focus if class and racial diversity is somehow diminished when applied to admissions criteria overtly or tacitly.

Schools may also want to promote social mobility or maximize societal benefits. No matter the approach, statistical or philosophical methodologies rely heavily on how institutions of higher learning define success.

Throughout the book, the idea of measurement dominates. Variables tied to grades, test scores, and other evaluative tools used to construct predictive models for college success reveal substantial strengths and weaknesses about the admissions process. For their part, statistical models have been controversial among practitioners and scholars since 1954 but still carry substantial weight in the process. Given how much or how little colleges balance SATs, ACTs, and other scores, it is clear that policies based on them can produce vastly different incoming classes.

Some of the most compelling passages touch upon the challenges low SES families have in navigating the college admissions process. While college affordability per se is not the focus, the book presents a rather stark reminder of the intense and often expensive preparation required before a student even decides to apply to a university.

Zwick reports, for example, that a Princeton Review tutoring package can cost as much as $7,800 or an “SAT honors” course with an admissions requirement of a high SAT score on a previously taken exam. Referencing sociologist Claudia Buchmann, Zwick reminds that this “shadow education” is a rapidly growing industry focused on testing and the “entire admissions process”—often beyond the reach of poor students.

So if a sense of fairness and justice prevails among concerned policymakers, what are colleges to do? In the absence of race-neutral alternatives, will socioeconomic preferences solve the class divide? The author lays out seven principals to consider. Among them, policies should be tied to the school’s mission, be free to incorporate socioeconomic and racial preferences and nontraditional measures— though such measures may assist unintended populations—and be transparent.

Who Gets In? is thorough and informative. In the end, it’s also optimistic. College and university leaders are learning (or being forced via the courts) to adapt their policies in a highly competitive, increasingly diverse and politicized environment. If we buy into the belief that a “college degree paves the way to the good life,” then who gets to go and the relationship to the perpetuation of multi-generational intellectual capital is a worthy discussion emerging from this text.