Short Take: Admissions Against Interest

Standardized testing, right? Sure, they serve the purpose of enabling comparisons across different students, schools, states, but they unfairly favor the privileged students who have good schools, take special prep courses and have tutors, so they’re unfair to students for whom these resources are unavailable. Let’s get rid of standardized testing!

But college admissions based on “soft” rather than numerical criteria won’t be more equitable or progressive. Privileged students are likely to gain the most. A new paper from Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis shows that “essay content”—that is, the quality of admissions essays—“is more strongly associated with household income than is SAT score.”

It’s true that high-income students, who are more likely to have highly educated parents, score better on the SAT, on average. But testing critics never explain what would be a fairer metric. That’s because the same resources and academic preparation that enable students to score well on the SAT also enable them to get better grades, pad their resumes, and write polished admissions essays.

As I occasionally point out, the alternative to bad isn’t necessarily good. It can always get worse. If not standardized test scores, will applications essays fill the void?

For those steeped in the academic ethos, who know what admissions officers want to hear, the progressive rush away from standardized admissions is a boon. The harm is to outstanding students with less coaching who will have a harder time proving their chops. An ideological movement impervious to evidence continues to degrade education.

No matter what metric is used, from grades to essays to teacher recommendations, the same problems will arise. Those “steeped in the academic ethos” will do whatever they can to get into college. Some will see this as gaming the system, while others will see this as just playing the game. And those without the ethos won’t be able to play on a level playing field no matter what, whether for lack of knowledge about the rules of the game, lack of wherewithal to compete or lack of interest in the game until it’s too late.

Someone twitted that the idea here isn’t that there is a perfect system somewhere that will compensate for all the disadvantages suffered by students who could, under better conditions, excel in college and contribute enormously to society with the advantage of a good education. Rather, the idea was to find the least imperfect system. This is an important recognition, and one that will elude most of the unduly passionate who are far better at being outraged by imperfection than the more mature and effective idea of making the best of an imperfect reality.

Contrary to many here, I remain of the view that a diverse student body is beneficial to education, although my zealous defense of diversity is being sorely tested by the shift from equality to equity. Even so, I still hold the bourgeois belief that skills education remains the path to social equality, even if it’s unhip to be so bougie about it.

But one of the foundational bases for backing diversity is that it takes students who, without their disadvantages, would otherwise be fully capable of succeeding in college and being a contributing member of society, and provides them with the opportunity they would otherwise be denied. What it does not mean is that students who are not equipped to survive college be given seats based on race or social status. That means there must still be a means of distinguishing the smarter kids from those who aren’t as smart, and giving the smart ones the opportunity they would otherwise be denied.

How can this be done? SAT and ACT? Essays? Grades? Recommendations? None are perfect, and some are decidedly less perfect than others. Yet, admissions still have to happen, so what’s the least imperfect answer that will achieve the best outcome for everyone? This is the right question, but not the question people seem to want to answer.

8 thoughts on “Short Take: Admissions Against Interest

    1. Anonymous Coward

      This “soft admissions criteria” sounds suspiciously like the “holistic admissions” Harvard just got sued over and in all probability will serve as means to admit the favored identitarian groups regardless of ability while plausibly denying admissions to disfavored groups. Of course this,does nothing to thwart the wealthy and connected from buying their way in as usual

      1. SHG Post author

        What if it’s used to admit black and brown people on the basis of race, and deny admission to white or Asian on the basis of race? Would it then be okay?

  1. KP

    ‘Hard’ entry exams do away with the bias of the marker doing the grading. ‘Soft’ entry essays will let the marker pick the people who sound most like themselves, those who write agreeable things. This will perpetuate the academia we have currently, currently one full of BLM, global warming, feelz instead of science and equal outcomes instead of equal opportunity.

    A more pressing problem would be how to return America to the top 25% of the world’s PISA scores in maths, science and reading. Your 15yr-olds are not as educated as most of the West, and maybe your academics still hold onto the myth that America is the greatest in the world and need not worry about what happens beyond its borders.

  2. cthulhu

    Simple…Congress passes and Biden-Harris signs a law granting every non-white and non-Asian above the age of 21 a degree from Harvard. Then, there’s no need for affirmative action to get non-white and non-Asian people into Harvard – they already have a guaranteed degree! – so the Harvard admissions department can just split it down the middle – half white, half Asian. Everyone wins! Jeez, you made this sound so hard!

  3. Bryan Burroughs

    The solution isn’t to try to narrow the gap at the end of the race of K-12 as kids enter college. It’s to eliminate the gap that forms from K through 12 as it forms. That is a much harder proposition, and it make us have to address some uncomfortable truths. It’s much easier to just fiddle with the numbers at the end than to figure out why the numbers don’t come out like you want.


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