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March 17, 2019

Fives Steps Toward Fairness in College Admissions

The recent scandal has brought a spotlight on the long-term issues of unfair college admissions,. Once you get past the outright criminality of this incident, there remains the backdoor of unfair practices that are just a step or two less flagrant and unjust. Here are five steps that can reduce the clear biases and gaming that are at the disposal of the wealthy.

None of these are new or surprising. I am writing about them here for two reasons.  First, you might find that I give a different spin to some. Second, adding my voice to this issue is like voting in an election.  It is one more hand raised saying that what is done now for college admissions is unfair and must be fixed.

The first two can be enacted immediately, it is only a matter of the colleges having some moral backbone. I venture these two alone will reduce the bias for the wealthy and connected by three quarters or more:

Eliminate donor advantages. A general precept of charitable donations is that there is not a monetary quid pro quo. Indeed, if there is, the contribution is not tax deductible. In college admissions there is a monetary benefit, because a degree from a prestigious university increases earning power and status. And this monetary value extends beyond the student being ushered in through the back door. It remains for generations due to legacy admissions. Let charitable contributions stop at the same place they do for other institutions, with the prestige of having your name on the building or the endowed chair.

Eliminate legacy admissions.  Legacy admissions are the feedstock for the donor advantage. They are intended to feed these donations. Alumni are the primary source of donations to the university, and are cultivated by the understanding that if you are an alum your children will have a higher chance of being admitted. A higher chance that of course is increased by making donations to the school. The legacy advantage is the same as the donor advantage heightened by having attended the school yourself.

The next three are directly related to the admission process. They already are part of some university admissions policies, although they make the work of the admissions office more difficult.

Eliminate gaming of extracurriculars. No more credit for building houses in Kenya, or for handing out food at homeless shelters. If a high school students wants to do these actives, more power to them. Just don't tell the admissions office, because they won't care.

These activities are the province of the wealthy because they often have a price of admission, either monetary or through connections. They also are not available to those who actually have to work during the summer. The summer before my junior year in high school was spent as a bus boy at the local Sizzler, before my senior at a steel working company making playground equipment. Trips to less developed countries or internships at non-profits were simply not part of the vocabulary.

Get rid of standardized tests. If having a $250 an hour test prep tutor or spending money on test prep summer programs were simply a matter of help in putting in extra time studying, that would be one thing. But these programs, while not going to the point of giving the student the test ahead of time, are one step removed from that because they are run by people who are familiar with the tests, the types of questions, and can give templates for the problems the student will face. The numbers might be different come test day, but the problem will be the same.

You don't get this peek at a Princeton Review course or with a How to Take the SAT book. You get it for $250 an hour with a private tutor.

Some schools already do not require the standardized tests, but don't expect much action on it anytime soon. Life will be harder for an admissions officer if this quick and easy yardstick is gone.

Make admissions ethnicity-blind. A hispanic from a middle class family should not have an advantage over a white kid from a middle class family. An African-American from a poor family should not have an advantage over a white kid from a poor family. An Asian kid should not be at a disadvantage because they are as a group more successful at jumping through the  current college entrance hoops.