What Should Colleges Care About?

Readers weigh in on affirmative action and the future of university admissions.

Arches on a college campus
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This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Last week I asked, “If you were in charge of the admissions office at a top-50 college or university, how would you decide which applicants got accepted as undergraduates and which got rejected?”

Jonathan deems character traits to be the most important qualification for college––and argues (contrary to how many conceive of virtue) that the status quo is selecting for bad character. He writes:

In admitting students, these two points are absolutely crucial: First, prospective students should demonstrate their commitment to pursuing truth, goodness, and/or beauty through their university education. Those who would instead exploit the university to pursue wealth, power, or prestige should suffer serious demerits. Second, prospective students should demonstrate their desire to be formed, or to become a better person, through their education. Those who are primarily interested in becoming a leader or in changing the world should suffer serious demerits.

Today, universities are obsessed with fostering careers (wealth), training activists (power), and producing high-profile figures (prestige). They select students who desire to dominate others (leaders) and impose their ideas on others (changing the world). This is the exact inversion of the idea of a university and of liberal education. Instead of promoting virtue, universities prioritize vice. Instead of education freeing us from ourselves, we use education to impose ourselves upon others.

Until we correct course on these points, all else is in vain.

Cindy would admit exceptional communicators:

The most valuable skill I think any learner can have is the ability to express themselves with clarity and poise. In formal high-school speech and debate, the students who work with extemporaneous speaking do just that: They learn about all aspects of current events and then, during competitions, are called up one by one to choose three questions randomly from a bowl. They must choose one of these three questions and then have 30 minutes to prepare a seven-minute extemporaneous speech complete with evidence. It’s an internet-free zone—no notes allowed. I wish that college applicants all had to log into a school website to provide a short video response to a provocative, extemporaneous question. How do they handle the question? How creative are their responses? How confident are they in their ability to communicate?

To me, this is a better measure of who a person is than being prepped for standardized testing or hiring people to guide students through the rigors of the college essay. Who are you, what do you think, and how do you think? That’s what admissions people truly need to know.

Jen would admit helpers:

I would have an exclusively merit-based system. Standardized test scores would not count; I would focus on the extent to which the person helped their community as the deciding factor.

I wonder how one would best measure or assess that.

Olive argues for ending legacy admissions:

I am a college student who recently dealt with college admissions and was accepted into some, but rejected from most, of the top 50 universities I applied to (I wouldn’t have been able to afford any of them anyway, but that’s beside the point). I am white. However, I personally hold no grudge against affirmative action, as I believe that the diversity it brings and its attempt at equity is admirable. Instead, I blame the practice of legacy admissions for the unfairness in the application system, and the clear way it impacts who gets in. I understand the merit in test scores, extracurriculars, etc., as long as these are taken in context of the opportunities a student was offered.

I don’t understand how the wealth and opportunities of one’s parents are a valuable metric of one’s merit. It’s a concept that brings nothing to the table except bald-faced inequity, and the thing that I would get rid of if I were in charge of the system. I don’t believe that the rest of it is flawed in such a way that it can’t be remedied, but legacy admissions are the one thing I find inexcusable.

Sarenna would hold an admissions lottery:

In the interest of fairness, a lottery system is truly the only way to eliminate discrimination from the university-admissions process. Why is this? Let's walk through the various alternative means of doing admissions.

Legacy and athletic considerations are obviously unfair, and privilege students for factors that are often beyond their control (you cannot chose to have parents who went to a prestigious school, nor can you choose to have a family that is wealthy enough to sacrifice both the time and money it typically takes to afford the cost of playing sports at a high level). Test scores and grades are also often reflective of privilege. Private schools tend to give out higher grades than public schools for a variety of reasons.

Finally, extracurriculars are not cheap. I was a competitive debater in high school, and tournaments often cost up to $1,500 between flights, hotels, and supervisors. Even activities like volunteering require time, and free time is a luxury; often students from low-income backgrounds have to work or do child care for siblings.

So what about affirmative action? It is not fair to reject students of one race to prioritize admission of another. Artificially capping the number of Asian students to allow more students of other races, for example, is not fair to the Asian students who would have been admitted if not for their race.

I have often been exposed to arguments about the importance of creating diverse classrooms to improve the learning experience and broaden the perspective of students. Lottery systems allow for diverse classrooms while also ensuring that students do not gain arbitrary privileges in the admissions process for immutable parts of their identity. Set a basic standard that students must meet to demonstrate that they are academically prepared for college. From there, allow students to express their preferences, both for schools (i.e., have them rank their choices) and for environmental factors (i.e., what state would they like to live in? Would they like to be in a big city or a college town? Would they like to attend a school that is stronger in STEM or humanities?).

Then, let the matching begin.

Steven concurs in principle, but suggests different details:

The root of the problem is that highly selective universities have more qualified applicants than they have slots. I would create a large pool of qualified students who meet a threshold, and then run a lottery for offers. This would change the job of admissions officers from crafting the perfect class to determining which students are good enough. For general admissions, a combination of standardized test scores, GPA, and some sort of distinguishing service/character trait would be sufficient. Admissions officers can add the accomplished political activist with a low SAT score, the perfect SAT with no extracurriculars, AND the first-chair violinist with a 3.0 GPA. There is no need to make the impossible/arbitrary judgment of which is most deserving. They can also make the pool as big as needed.  

Calls for a lottery system dovetail with M.’s instincts as an interviewer at an Ivy League institution:

I was fortunate enough to have been accepted by and graduated from Princeton (class of 1964). I have for more than a decade participated as a member of the Alumni Schools Committee by interviewing three or four high-school applicants, almost entirely from public schools, every spring. I have spoken with numerous applicants who easily would have been successful Princeton undergraduates but were not admitted. In the end, the present system forces admissions to choose from among fully qualified applicants. The final choices, therefore, tend to be influenced by unconscious biases and other superficial factors. Among highly qualified applicants, a lottery becomes the most impartial means of selection.

Thomas sets forth the relatively conventional standards he would use for admissions then adds: “In addition, each year I would select a sample of applicants to admit at random to see over time what traits seemed to lead to good outcomes in order to refine admissions criteria for the future.”

I like the instinct to experiment!

Jackie sets forth a range of qualities she would select for:

I’ve always viewed education as preparing youth to be engaged citizens of their countries and the world. I do believe a strong academic record is the best place to start, but there are other character attributes that I think are good predictors of academic and career success. I think students should be curious, hungry for knowledge and understanding. If the student is passionate about a cause, even better, but it’s okay if they’re still figuring that out for themselves. Grit is also necessary to persevere through challenges. I would credit applicants coming from disadvantaged backgrounds with an extra measure of grit, simply because they had more obstacles in their road to achievement.

Big problems only get solved through collaboration, so I do think there needs to be a dose of humility as well. Nobody enjoys working with someone who can’t see beyond their own ego.

The only way to figure this out is through letters of recommendation and admissions interviews, which I know top-tier colleges and universities use in order to narrow down their incoming class. I do think there should be some consideration given to how the group is composed, with an eye toward religious, socioeconomic, ideological, and racial diversity. There are many students coming to college who grew up in places where perspectives went unchallenged, and higher education is supposed to be the safe space to test them in the free marketplace of ideas, as long as it is done respectfully.

Ed begins by disputing one premise of the question:

The assumption that one can identify the top 50 colleges or universities is inherently prejudicial. Biased ranking systems have contributed to the creation of an American aristocratic system that promotes and protects the privileged, otherwise we would see statistical diversity as to who sits on the Supreme Court or in Congress or on corporate boards. Entry to higher education should be open to everyone at the start of core first-year courses. If desired, design those courses to weed out those who are not ready or capable of continuing. For the determined student, a certain amount of repeat attempts should be allowed.

But what if egalitarianism isn’t the point? Mike has a distinct theory about the purpose of higher education:

Priority one has to be bringing in enough tuition revenue to sustain annual expenses. Then, using SAT scores combined with grades, attract the students most likely to succeed in challenging college courses. I do not think it’s best for anyone to “dumb down” courses to accommodate less-than-capable students. The purpose of higher education is to push our society to better outcomes in all fields and enhance our understanding of the world. Not everyone is college material. There should be no shame in that.

Claire proposes a novel admissions scheme:

Applicants are divided into four pools, the first three reflecting economic strata (lower, middle, upper) and the fourth favoring the artistically or athletically gifted. Each quadrant prioritizes academic performance and also je ne sais quoi (creativity and ingenuity); any lack thereof adversely affects the applicant. Racial quotas are regarded as arbitrary and counterproductive and removed from the rubric. Legacy applicants include a persuasive essay describing the value that a generational through line creates (including information about any buildings they wish to, or have already, refurbished), but this may harm their scores if it's handled perfunctorily. The goal is to scoop the crème de la crème off each stratum of society and avoid a disproportionate quantity of (uninspired) rule followers.

Many of you used this question to share your thoughts on affirmative action in college admissions. Howard wrote:

The only way to truly eradicate racism is to outgrow race.

Kristina disagrees:

Because I support reparations, and these can take many forms, I would prioritize Black and Indegenous applicants ahead of others as a form of reparations for centuries of brutal oppression and structural racism. However, I'm not sure that saddling any applicant with the massive debt that college entails today does anyone a big favor. To remedy this entire problem of “affirmative action” or not, we should make all education free, including higher education. This would eliminate all these problematic questions and ridiculous competitions.

I find it tragic that the U.S. is willing to spend billions on its failed wars and chooses to escalate violence abroad. War funding should be diverted into public education (not to mention health care, affordable housing, etc.). But with respect to the original question, in today’s context, prioritizing those who have faced insurmountable institutional barriers over those who have been privileged to not have barriers is the correct path.

Sidney opined on the trade-offs he believes affirmative action presents us with:

Should those whose ancestors were discriminated against due to race be entitled to preference in admissions? The decision is a zero-sum game. Affirmative action in undergraduate admissions requires discrimination according to race, the very problem it is intended to remedy. Those who did not participate in discriminatory behavior must suffer in turn. Diversity may be a worthy goal, but it has costs. Perhaps this is one of them. The question for each admissions officer is how much shall be paid and for how long?

Rob urged an alternative to it:

An underarticulated problem with affirmative action is that it abandons the ethical argument against anti-Black discrimination. If it’s ethically permissible to prefer one race over another, then you’re reduced to simply arguing for your choice, rather than making a moral argument that racial discrimination is fundamentally unjust. I think that once you’ve identified (to the best of your imperfect ability) the subset of candidates who are likely to do well enough to graduate, colleges should simply select from that pool by a random lottery. This will prevent the ethical violation of bias while keeping a competent admissions class. This will not result in the most academically outstanding class.

Jim expressed opposition to race-based considerations:

My biggest concern is: How do we find a way in college admissions and the rest of life to not factor in race, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or any other bias when deciding what a human being can or can’t do or where they can or can’t go? We need to start seeing humans.  

Percival knows that top-50 colleges tout diversity as something they value, but he doesn’t believe their rhetoric:

Different skin colors of cookie-cutter students all with high academic test scores, multiple respected extracurricular activities, and do-gooder volunteer work are not diverse in any real-world sense, although they come out of university with a shared, smug sense of superiority for their tribe, and maybe a sense of noblesse oblige. There are brilliant or creative people who wouldn’t play the game to get the grades, or won’t perform on cue, who are too introverted or socially anxious to tick the “social work” or “team athletics” boxes, or who lacked the home life, family traditions, assumption that academic performance is the highest priority, or finances to prove their potential use to the university in bolstering publicity or generating bragging rights. There are average students who wonder about the world and want to learn more or better themselves. There are siloed students who need to step outside the echo chamber and learn to persuade people who are different instead of tribalize and bully. There are students who have never met a cow or couldn’t recognize grocery-store food in its native form and students who lack street smarts and have never taken public transit. A population of students unlike one another can, by exposure to one another, create an educational experience in addition to “mastering” course material that can range from scientific methodology to an instructor’s bid for peer attention as cutting edge or pure indoctrination.

A student population of different skin colors that’s otherwise identically Type A, identically capable of identifying and performing to please an instructor, identically assured that their opinions are better formed and preferable to others, and who identically assume they [are entitled to have the world conform] to their expectations cannot, by exposure or interaction, foster an educational experience.

Luciano began by noting, “My story with affirmative action is, to put it mildly, complicated,” then explained how it shapes his views:

To begin with, I graduated from one of these top-50 universities. I came from a working-class family that was comfortable but by no means able to pay for a top-50 university. I’m also one of those people with a muddy background that doesn’t fit with the older affirmative-action narrative: My dad is Italian, and immigrated first to Venezuela and then the U.S.; my mom emigrated from Ecuador to the U.S. I’m pretty white, but I’m also Hispanic. Did I game the system to get into my college of choice? Absolutely. Being Hispanic was for both me and my sister the “golden ticket” to get into our schools of choice, as well as get the scholarships and grants to make them affordable (back in the ’90s when undergrad schools routinely doled out bags of cash on a regular basis).  

Here’s the thing: I have no clue whether or not my ethnicity was a factor in my college admission. I was a top-10 student, high SAT scores, involved with numerous clubs, traveled internationally, etc. I could have gotten in, supposedly, on any one of those factors. Does it gnaw at me that my ethnicity could’ve been the deciding factor, even though I’m white? Perhaps.

As an adult, I got involved with conducting interviews for my alma mater to evaluate applicants. I thought that in this capacity, as an alumni interviewer, I could get a further “peek behind the curtain” on the admissions process. In my interviews, I asked the typical questions about grades, favorite subjects, clubs, etc., but I also got them to tell me about their backgrounds, their desires, the things they like to do or enjoy, etc. It helped me get a better picture of each applicant to build a holistic portrait of them to the board of admissions.  

Did it help? I really don’t know. I may have performed some sort of pseudo–affirmative action in my own way by building these portraits, inadvertently pushing for applicants with bottom-up stories like my own (sort of). I may have wanted to know more about minority applicants to give them an advantage in the process. But ultimately, we would get a report of who was accepted and who wasn’t, and it often didn’t make sense to me.

The bottom line is that building a college class can be a lot more complicated than most seem to think. This is probably why the college-admissions process is still cloaked in secrecy. The more selective the school, the more bewildering the algorithm becomes, if there’s even an algorithm to begin with. When you have a lot of students that on paper look exactly the same, the deciding factors that determine who’s in or who’s out often defy logic. In short, with affirmative action gone, there’s no guarantee that the admissions process will get any more open, logical, or efficient. In fact, it may get even more illogical. But that’s not necessarily the fault of the policy. Rather, it’s due to our system, where the top is determined through secretive formulas unbeknownst to anyone, and the removal of a deciding factor won’t make it any more straightforward.

Thanks for all your emails––see you later this week.