28 Apr 2020 21:35 IST

US college admissions continue to become more subjective

Unconventional inputs, including a student’s background, matter more than a student’s output

As 12th graders in America and around the world inch toward the official deadline of May 1 to accept or refuse college admissions offers (many institutions have relaxed the deadline to June 1 because of Covid-19) this season, top colleges have continued to make admission decisions more holistic and less on academic merit alone.

While most colleges around the world accept students based on grades (or class rank) and scores on a standardised test, top American colleges are unique in the way they select their future students. Grades, admissions test scores (SAT/ACT), the strength of curriculum (performance on Advanced Placement exams, for example), and recommendation letters are all carefully evaluated. An important part of an application is often made up of a record of a student’s interests, extracurricular activities, community service, work experience, and leadership abilities — all humanised in college essays.

But as American colleges and universities move to equalise opportunities for a hugely diverse society, all of the above merit factors begin to pale in comparison to the one metric that is so hard to measure: a student’s background. This extremely large catch-all umbrella includes various measures that a student can’t control, such as gender or race, and the so-called adversity score, which measures such intangibles as family structure, housing, educational attainment of the community, and the likelihood of being a victim of a crime.

The theory is that students who overcome enormous disadvantages and still do reasonably well in high school deserve a shot at admission to the best colleges over those students who are more privileged and may even have a better student profile overall, in part because of the privilege. Studies have shown that regardless of what a student’s background during high school was, graduates from an elite institution such as Harvard or MIT all do equally well, get the best positions in business and industry, and continue on to lead productive careers.

Impressive achievements against all odds

An extreme example of such a student is Craig McFarland, a 17-year old from Jacksonville, Florida who was ranked #1 in high school. The American class ranking system is among the world’s most competitive because the evaluation period is over four years of high school and on a cumulative weighted average grade point basis. Public high school graduating classes are large, sometimes nearing 1,000 students. McFarland was at, or near, the top of his class in his 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th grades, an extremely impressive achievement. He also has a strong interest in languages (French, Spanish, and Arabic). News reports did not specify anything spectacular about his extracurricular activities but did provide clues about his background.

McFarland belongs to a family run by a single mother who immigrated from the Philippines. Sharing his home with two siblings, he is described as ‘independent’, which probably means that he had to do lots of chores at home. Speaking to the New York Times about his mother, he said, “I’m very much self-motivated and driven. I never wanted to add any additional stress to her life as she’s already had to sacrifice so much, so I learned to be really independent at a young age.” The word sacrifice implies that his mother struggled to support the family financially. That he overcame these domestic difficulties and became a valedictorian was surely a compelling story that moved college admissions officials.

McFarland secured admission to all 17 colleges that he applied to, including Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Dartmouth, Cornell, Princeton, Brown, the University of Pennsylvania, Stanford, Duke, Emory, Florida State, and Georgia Tech. He belongs to an extremely elite club of students each admissions season — those who perform the so-called “Ivy League Sweep” of getting into all eight Ivy League schools.

While McFarland’s accomplishments are mind-boggling, there are many other students with even better core academic profiles than his. There are 24,000 high schools in America and each of them has a valedictorian, the student ranked #1. Besides, the salutatorian, the student ranked #2 also deserves nearly the same recognition because, over four years, these two students would have often traded places with each other. This makes the group of over-achievers a total of 48,000 students. There are also 15,000 National Merit Finalists (NMF) — admittedly some who include the class valedictorian and the salutatorian — who are chosen based on the highest scores achieved on the PSAT-11 test and intense additional scrutiny, such as essays, school recommendations, and overall academic merit.

Ivy League schools’ criteria

Many of these 60,000+ students never made it to even one of their choice Ivy League schools this year because the combined intake of all eight Ivy League schools is about 16,000 students. Besides, nearly 25 per cent of all admits are international students, so the effective number of seats available to American students is only about 11,000. And we know from student testimonials that those with far “inferior” performance records than class valedictorians and salutatorians, some ranked in the top 25 per cent of a high school, still receive admissions offers from these elite colleges.

So what is happening here?

Getting into elite American colleges is becoming extremely difficult. High-school students have to start carefully strategising about their roadmap to an elite school four to five years before they submit their college applications. They have to be the best in school and extracurricular activities. They have to demonstrate character by being on the school’s athletic or debate teams. Or representing their school in band, orchestra, or drama.

They should show leadership by being elected to a position of importance in student government, or be selected ambassador, or work on the school’s newspaper or yearbook team. They also should demonstrate a passion for a skill or talent, such as playing the violin or creating art. And they must engage in community services, such as serving the needy or the elderly. Most students from privileged families strive to build impressive overall profiles, shunted from activity to activity by caring parents.

And there’s a raw, brutal competition for these prized seats. Consider Asian-American students, some of the most high-performing teenagers striving hard to get into elite institutions. According to the Census Bureau, the Asian-American population went up from 10.4 million in 2000 to 18.9 million in 2017, an 80 per cent increase in a generation. And the number of international students has skyrocketed. At Rice, UC Berkeley, and UCLA, the percentage of foreign students increased four-fold in just ten years, from 2004 to 2014. Brown and Columbia doubled their foreign students during this period.

Heavy demand, limited supply

But during the last 25 years, the number of elite college admission seats has remained the same. So, at a macro-economic level, this is a classic supply and demand imbalance problem, tilting heavily to the demand side, while the supply stays the same.

America has also become more diverse in the last 25 years. With the advent of the internet and social media, Americans of all stripes and colours want to have a fair shot at their pipe dreams. Income inequality is a real issue and the elite colleges are trying hard to address decades of systemic injustices to look differently at students and evaluate merit differently.

For students who face adversity at home — and who belong to under-represented minority populations — colleges generally exempt them from having to build their extracurricular profiles in the manner described above. For these students, taking care of a sibling and doing chores around the home when a single parent goes to work are considered far more relevant than perfecting skills on the violin. Even work experience — of earning a paycheck at a McDonald’s to support the family income — is weighted significantly higher than many of the traditional extracurricular activities pursued by “privileged” white or Asian-American children.

New definition of ‘promise’

Up until ten years ago, America’s elite colleges largely considered only the accomplishments of an applicant without paying much attention to the inputs — the adversity factors. In that sense, American colleges were more like a modern American corporation which even today doesn’t give bonus points to candidates who come from adverse backgrounds. Or American institutions were more like a professional sports league. Imagine if the qualifications to get ranked as a Top-100 tennis player had an “adversity background” component to it in addition to matches won or lost. Such an idea would have been immediately dismissed.

But in today’s America, inputs — and the circumstances of a student’s background — matter more than a student’s output. The holistic evaluation of a student to determine “promise”, often extremely subjective and dependent upon the emotions and impulses of a college admissions official, are now a critical factor in college admissions. Students who belong to non-traditional family backgrounds and do well in high school seem to have an edge in the process. In a zero-sum world, this means that students from traditional families with stellar profiles are more likely to be sidelined.

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