How Unfair is the College Admission Process?

There’s an interesting op-ed in the New York Times today:

The New York Times | The New College Try

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…

6 thoughts on “How Unfair is the College Admission Process?”

  1. Students from the lower socioeconomic groups were at a disadvantage LONG before anyone starts talking about college. Middle class kids show up at kindergarten knowing their letters, having been read to for years and ready to read, if not reading already. Poor kids rarely do. They then spend the next 12-13 years trying to catch up while often underfed, living in dangerous neighborhoods under less-than ideal conditions, with few books and little access to the internet or other technology.

    Colleges are making decisions based on criteria that has been shown to correlate with achievement in college, but it isn’t the SAT prep classes that get rich kids ahead; its the head start they had way back when. I think it is unreasonable to expect colleges to even the score so late in the game.

  2. Study Hacks and Rue,

    Karabel is talking about the lower-income “quartile” –25% of the population — which easily encompasses households with two parents working relatively low-wage jobs and living above the poverty level, many of whom would consider themselves lower-middle class. He’s not simply talking about kids raised in ghettos.

    Peter Sacks book Tearing Down the Gates has an excellent chapter profiling a young lower-income woman whose tests scores did not match those of her higher income peers, yet who excelled at college. He offers this case study as an example of the many qualities that students might bring to their work in college that will correlate with achievement, but that aren’t recognized in conventional admissions processes.

    Daniel Golden’s book The Price of Admissions also does a pretty impressive job of analyzing the connections between admissions and the potential that an applicant’s family has to eventually contribute to the endowment. Hacks, you’re assuming that colleges only want the smartest kids, but in these times of complicated funding, they are not only considering raw merit (whatever that means).

    It’s not the job of congress to set admissions policies — it’s the work of every college, and as long as college stand to benefit more from the eventual donations of wealthy admits and their families, there seems little reason for them to change the system.

    Rue: High achieving kids from lower-income families are less likely to attend and to complete college than mediocre middle-class kids. NCES has good data on this. Karabel mentions the weight placed on extra curricular activities in admissions decisions, and the problem with the status quo is that the system does not recognize that the kid who has overcome the adversity that you describe and still does exceptionally well in school has at least the same odds of success as someone with similar test scores whose free time was invested in captaining his high school water polo team.

    Complicated issues, yes?


  3. Pshaw.

    It’s not to do with socio-economic status, it’s to do with what job your parent has. If you happen to be the child of a mechanical engineer and an English professor, you’ve already got two over-qualified personal tutors who understand the importance of reading and learning, people who will cultivate in their child the love of reading and learning.

    That’s why the middle-class, too, is sometimes able to vault up into the college resplendencies of Harvard and Yale. The upper upper class simulate the effect by hiring tutors. The one thing both have in common is that they start education from infancy.

    Ultimately, it’s not the SATs that kill you – it’s that foundational base of learning, the years of reading and learning and learning to love both of those things which get you ahead of everyone else.

    You can get rid of the SATs and still have the people at the lower end of the economic ladder dying in the college admissions process. Like Rue says, it’s too late to do anything by the time the SATs come around. Education literally starts from the cradle.

  4. Jane,

    Interesting points. Thank you, in particular, for pointing to some good book resources on the issue.

    I don’t think, however, that I’m assuming anything about what colleges want (or should want) in students. I’m just reporting on this op-ed which discusses the lack of representation of certain socioeconomic classes in the selective college admissions.

    Similarly, I don’t think Karabel,in the piece, was suggesting that Congress set admissions policies. Her reference to major social policy likely references reducing economic disparities.

    All very interesting…

  5. T,

    Indeed. I think Jerome Karabel would agree. The SATs act as a highly visible symptom of a lifelong issue. I think this is why he suggests that only major national policy changes (focused on economics disparity, not college) have a longterm hope of rectifying the situation.

    This of course is something many people smarter than me have been thinking about for a long time. Nothing’s easy.



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