Saturday, March 5, 2016

Who Gets in to America's Most Selective Universities? By David Durairaj

My Rice interview was coming to a close when the Interviewer mentioned something about when I would hear back from their office of admissions. She stated that no regular decision applicants would hear back from Rice till first week of April. Then she looked at me, and proceeded to state that I “might hear back earlier as a minority student”. I simply smiled, thanked her for the interview, and left. Her ending statement was interesting; not because it was the first time I had been referred to as a minority student (though it was), or because it implied that my decision would be affected in some way because of my ethnicity. It was interesting because I realized, to a fuller extent, that selectivity based on factors other than academics was not only practiced by a majority of private schools, but was also, to a certain degree, widely accepted.

We all know that most private universities and many public institutions use multiple factors when considering an applicant for admission. But what does a “holistic review” really entail? The most competitive private universities (and liberal arts colleges in general) tailor their admissions program to include the “fit” of the student into their college, while trying to maintain diversity. The following graph represents data collected by Rachel B. Rubin, doctoral student in education at Harvard University, as she examines the admissions process of America’s most selective institutions:  

Most Important Variables in Determining Institutional Fit (for Those Who Start With Focus on Fit):

% Viewing as Most Important
Underrepresented race/ethnicity
Exceptional talent
Recruited athlete status
Likelihood of enrolling
Fund-raising potential

"When an applicant has an exceptional talent (e.g. music, athletics) or is part of a severely underrepresented group at the institution, the applicant may not compete for admission against the larger applicant pool. Instead, he/she may compete only among those with the same talent or within the same group. In these circumstances, sets of applications are considered separately based on a university’s institutional needs. As a result, disparities may arise between the levels of academic merit of certain subgroups of students." 

In 2003, Supreme Court Justice Sandra O’Conner stated "To be narrowly tailored, a race-conscious admissions program cannot use a quota system – it cannot 'insulat[e] each category of applicants with certain desired qualifications from competition with all other applicants.' Bakke, supra, at 315 (opinion of Powell, J.). Instead, a university may consider race or ethnicity only as a 'plus in a particular applicant's file,' without 'insulat[ing] the individual from comparison with all other candidates for the available seats.' Id., at 317.” While it may appear that many competitive universities are in direct violation of this ruling, the real question becomes whether there is any benefit in allowing underrepresented ethnic groups, first-generation college students, and economically disadvantaged students to compete at a different level than other applicants.

There is no definite answer to this question, especially when it comes to the highly selective private universities. Some would argue that socio-economic status and race are important factors in maintaining an elite standing as a college, as well as giving under-privileged (not undeserving) students an opportunity to receive a top-tier education. Proponents would also point to the current education system in the U.S. as insufficient in giving these kinds of students an opportunity to rise above their circumstances and succeed in a ranked school. Opponents, however, argue that taking any factors other than academics into consideration is both biased and unfair to all students. Is it right for private universities to favor students who can pay the full tuition, then use their finances to pay for a less fortunate candidate? What happens to the “average” student who can pay a little of the tuition, has a good academic record, but does not get picked to compete in a specific interest group (such as race, talent, diversity etc.)? What about students who have an exceptional application but are considered as “undesired” because of race, faith, or finances?

As it turns out, every selective university has a different method of selecting candidates. This means that there will be major disparities between universities. And it goes without saying that whatever your opinion is, it doesn’t look like much will change for the next decade. However, with everything said and done, I think the time is coming when paying extravagant prices for a top-tier/ivy-league school (or any private school for that matter) will be both less desirable and nonessential to having a successful career. With online learning and advances in technology, the playing field is becoming more leveled for those who wish to pursue higher education, and taking a $100 grand student loan to finance a bachelors degree (or any degree for that matter) won't be necessary.

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