Last week brought quite a bit of attention to the world of college admission because Dean Fitzsimmons at Harvard was testifying about the university’s recruitment and selection processes in a case that alleges discrimination against Asian applicants. As an insider in the world of college admission, I have been amused by the shock and outrage that so many have demonstrated related to the many “tips” discussed. People seem to be shocked that talents, money and specific attributes drive decision-making.
I suppose this has something to do with colleges not being clear enough in debunking the idea that college admission is a meritocracy. Honestly, selective—and even modestly selective–college admission hasn’t been a traditional meritocracy for a very long time.
Let me get this off the table, though, systematic discrimination is awful and has no place in college admission. I think this is something about which we can all agree, right?
But, let’s circle back to the whole idea of college admissions being a meritocracy. It’s not and I hope we never go back to a pure meritocracy, because it will be a giant step backwards for American higher education.
There are countless reasons college admission is not a traditional meritocracy, but I think institutional mission is one of the most important drivers.
Colleges across this great country make deliberate decisions about the majors they will offer, the programs they will sponsor, the financial aid they will offer and, of course the types of students they wish to serve in fulfilling their mission.
Mission drives strategic action for many colleges in regard to where and who they will recruit and ultimately who they will admit.
College admissions officers make decision to advance the college’s mission and are constantly thinking about the mix of each class. In the case of my institution I am constantly thinking about the following:
• Are we recruiting in the right places?
• Will the gender mix be right on campus?
• Will the ethnic mix be right?
• Will we be serving the right proportion of first-generation students?
• Will we be serving the right proportion of students of color?
• Are we attracting and admitting students who may student programs in the humanities?
• Are we attracting, admitting and enrolling the right students to make our athletic teams competitive and music ensembles awesome?
• Are we admitting and enrolling a sufficient number of students who can pay a large proportion of the cost to attend the college?
• Are our processes fair?
* Can this student be successful here?
* Will this student love it here?
* Will this student make a meaningful contribution to our community?
* Will this student value what we do here?
Believe it or not, each of these questions, and many more, reflect elements of our mission and our genuine interest in serving an interesting, creative, high-achieving, diverse student body.
The fact that a college makes choices about crafting a class has much to do with mission, not with nefarious, punitive decision-making with the intent to discriminate or harm. They are making choices that they feel are appropriate in fulfilling their mission.
While I realize that this may seem incredibly unfair to some—perhaps to many–it’s only unfair if you all you can focus on are a small set of institutions that are uber-selective and an offer of admission is perceived to be some prize.
Believe me, there are plenty of amazing colleges that get amazing results. These same colleges most likely have, as part of their mission and strategic actions, the objective of enrolling the students across the country who feel aggrieved because their spot “was taken” by a student-athlete, an underrepresented student, a legacy, a musician, a dancer, a kid from Iowa, a first-generation students, or someone with lower test scores.
I am reminded of a comment Larry Bacow (now president of Harvard) made when I attend the Institute of Education Management (IEM) at Harvard in the early-2000’s. During a discussion about college value propositions, Dr. Bacow said something along the lines of “the true test of a college’s value proposition is exactly how many students would enroll if your institution offered no financial aid.” He posited that many colleges would still fill, but they would be less interesting and healthy places with much less diversity and achievement of strategic, purposeful, educational objectives. In short, they would struggle to fulfill mission.
I agree. And, while cost to attend may not be the same as a merit-exclusive admission, what we know about what represents merit (test scores, high school achievement, letters or recommendation, deep co-curricular involvement in things like pre-college programming) might as well be.
Colleges should be places that strive for a heterogeneous student body and crafting a class leads to that.
What do you think?