How Unfair is the College Admission Process?September 24th, 2007 · 6 comments
There’s an interesting op-ed in the New York Times today:
Professor Jerome Karabel argues that selective college admissions is far from meritocratic. Indeed, he notes:
Just how skewed the system is toward the already advantaged is illustrated by the findings of a recent study of 146 selective colleges and universities, which concluded that students from the top quartile of the socioeconomic hierarchy (based on parental income, education and occupation) are 25 times more likely to attend a “top tier” college than students from the bottom quartile. [emphasis mine]
Why does this happen? Karabel notes that the SATs play a big role. The current definition of “merit” in the admissions process draws heavily on SAT scores, and these scores tend to correlate strongly with socioeconomic status:
Of all students nationwide who score more than 1300 on the SAT, two-thirds come from the top socioeconomic quartile and just 3 percent from the bottom quartile.
The situation is distressing. As Karabel notes:
Only a vigorous policy of class-based affirmative action that accounts for the huge class differences in educational opportunity has a chance of altering this pattern.
This sounds right. But it’s not very encouraging. What are the chances that our current congress will be engaging in “vigorous” social policy any time soon?
The Relative “Fairness” of College Admissions
College admissions is something I’ve thought a lot about. It’s a difficult issue. I think too often people are quick to either fully embrace or dismiss entirely the process. My current thoughts tend more toward additional distinction.
For example, it’s easy to claim that college admission unfairly rewards the rich because they can afford SAT prep and fancy college counselors. Maybe. My exposure to admission offices, however, seems to emphasize that SAT prep doesn’t do any more good than just taking a few timed sample tests on your own (which is free), and the efforts of college counselors are easily sniffed out on most applications (and tend to annoy admission officers).
In other words, college admissions may turn out to be more fair than we think when it comes to choosing between students from the middle class and those from the upper class. On the other hand, as revealed in today’s op-ed, the process may also turn out to be more unfair than we think when it comes to choosing between the lower class and those above.
Maybe the key is not to confuse the two? Another subtlety in a complicated issue…