Remember college admissions? Remember how stressful that was?

We passed through that cruel gauntlet, but our brothers and sisters still have to go through it. I want to start talking about how destructive some of the components of the process are.

One famous example – the SAT’s are weighed towards class and race.
Another – Legacy admissions: affirmative action for rich people.

There’s a big op-ed in the Boston Globe today talking about this sort of stuff:

NOW IS the winter of high school seniors’ discontent. But then every winter is one of discontent as seniors file their college applications with a mix of dread and hope – mainly dread. Those applying to the most selective schools have the odds stacked against them no matter how sterling their high school records, though college admissions officers typically offer the cold comfort that rejection is not equivalent to failure and that, as one Yale admissions officer put it, “It matters far less which strong college admits you than it matters what you do with your opportunities once you are there.’’ To which most high school seniors would say, “Hogwash.’’

They know that it does matter where you go to college, if not educationally then in terms of social recognition and opportunity. They know that America, for all its professions of meritocracy, is a virtual oligarchy where the graduates of the Ivies and the other best schools enjoy tremendous advantages in the job market. They know that Harvard or Stanford or MIT is a label in our “designer education’’ not unlike Chanel or Prada in clothes.

So here is another, more realistic comfort to those anxious seniors who will soon be flagellating themselves as unworthy: The admissions system of the so-called “best’’ schools is rigged against you. If you are a middle-class youth or minority from poor circumstances, you have little chance of getting in to one of those schools. Indeed, the system exists not to provide social mobility but to prevent it and to perpetuate the prevailing social order.

Why is college admissions messed up? The op-ed provides these arguments:

  • “the so-called “best’’ schools give heavy preferences to the wealthy; as many as one-third of admissions, he writes, are flagged for special treatment at the elite universities, one-half at the elite liberal arts colleges, and the number of open spaces for the non-privileged is reduced accordingly. “
  • Affirmative action for the rich comes in through three vectors:
  • Legacy admissions
  • Athletes, who are “primarily wealthy white kids who are adept at lacrosse, rugby, crew and polo.”
  • Admissions slots for kids with parents who pledged to donate to the school
  • Early admissions is great for the rich, because they don’t have to worry about being saddled with inadequate financial aid if they do get in. Thus, they are more likely to apply early, and applying early increases your chances of getting in.
  • “A well-rounded student body” means lots of people who are exceptional at different things. Yet, become a great musician, for example, implies a lot of money sunk into lessons, instruments, etc.”
  • The full quote: Then there is the “well-rounded student body’’ argument, which any parent accompanying his child on the college tour rounds has heard ad nauseam. According to this approach, colleges are not looking for the well-rounded individual student. They are aiming instead for a diverse student body: an exceptional athlete, an exceptional musician, an exceptional scientist, an exceptional poet. Except that exceptionality, as most parents can attest, doesn’t come cheap. Athletes require coaching and often traveling teams; musicians require lessons and instruments; scientists require labs and internships; poets require classes and opportunities for publication. None of these things is readily available to the average middle-class family, to say nothing of the high school student who must work at McDonald’s to earn spending money (even though colleges say they take this into account).
  • “Racial Diversity” usually means admitting African students instead of “African Americans” (instead of a good amount of both, you get a lot of one group disguised as another)
  • “Need Blind” admissions aren’t as great as you might think:
  • “Any admissions officer, she said, could tell from your zip code whether you were likely to need aid or not, and students needing aid were much less desirable than those who didn’t need it.”
  • The SAT reflects class biases: “SAT scores correlate highly to family income – an average of 12 point increments for every $20,000 of income, which this year amounted to a 130 difference on critical reasoning, 80 points on math and 70 on writing between the lowest income and highest income groups.”

I’m going to call Brandeis tomorrow and ask what percentage of their admissions is set aside for legacy admissions. My goal: getting it down to 0%. Beyond that, I’d love for someone from Brandeis to reassure us on how they’re aware of these problems, and the extent that Brandeis is working to ameliorate this rigged system.

13 comments on “The College Admissions Scam”

  1. Alex N. Says:

    Something tells me at this point Brandeis is doing very little to make sure that less rich kids get in.

  2. Andrea Says:

    I think doing away with the legacy admissions “policy” at Brandeis is a great idea. I can see how some universities could make a case for keeping such a “tradition,” but a “progressive,” “modern” place like Brandeis that, due to its relative youth, isn’t tied to traditions (as much as Brandeisians sometimes wish/act like we were) is in a unique position to point out that such a policy is, at least a little bit, unfair.

  3. Phil Says:

    Just another thing to reinforce my socialist ideals…

  4. Dani B. Says:

    I love how you make definitive statements such as “the SAT’s are weighed towards class and race” as if this is a clear fact with no room for challenge and offer no source to back up such a claim.

    There are certainly studies that suggest this but they are far from conclusive and account for all variables. Remember correlation and causation are two different things.

  5. staffmember Says:

    1. In 20-30 years, you may have kids and they may want to go to Brandeis. Do you think that your efforts on behalf of the school should influence their admission?

    2. Foreigners don’t count as minorities in any meaningful way — to the extent that we apply for grants and the federal government wants to track minority recruiting, only US citizens and permanent residents count. A diverse student body is generally a good thing (assuming other variables held constant), but diversity of foreigners doesn’t help us raise money.

    3. A sane admissions officer doesn’t keep or give out information on the details of legacy admissions / admission of kids of people with clout. If you do, bad things result (see http://thechoice.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/07/illinois-2/)

    4. Wealthy donors, many of whom are alumni, fund much of the operation of the university. Are you ready to slash the budget of the university by 5, 10, 20 percent to achieve your goal of admissions equity? Are you willing to sell the art to achieve this? What else are you willing to forego?

    5. It’s obvious that money spent on educational enrichment (music lessons, individual coaching for sports, etc.) can (but does not always) improve performance, but it still requires effort on the part of the student. I live in a high-rent zipcode, my kids go to the public schools — not every rich kid is an overachiever.

    6. It’s easy to complain about inequities. Seriously, *how* would you replace the current system?

  6. Sahar Says:

    Staffmember, thanks for replying.

    As to your points:

    1. In 20-30 years, you may have kids and they may want to go to Brandeis. Do you think that your efforts on behalf of the school should influence their admission?

    If my kids wouldn’t get in to Brandeis on their own, I don’t want them going here. There are so many good colleges out there, I don’t *need* them to go here.

    Furthermore, how shallow would I be if I answered differently? Legacy admissions are wrong. They make a mockery of the meritocratic ideal. It wasn’t cool to discriminate against me because my parents didn’t (and couldn’t! They’re from Iran) go to Brandeis, and it still won’t be cool to discriminate against someone else’s kids because I did.

    2. Foreigners don’t count as minorities in any meaningful way — to the extent that we apply for grants and the federal government wants to track minority recruiting, only US citizens and permanent residents count. A diverse student body is generally a good thing (assuming other variables held constant), but diversity of foreigners doesn’t help us raise money.

    Sorry, I don’t quite understand what you’re getting at.

    3. A sane admissions officer doesn’t keep or give out information on the details of legacy admissions / admission of kids of people with clout. If you do, bad things result (see http://thechoice.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/07/illinois-2/)

    Again, I think I misunderstand you. The problem in that story was that the University of Illinois was acting horribly, not that they were caught. You seem to imply that similar things are happening at Brandeis.

    Your line of argument as I understand it seems to be the same as Yahoo’s infamous defense: If the government responded to a FOIA request revealing their shameful practices, then they would be publically ridiculed and might lose customers.

    The shame lies in politically motivated or legacy admissions, not in the revelations of said acts.

    4. Wealthy donors, many of whom are alumni, fund much of the operation of the university. Are you ready to slash the budget of the university by 5, 10, 20 percent to achieve your goal of admissions equity? Are you willing to sell the art to achieve this? What else are you willing to forego?

    The university hasn’t released the statistics on exactly how much different wealthy people are giving to the university, and what they’re getting in exchange. Until that happens, how can we make that sort of decision? We only have the implication of an anonymous person on the internet that it’s a bad tradeoff.

    So, sorry, until the data is in, I don’t have enough information to agree with that critique.

    That said, you’re right that we do face a tradeoff.

    It’s obvious that money spent on educational enrichment (music lessons, individual coaching for sports, etc.) can (but does not always) improve performance, but it still requires effort on the part of the student. I live in a high-rent zipcode, my kids go to the public schools — not every rich kid is an overachiever.

    We agree! It’s not that Universities are mendacious financial vampire squid; Brandeis sincerely wants to help people! However, being rich (almost by definition) opens doors, gives you opportunities, and gives you access to ways to invest to make your life better. We should be vigilant, is all.

    6. It’s easy to complain about inequities. Seriously, *how* would you replace the current system?

    There are clear, easy, measurable steps that Brandeis as an instituation could unilaterally take to become a leader in just admissions.

    – Impressively, Brandeis already has some infrastructure in place to deal with these problems. TYP and POSSE being the most prominent. Instead of cutting these programs, we should expand them!

    – There are other vectors for dealing with this problem. Like I mentioned previously, rolling back legacy and athletic are great, common-sense places to start.

    We can weigh the SAT less heavily and/or make it optional.

    – Either abolish early admissions (in favor of early action), or make it easy for accepted students to reject the offer for admissions on grounds of insufficient financial aid.

    Now, pursuing these policies alone won’t make Brandeis a leader – there are notable other schools doing so as well. However, pursuing all or most of these approaches will indeed show the world that Brandeis knows how it’s done.

    ===
    This article has some good ideas. This article examines historical evidence on how relying on exam scores in general is not the only way to go.

    More on why the SAT system has serious flaws.

    ===

    Lastly, I know tone is hard to judge over the internet, so I’d like to thank you for speaking up, express joy at the cut and thrust of policy debate, and eagerness to engage and discuss this issue.

  7. Alan Royals Says:

    Sahar-

    We agree for once.

    your argument to point 1 is very convincing. Applicants should be judges blind of finances, parental contributions, race, religion, etc.

  8. staffmember Says:

    Personally, I agree with you on the benefits of admission based on merit. I’m just trying to point out the costs and hurdles.

    my point (2) was in reply to the statement in the post that said:

    ““Racial Diversity” usually means admitting African students instead of “African Americans” (instead of a good amount of both, you get a lot of one group disguised as another)”

    In my experience that is not true at all, for the reason I gave in point 2.

    as to point 3: I think pretty much all universities have some degree of legacy bias and preference for the rich and famous. I have no insider info about Brandeis admissions so I cannot comment on specifics. But where you say:

    “I’m going to call Brandeis tomorrow and ask what percentage of their admissions is set aside for legacy admissions.”

    I think that you will not get a meaningful answer. If you do, more power to you. So yeah, I do think the whole system is shady.

    As far as tone goes – I always sound sarcastic, even when I’m not. I agree with the premise that the system is imperfect, but changing it will be hard.

    What do you replace SATs with? grade point averages? those are very very hard to compare district to district. Do you want a portfolio of work? A Levels? the Baccalauréat? Do you judge solely on interviews and recommendations?

  9. staffmember Says:

    where money comes from:

    http://www.brandeis.edu/budgetandplanning/budgets.html

    the categories are a bit vague, but since “returns from endowment” are indirect fruits of donations, the chunk from donors is at least 20%, perhaps more.

  10. Alan Light '84 Says:

    I honestly don’t think legacy admissions is that big an issue for Brandeis.

    I know the sampling is un-scientific but I’ve been doing alumni admissions interviews for years and I’ve yet to interview an applicant who had an alumnus for a parent.

    I just don’t think that Brandeis has (yet?) that large multi-generational tradition that many other schools have. Case in point: Brandeis was not one of the ten schools to which my own college-bound son applied.

  11. Art Says:

    You know what? I’ll agree with you on the SAT bit. Because the test is not especially prepared for in school, there can be a divider amongst students in terms of preparation, and access to this prep is usually by economic segregation. I had prep opportunities afforded to me some others didn’t. Of course-many others with less/no prep were able to match or beat my score, because I am unintelligent. Still; this was not an equally opportune situation. However, it’s one of those instances where we cannot break down the barrier. A test like the SAT is THE ONLY way for a college to gauge our intellect. The test itself, in terms of material and other elements, may be flawed, but its existence, from a college’s perspective, is more or less a given

  12. Rachel Says:

    Art- the SAT is definitely not “THE ONLY way for a college to gauge our intellect” as applicants. In fact, anyone who refers to the SAT as a gauge of intellect clearly has no idea what the test measures. All that the SAT shows is how well the student knows how to take the SAT- it doesn’t even stand for anything anymore, because College Board knows it doesn’t measure aptitude or ability or anything at all.

    I’ll put this out there to start- I’m financing part of my education by working in the test prep industry. I teach SAT classes, and a major corporation pays me the big bucks to be a part of the system that gives advantages in admissions to those with money. People have paid hundreds and hundreds of dollars for a few hours in a classroom with me and a couple of practice tests. It’s insane, and every liberal/occasionally slightly socialist/hippie bone in my body screams against it, but it’s also the best damn paying job I can get in college, and as IP has discussed, Brandeis is damn expensive.

    Test prep WORKS. And the colleges have no idea which students have had the advantage of test prep. My students have seen score increases as high as 100 points PER SECTION. That’s not something you can place with their intelligence- that’s all about their families’ ability to pay my company hundreds of dollars. Unless students are required to report every form of test prep they do, the SAT is not at all an equitable measure of anything relevant to college admissions. I’d love to see the SAT completely disappear, even if that meant I was out of a job.

  13. staffmember Says:

    Rachel – with WHAT would you replace the SAT?

    I don’t doubt practicing for the SAT helps your score. Practicing under the tutelage of a skilled instructor like yourself may be even better. Don’t you think, however, that ability and willingness to prepare for an exam is as much a predictor of college success as “intellect”? Do you think that high school grades or class rank are any less influenced by economic opportunities or more “equitable” than the SAT? (search for “does the SAT predict college success” in your favorite academic database – there’s a huge literature, you can find examples to cite either way. On balance from the ones I read, I am inclined to accept that SAT scores plus high school GPA is a better predictor of success than GPA alone)

    I have been involved in grad school admissions before I came to Brandeis. It’s very useful to have GRE scores to refer to, especially for applicants from colleges with lesser name recognition (I know how to gauge the meaning of an “A” or a “B” from MIT; I don’t know what it means at Montana State). One could perhaps argue in that example that the standardized tests promote wider educational opportunities.