What Do Colleges Really Do?
U.S. colleges and universities could hardly be less uniform. There are state universities with tens of thousands of students and liberal arts colleges with fewer than a thousand. There are institutions that place particular emphasis on excellence in science and technology, the arts, study of the classics, preparation for particular occupations, or other endeavors. Some admit only women; others have traditionally served African Americans. Some are revered around the world; others are barely known outside their home states. They vary also in their sources of financial support, their resources, their needs, and their problems. Not surprisingly, their admissions procedures reflect these differences, as each institution attempts to identify and admit the group of students that will best enable it to fulfill its mission.
It is important to note at the outset of this discussion that although a variety of information about what admissions officers do is available, there is clearly a limit to what can be known, in a scientific sense, about the process and the range of practices. Ultimately, a variety of individuals are asked to make decisions on the basis of particular sets of circumstances and available information. Statistics and other formal methods of inquiry can only partly explore a process of this kind.
A fundamental question about the admissions policy at any school is how selective it is, but every institution that can admit fewer students than apply will seek a particular balance in the selected pool. Figure 1 illustrates the varying selectivity of U.S. institutions. Factors that may be weighed as institutions deliberate about admissions decisions include the needs of different academic departments; overall goals for academic quality; a desire for athletes, musicians, campus leaders, and the like; a desire to maintain alumni loyalty, by accepting legacy students, for financial and other reasons; a desire for geographical and gender balance; and a desire for racial and ethnic diversity. Every institution strikes its own balance among these and other factors, and the right of institutions to do so has been explicitly upheld by the Supreme Court in its 1978 ruling in the Bakke case. The court found that institutions can define educational criteria, including racial diversity, that they wish to consider in admissions,
so long as they do not apply different standards to different groups (Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265, 1978).1
To achieve their institutional goals, admissions officers do a great many things, including, but not limited to: using numerical formulas based on grade point averages (GPAs), test scores, and class rankings; interviewing students; reading student essays and recommendations; consulting with faculty and other administrators; recruiting individual students or categories of students; reviewing the performance of students
admitted in previous years; and conducting market research. Institutions that accept most of their applicants face far fewer challenges than highly selective institutions do, but when admissions officers speak and write about what they do in composing classes, they frequently make the point that it is more an art than a science. The process that has evolved is quite messy and complex, and it often puzzles and frustrates those who try to understand it. Although it is likely that almost anyone involved in the process would agree that it ought to be "fair," applying that standard to so complex a process is far less simple than its users might wish.
It is the criteria of the most selective schools that are often the most difficult to fathom, precisely because their popularity makes their selection processes so difficult. The most selective institutions are only a small fraction of U.S. colleges, and the great majority of students are admitted to the institution of their choice. It is important to note, however, that a degree from a highly selective school confers significant benefits. The recent investigation of the effects of affirmative action by William Bowen and Derek Bok, The Shape of the River, for example, documents "a real wage premium associated with enrollment at an academically selective institution," as well as other, more qualitative benefits, and others have found similar results (Bowen and Bok, 1998:128; see also Kane, 1998:440–448).2 Given these benefits, as well as the countless other factors that contribute to institutional reputations, it is no wonder that some institutions attract as many as eight or ten candidates for every available place. Because a majority of the self-selected applicants for these institutions are academically strong, such schools can hardly rely on numerical formulas in composing their freshman classes.
However difficult it may seem for institutions to explain the other criteria they use, many voices are currently arguing that they still bear a responsibility to be candid. A school may prize the highest academic achievement for all its students (and use numerical formulas as the primary indicator of potential for that achievement) and therefore generally admit only students who score above a certain level. However, such an institution is still likely to need to select from a pool that meets that
criterion—that is, it will not be able to accept all the students who meet it. Moreover, most institutions reserve the right to admit students who do not meet that criterion because they want to make room for students with extraordinary artistic talent, or who have overcome a significant adversity, or who can help meet an institutional goal in some other way. A common analogy for what admissions officers, particularly at the most selective schools, must do in constructing a class is to the formation of an orchestra. If the only criterion for selecting the musicians were technical mastery, the orchestra could end up, by chance, with an oversupply of violinists and not a single clarinetist or flutist. Just as an orchestra leader must consider the kinds of music the orchestra plays, the demands of its audiences, and many other factors in selecting musicians, selective colleges must consider more than quantitative measures of academic potential in composing their classes.
Some colleges, of course, confront different admissions problems. Many large state institutions, for example, rely heavily on numerical formulas because it is their policy to accept most or all qualified applicants. The formulas are used to efficiently identify students who meet the qualifications, which generally include such criteria as meeting a minimum GPA in specific courses. Such schools often have complex eligibility requirements for individual departments, required placement tests, and other means of sorting admitted students, and these separate processes have their own implications for fairness. However, the admissions procedures are often quite straightforward, and these institutions rely on formulas not for selection, but to identify among the thousands of applicants they receive those students who meet all of their stated criteria.
Many selective institutions also receive thousands of applications, and admissions officers are quick to point out that the practical issues they face vary a great deal from place to place. For example, a small school such as Hampshire College in Massachusetts has eight admissions officers to review approximately 2,200 applications (for a class of approximately 370) or one officer for every 275 applicants. Because of this low ratio, the admissions officers have time to read all the applications, particularly the essays, carefully; to call the authors of student recommendations with questions; and to do many other things of which many of their counterparts could only dream. (The tuition at Hampshire is also at the high end of the spectrum.) Submitting test scores is optional for Hampshire, and the college's efforts to foster diversity are integrated into its thorough review of the individuals who apply, as well as its recruitment efforts.
An example of another kind of institution is the University of Wisconsin, which has a staff of 13 to process some 17,000 freshman applications (for a class of approximately 5,400) or one officer for every 1,300 applications. The university has sufficient places to automatically admit students with the highest scores and grades without necessarily reviewing their files; it faces few of the troubling choices among apparently equally well-prepared candidates that face more prestigious institutions that attract a high volume of applications from across the country. The university increasingly relies on energetic recruiting and efforts to improve their yield—that is, the rate at which accepted students decide to enroll—as a means of building and maintaining diversity. At the small number of institutions with international reputations, the issues are somewhat different. The popularity and distinguished academic reputations of schools such as Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, for example, mean that students with top test scores and other accomplishments on their records are frequently turned away. For these institutions the problem is one of composing a balanced class from a large pool of outstanding applicants.
It is important to bear in mind, in considering the range of college admission practices, the range of possible goals institutions may be pursuing. For example, academic goals might range from enrolling students who will complete the coursework and graduate to enrolling a high percentage of students who will achieve academic distinction and pursue graduate study. Social goals might include meeting the needs of local employers, fostering a commitment to social service, and populating the professions with minority students. Most institutions have multiple goals. Even top research universities, for example, do not see their purpose as solely to prepare undergraduates for careers in academia, but rather to prepare them for a range of careers, and institutions of all sorts pride themselves on the range of accomplishments achieved by their graduates, as well as on the quality of the undergraduate experience they provide.
Some accounts of approaches to admissions at individual schools are available, but relatively little is known about the range of specific practices and the extent to which they vary. Surveys conducted by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, the College Board, Educational Testing Service, American College Testing, and others have answered some basic questions and provided intriguing aggregate data about test takers, test use, and other practices. A paper prepared by Hunter Breland (1998) for the workshop documents these efforts, including two important findings: the percentage of institutions requiring test
scores has hovered around 90 percent at least since the late 1970s, and private institutions weigh factors such as letters, interviews, essays, or personal qualities significantly more heavily than do public institutions. Breland also shows that public institutions report making exceptions to academic requirements for minorities, students with special talents, and athletes, at a significantly higher rate than do private institutions.
Yet fine-grained information about the range of practices and the extent to which they comport with existing professional standards is elusive. Virtually all institutions provide public announcements of their admissions requirements, which often include general statements about institutional goals. What is less common is a public statement that includes a detailed and nuanced picture of the admissions process. In the absence of specific information about the kinds of criteria that most interest a school and the educational goals that dictate those criteria, students and their advisers frequently rely on other sources—most particularly, published rankings that weigh quantitative factors fairly heavily—in deciding where to apply. These published rankings, and other sources of information about colleges, can mislead students about their prospects.
In the current litigious climate, many institutions are fearful that being too candid about their selection process will only lead to public excoriation and lawsuits, but there are several reasons why such candor would be beneficial. First, the initial step in making a candid statement would be an inventory of the procedures to be described and a frank assessment of how fair they are, how legal they are, how effective they are, and how well they serve the intellectual goals of the institution.
A second benefit of such candor would accrue to potential applicants. Students who know that their test scores are significantly below the average score for entering freshmen at an institution will likely be discouraged from applying. But if students also know that although the institution considers test scores, it also has a particular interest in students who have, for example, demonstrated dedication and talent in the arts, significant academic improvement during the high school years, or a commitment to social service, they could assess their prospects more accurately. Institutions, in turn, would have the opportunity to consider more students with the characteristics they desire. If institutions have articulated their missions clearly, having applications from more such students will enhance their ability to pursue their goals.
Finally, a clear articulation of the institutional goals that drive admissions policies can reveal new perspectives on both what is desirable and
what is possible. Many of the institutions that have been compelled by law to change their practices with regard to race have been resourceful in finding new ways to achieve diversity. Expenditures that may previously have seemed out of the question—providing the resources for individual review of each application, for example—may look more reasonable in light of a reframing of the goals for the process and the restrictions on it.
Our review of these potential benefits has led the steering committee to make three recommendations to institutions:
- Admissions policies and practices should be derived from and clearly linked to an institution's overarching intellectual and other goals.
- The use of test scores in the admissions process should serve those institutional goals.
- The admissions policies themselves, and their relationship to the institution's goals, should be clearly articulated for the public, so that students can make informed decisions about whether to apply.