Tradeoffs

The use of test scores to support the claim that an admissions decision is unfair is, in a sense, a distraction from the actual source of contention in such arguments. Test scores have served as an irresistible shorthand for the elusive ''merit" that makes a student desirable to colleges. But what colleges desire in the groups of students they enroll each year is, of course, far more complex than one number, or several, could express. Reliance on this shorthand has distorted the discussion in several ways. For one, as we have noted, the seemingly precise character of test scores has made it easy for many people to think of them as conveying rights of access—to believe that a higher scoring student is automatically more deserving of admission than is a lower scoring one. For another, the equating of scores with merit has helped to obscure the complex reasons that colleges have tried by a variety of means—fair and foul—to ensure that they enroll racially and ethnically diverse student populations.

The access of African Americans to higher education in the United States has been extraordinarily limited until very recent times for well-known historical reasons. The Shape of the River opens with a statistical portrait of the "predicament" African Americans have faced, noting, for example, that the percentage of that group graduating from college rose from 1.6 percent in 1940 to 5.4 percent in 1960 (Bowen and Bok, 1998:2). The book goes on to describe the growth of race-conscious measures and government efforts to encourage colleges to go beyond simply allowing African Americans to enroll and affirmatively seek to increase minority enrollment. But as this book and many other observers of the situation have been at pains to make clear, colleges seek diverse populations not simply to make amends for past discrimination, but in an effort to achieve specific, important benefits, which include:

  • ethnically and racially diverse student populations foster intellectually stimulating exchanges of ideas and perspectives.
  • the experience of studying and learning in a diverse environment prepares all students to function in a diverse society.
  • employers desire graduates who have learned to cooperate and collaborate with others.
  • society benefits in both specific and general ways from a diverse supply of educated graduates who can populate the professions, play a role in civic life, serve as role models, and the like.


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Tradeoffs The use of test scores to support the claim that an admissions decision is unfair is, in a sense, a distraction from the actual source of contention in such arguments. Test scores have served as an irresistible shorthand for the elusive ''merit" that makes a student desirable to colleges. But what colleges desire in the groups of students they enroll each year is, of course, far more complex than one number, or several, could express. Reliance on this shorthand has distorted the discussion in several ways. For one, as we have noted, the seemingly precise character of test scores has made it easy for many people to think of them as conveying rights of access—to believe that a higher scoring student is automatically more deserving of admission than is a lower scoring one. For another, the equating of scores with merit has helped to obscure the complex reasons that colleges have tried by a variety of means—fair and foul—to ensure that they enroll racially and ethnically diverse student populations. The access of African Americans to higher education in the United States has been extraordinarily limited until very recent times for well-known historical reasons. The Shape of the River opens with a statistical portrait of the "predicament" African Americans have faced, noting, for example, that the percentage of that group graduating from college rose from 1.6 percent in 1940 to 5.4 percent in 1960 (Bowen and Bok, 1998:2). The book goes on to describe the growth of race-conscious measures and government efforts to encourage colleges to go beyond simply allowing African Americans to enroll and affirmatively seek to increase minority enrollment. But as this book and many other observers of the situation have been at pains to make clear, colleges seek diverse populations not simply to make amends for past discrimination, but in an effort to achieve specific, important benefits, which include: ethnically and racially diverse student populations foster intellectually stimulating exchanges of ideas and perspectives. the experience of studying and learning in a diverse environment prepares all students to function in a diverse society. employers desire graduates who have learned to cooperate and collaborate with others. society benefits in both specific and general ways from a diverse supply of educated graduates who can populate the professions, play a role in civic life, serve as role models, and the like.

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These benefits fit closely with other common educational goals, such as developing in students high academic achievement, the capacity to continue learning outside of school, and the ambition to contribute to society. The controversies about tests have grown out of the need to translate such institutional goals into practical and fair means of selecting students. Many people are uncomfortable with the notion of taking race explicitly into account in admissions decisions, and many fear that doing so violates constitutional principles. Unfortunately, as Tom Kane discussed in his presentation at the workshop (based on Kane, 1998), it is very difficult to achieve educational goals that depend on racial and ethnic diversity without taking race explicitly into account in admissions. Ideally, a process that is race blind but yields racial diversity as an outcome would solve the problem. No such process is currently available, so there is a need for compromise between two compelling values. Because the most selective institutions place heavy emphasis on test scores and high school grades and because minorities are underrepresented among those who do well on both of these measures, Kane argues, race-blind admissions policies at selective institutions would likely yield significantly lower rates of admission for those groups, and this is precisely what has happened at institutions that have been prohibited from considering race.1 Some have suggested that using demographic factors that frequently correlate with minority status, such as family income or wealth, could be a means of achieving the desired diversity without the need to consider applicants' races. However, although African Americans and Hispanics are more likely than other groups to come from low-income families, they are still a minority of the low-income population, and they are an even smaller minority of the population of the highest scoring students. "If a selective college with an applicant pool of students with test scores in the top ten percent granted a preference to students with family incomes below $20,000, only one out of six would be black or Hispanic" (Kane, 1998:450). Kane concludes that there is an inescapable tradeoff between race blindness and racial diversity. Similar tradeoffs are evident throughout the system. For example, there are unavoidable tradeoffs be- 1   At the University of California at Berkeley, for example, the number of minorities admitted for the 1998–1999 school year declined by almost 55 percent over the previous year's number (Wagner, 1998). Institutions affected by changed rules have worked hard to increase their minority enrollments through a variety of other means, the long-term effects of the changes and the institutions' responses are not yet clear.

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tween the efficiency needed in reviewing large numbers of applications and the sensitivity to detail that the consideration of qualitative criteria requires. Composing any freshman class entails tradeoffs between the wishes of all constituencies: academic departments, development offices, alumni, athletic departments, etc. Indeed, every decision to select one student over others entails a tradeoff between the particular assets each individual might bring. No ready solution to these dilemmas is apparent—there is currently no efficient tool for predicting the kinds of college success that are not directly measurable by grade point averages: campus leadership, persistence, intellectual curiosity, and the like. Without such a substitute, it is unclear what effects a wholesale deemphasizing of standardized admissions tests might have. The current admissions system is delicately balanced and, despite lawsuits and other signs of dissatisfaction, is arguably operating fairly well. The opportunity to attend a U.S. college is sought after by students from all over the world, and in an international context American higher education is viewed as a model of openness and accessibility. If wholesale tradeoffs—between using tests heavily and not using them at all, for example—are not realistic, a focus on more particular ones could be useful. There are two kinds of errors that can occur in the college selection process: the selection of students who don't succeed and the failure to select students who would have succeeded. Because of the gap between majority and minority students' test scores, a greater proportion of minorities are rejected despite their capacity to succeed. It is possible to imagine modifications to the selection process that could result in reduction of this particular kind of error—rejection of able minority candidates—without undue disruption of the rate of correct decisions. In other words, any possible means of sorting high school students for college admissions will be imperfect—and yield error. It is institutions and their admissions staffs who make the errors—and have the responsibility to understand and minimize them. Another way to think about the tradeoffs in the admissions process is to consider the range of specific targets that institutions might develop as they seek tools with which to meet broader institutional goals. Possible criteria include:

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support for institutional goals: a process that yields a student body able and willing to pursue academic and other goals defined by the institution; success for students and institutions: a process that yields high graduation rates, freshman grades, and life success (income) or fewer students who require remedial coursework, and attracts students likely to be admitted and succeed; fair representation: a process that yields a pool of candidates that is representative of the high school graduating class for the state or the nation; positive effects on secondary schools: a process that sends a clear signal about the kind of performance that is valued in college and aligns well with efforts to reform secondary education; and feasibility: a process that is easy to administer and manage, inexpensive to students and institutions, and accessible to students in all high schools. In sum, the need to sort large numbers of students into a range of slots, the most desirable of which are limited, entails necessary tradeoffs between efficiency and accuracy, efficiency and responsiveness, and institutional mission and individual expectations. Consideration of the multiple tradeoffs inherent in the task of sorting students for college leads the steering committee to conclude that the hope for a magic solution to current controversies and confusion is futile. These tradeoffs can be resolved only by human judgment, applied to particular circumstances. The committee hopes, however, that as institutions assess their goals and practices, they will move, individually and collectively, toward a system less fraught with mystery and injustice, both real and perceived. Clear understanding of the tradeoffs that go with both existing practices and any possible modifications to them will be the best guide to improving the admissions process for higher education in the United States.