Friday, November 23, 2007

College Admissions as Conspiracy Theory

This is worthwhile reading. -Angela

College Admissions as Conspiracy Theory

We in higher education have struggled to uphold a social contract that
requires us to serve the public good when, at the same time, our success
is often measured by the number and qualifications of the applicants
we exclude. We will never escape that conundrum because the demand for
access to our best institutions is far greater than the supply. With
growing frequency, reports that analyze admissions practices are
highlighting the inequities inherent in selectively dispensing precious
seats in the classrooms of elite colleges and universities.

Four books about access to higher education have recently been released,
and each has much to say about what is wrong with college admissions.
all successfully support their themes and are worth the read, especially
for those not familiar with the grave sociological impact of admissions

Peter Schmidt's Color and Money (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) does just
its subtitle says: It describes "how rich white kids are winning the war
over college affirmative action." It offers refreshing honesty, a
disregard for political correctness, and the effective writing of an
experienced and skilled reporter. (Schmidt wrote Color and Money while
leave from The Chronicle.) He is at his best during his provocative
overview of affirmative action and the debates that led to the Supreme
Court's 2003 decisions in cases involving the University of Michigan.

Most disturbing is his declaration that, "unable to come up with solid
evidence to back its claims that affirmative action yielded educational
benefits, the higher-education establishment settled on an alternate
It would make such assertions anyway, and use spin, exaggeration, and a
false sense of certainty in its assertions to pull the wool over the
justices' eyes." Schmidt doesn't specifically identify who he means by
"higher-education establishment," but if an individual or identifiable
group did such a thing, it raises important legal and ethical questions.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor depended on studies that demonstrated the
importance of diversity in higher education to declare unambiguously
educational benefits were "not theoretical but real." For institutions
that reinstated race-conscious admissions and used educational benefits
justification, Schmidt's claim is an astonishing one.

Elsewhere Schmidt offers glimpses into the unintended tragic
of preferences: One-fifth of all students who borrow money to attend
eventually drop out, leaving college as failures and in debt. Presuming
those students met some criteria of financial need, they are the people
all four authors strenuously argue should have greater access. Being an
advocate for the underprivileged is a laudable goal, but when giving
preferences, institutions should take great care not to do harm.

Schmidt also does a memorable job of pointing out the ironies:
action was saved in Michigan by representatives of the establishment
capitalist giants like General Motors, and admirals and generals in the
armed forces who filed amicus briefs in support of it as an admissions
policy. There is much more, but the book's message is that working-class
students, of all races, are shut out.

The Power of Privilege (Stanford University Press, 2007), by Joseph A.
Soares, an associate professor of sociology at Wake Forest University,
an excellent "sociological account" of a highly selective institutional
gatekeeper: Yale University. The premise of Power of Privilege is that
Yale and other Ivies and elite colleges and universities promote a
meritocratic myth, but in fact are places that embrace and sustain
privilege and affluence.

Soares's history of Yale admissions is tragically amusing. He chronicles
an embarrassing past that includes Yale's enthusiasm for the early SAT
a tool of eugenics and the college's participation, until 1968, in the
League practice of taking nude pictures of freshmen men to study the
relationship between body type and ability.

Of all the authors, Soares is the best at explaining the statistical
applications of the numerical measures used in the admissions process
why a student's ACT or SAT scores are not good predictors of his or her
predicted freshman GPA at the most-competitive colleges. Students
to those institutions are self-selected, largely through very high SAT
scores. Because of the restricted pool of applicants, such colleges
need statistical equations to determine who gets in; they can safely
a great deal of weight on intangibles like personal characteristics
because all applicants are highly qualified academically.

Soares is also good at applying Pierre Bourdieu's theory of "elite
reproduction," or the idea that human capital (what individuals do to
improve themselves) is earned while cultural capital (the accouterments
privilege) is a gift as important as money and property. Cultural
includes access to contacts that complement a person's educational
experiences; by way of clich, "It's not what you know, it's who you
Soares argues that "elite colleges and their alumni families are
in an association for the reproduction of educational privilege."

In Tearing Down the Gates (University of California Press, 2007), Peter
Sacks, an author and essayist, also applies Bourdieu's concept of
capital. Sacks argues that injustice, educational and otherwise, is
directly the result of a social-class divide. Unlike the other books,
Tearing Down the Gates uses the stories of real students facing
challenges common to their social and economic backgrounds.

He begins with a withering attack on the exclusionary nature of
high-school honors courses and segregated classes for the gifted and
talented, which he considers proxies for the affluent. Sacks views such
segregation as a sinister "alliance of equals." Similarly, in higher
education, he sees "enrollment management" as conspiracy of a
"prestige-driven nature." Undoubtedly, that is news to admissions
which spend a great deal of time, energy, and money reaching out to poor
and minority students who have a reasonable chance of success at their

Sacks is more on target with his discussion of early-decision schemes,
winners of whom are students unconcerned about the availability of
financial assistance and who have access to sophisticated and astute
guidance offices. He also does well lambasting of the U.S. News & World
Report rankings of colleges and universities, which he maintains are
merely a measure of selectivity not educational excellence of any kind.
(Schmidt did the same in Color and Money and was equally effective.)

Sacks closes with an impassioned plea for readers to stop dwelling on
and gender in favor of embracing the more palatable issue of class
differences a powerful idea affluent right-wingers derisively call
warfare." He urges middle-class and low-income people both white and
minority to form a new coalition demanding greater access to higher

John Aubrey Douglass's The Conditions for Admission (Stanford University
Press, 2007) begins with a good history of the University of California
system. Particularly memorable is his discussion of practices like the
indefensible attempts by California universities to rank their feeder
schools, which led to large-scale protests once the rankings were
Douglass, a senior research fellow at the Center for Studies in Higher
Education at the University of California at Berkeley, is also
when he confronts feel-good terms like "disadvantaged" and
"underrepresented" that defy precise definition. Like Schmidt's,
Douglass's commentary on affirmative action is not always politically
correct: "The advocates of affirmative action ... often manipulated the
concept of the social contract as solely a matter of race and racial

Toward the end of his book, Douglass gets to the heart of the issue: The
"politicization" of admissions is the natural outcome of increasing
for a scarce public good. In 2004, Berkeley received 38,000
more than 20,000 from students with GPA's in required courses of 4.0 or
higher, for an entering class of about 4,800. Every year selective and
flagship institutions deny admission to thousands of highly qualified
applicants, while college-bound Americans defy economic theory: Rising
tuition and fees have not lessened the demand, desire, or passion for
admission to those elite and flagship campuses. The point of the book is
that our popular belief in the social contract that America has with its
colleges, that such institutions exist for the public good, is imperiled
by dwindling government support.

The four authors do a good job, from each of their perspectives,
describing the inequities in the admissions process. But a glaring
omission in all the books is the lack of any example or discussion of
effect of successful parenting, sacrifice, and instilling in children
value of an education and the courage to persevere. I could not help but
think of my own experience: a Louisiana Cajun from a poor rural
headed by a father with only a seventh-grade education and a mother who
went no further than ninth grade. Both of my parents spoke better French
than English. They could not contribute a nickel toward my college
education. I married right out of college and greeted my bride with a
National Defense Student Loan debt (a precursor to the Perkins Loan).

Since then we've had four children, each of whom worked 20 to 30 hours a
week while attending flagships as full-time students. Within the next
years, our family will have paid for six undergraduate and three
diplomas all as a family with our collective earned income. Except for
one son's earned GI benefits, we never asked for or received a dime's
worth of scholarships, grants, or loans.

So it irks me to read four books telling me that my children are
"privileged" or that I'm part of an "alliance of equals" oppressing the
poor. In these books my children are "privileged" because my wife and I
stayed married, have good jobs, paid attention to what our children did,
bought them books, got involved in their schools, and shared the
of an education we earned all of which resulted in our kids' not being
poor and not getting Pell Grants (which apparently makes them rich). I
don't remember seeing any distinction drawn between a "privileged"
like mine and one with five generations of Yale graduates in its

One also wonders why it is such an outrage to these authors that poor
students don't do as well on standardized tests as their affluent peers
especially when, in different ways, each book expertly documents the
undeniable inequality of opportunity the underprivileged face from birth
to the college-admissions process. Poor students are far less likely to
to good schools, they are taught by fewer certified teachers, they have
fewer AP courses available, they have outdated textbooks, they are more
likely to be malnourished and in poor health, they are more likely to
violence, and their parents are far less likely to be educated. Aren't
disparate test scores evidence of inequality rather than inequality

In these books we also learn that the performance, persistence, and
graduation rates of underprivileged students are not as high as those of
other students, and, of course, that is tragic and unacceptable. The
authors did not delve deeply enough into whether those differential
were consistent with the ACT and SAT scores submitted by those students.
Most likely, they would have discovered what many admissions officers
already know: Test scores are useful, but in the real world of college
admissions, trying to predict someone's freshman-year GPA is an
extraordinarily difficult task, and no independent variable is so good
that it can be used just by itself. Yet much of the criticism I've seen
test scores, in these books and in general, assumes that scores are all
that matter in admissions decisions.

In an August issue of the American Sociological Review, Sigal Alon of
Aviv University and Marta Tienda of Princeton University argue that the
ideal of equal opportunity can be best served if test scores are
considered in admissions decisions but interpreted using an applicant's
background information. Of course, that's true. I know of no admissions
process that has ever used a test score as a sole criterion for
acceptance, nor have I known anyone in admissions who has ever advocated
such a policy.

Those in charge of the ACT and SAT have always been candid about how,
most institutions, the high-school record, whether GPA or class rank, is
the best predictor of freshman-year GPA. Yet even the high-school record
by itself performs only slightly better than test scores. To date, I
not seen a usable prediction model that consistently accounts for a
greater variance in the freshman-year GPA than the combination of those
two independent variables, and that is how they are commonly used.
Skewering the ACT and SAT is cheap and easy because no one likes tests
not even those who get high scores. Finding a standardized, usable, and
more valid and reliable replacement is the hard part.

Readers should not assume that I am a shill for the testing
I am a former employee of both ACT Inc. and the College Board, and I
no illusions about what their priorities are. In these books, not all of
what the authors say about college-admissions testing is off-base.
and Douglass's coverage of the events surrounding the now infamous 2001
speech by then-president of the University of California, Richard C.
Atkinson, calling for an end to the use of the SAT reasoning test,
be read by everyone in secondary and higher education. Like Atkinson,
Sacks and Douglass advance the argument that admissions testing should
reflect what a student can do with what he or she has been taught.

I repeat: Soares, Sacks, Schmidt, and Douglass produced four very good
books. At the same time, while much of their focus is on class
differences, a discussion of Bill Cosby's controversial views about
for the troubled condition of young black America, or Juan Williams's
devastating indictment of black leadership and a "culture of failure" in
his book Enough (Crown Publishers, 2006), or the writings of Shelby
and John H. McWhorter about "white guilt" and going "beyond the crisis
black America" could have added controversial but important insights.

Does the single-parent birth rate in the different social classes
differences in college-going rates better than admissions policies do?
the crime rates of poor neighborhoods? Or the incarceration rates? Or
high-school-graduation rates? And what of those in the lower
classes who do get in and are successful? Are they different? If so,
Where are they from? Do they go to church? How much time did they spend
studying while in high school? Listening to music? Watching television?
Were they raised by both parents? Moreover, other than Soares's
of Yale and some European institutions after World War II and Sacks's
chapter about "gate-crashers," there is little memorable discussion or
elaboration of admissions routines that actually do what the authors

I return to the two issues I started with. First, is the issue of access
to highly selective colleges really one of injustice, or does it have to
do with capacity? Harvard denies about 50 percent of the applicants who
present perfect SAT scores. As Douglass points out, in America,
and growth of junior and community colleges is encouraged and expected
as to assure space for all who want to attend. Yet the state support
would be necessary to increase the number of elite campuses appears to

While quoting the late Christopher Lasch, a prominent social historian,
Schmidt reminded us that both sides of the affirmative-action debate are
so focused on the question of who gains access to highly selective
institutions that they fail to see how much we would all benefit if such
learning experience was made available to all. Admittedly, prestige and
those "qualities which are incapable of objective measurement but which
make for greatness," first described in Sweatt v. Painter (1950) and
reinforced by Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978)
Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), cannot be created out of thin air. But
we can increase our capacity to satisfy the reasonable demands of highly
qualified students. We must move away from the debate about "who gets
to one about how to provide elite-like quality to many more. All sides
the access argument can easily present thousands of highly qualified
students who could succeed in the environment of a demanding, highly
selective university.

At the same time, too many people, on all sides affix too much of their
self-worth on whether they get into their first-choice college. I have
seen applicants and their parents collapse with grief after an
unsuccessful appeal of an admission decision. We must ask ourselves why
are those who are not getting in so crushed? The groups those families
represent evidently feel no other institution can sustain their dreams.
it because there is a real gulf between the educational experience
by the highly selective compared with all other institutions, or have
these people spent too much time reading U.S News and World Report
rankings and books about elite colleges only to become convinced that
a few institutions are worthy of attending? I wish I knew.

Second, and while this does not neatly apply to the books reviewed here,
in this debate we should treat each other with respect and not descend
into demagoguery: All parents, even the rich ones, want what is best for
their children. The parents considered "privileged" in these books
spending their time forming alliances to oppress others. What are they
supposed to do? Not use what they have, nor do what they can, to achieve
what is best for their children? Not long ago Sacks wrote in The
Review that "there are no easy answers or obvious villains." I wish all
four of those authors had spent a little more energy saying that.

The authors are right: Compared with the general population, elite
colleges are overpopulated with affluent young people, but it is
undeniable that such students are qualified to be there and are
successfully earning diplomas. We need more acceptable alternatives for
all who have demonstrated they can perform at such a high academic level
at a probable cost of hundreds of billions of dollars. Instead, with
legislative session we watch general appropriations increasingly account
for a lower portion of total revenue that supports our institutions.

But I refuse to despair. Right now I am writing a book about the 1950
Supreme Court case Sweatt v. Painter. In 1946, Heman Sweatt entered the
room across the hall from the office that I now occupy in the University
of Texas Tower and became the first African-American student to submit
application to the university's law school. Almost immediately the Texas
attorney general announced that "Heman Sweatt will never darken the
of the University of Texas."

Every time I think about what access to higher education was back then
compared with what it is now, I marvel at how far we've come. I've had
faculty members and administrators tell me that we've made "no progress"
since Brown v. Board of Education, and I wonder how anyone can possibly
believe that. Today I know of no selective institution, and certainly no
public flagship, that does not have elaborate recruiting and outreach
efforts that encompass the kind of schools Heman Sweatt came from. I
at least one of those authors had conceded that, even if the results are

Every day at 7 a.m., I walk through the shade of UT-Austin's Battle Oaks
toward the Main Building and Tower, satisfied that inside are good
trying to do what is right. I can't think of a single college where the
same is not true. And every day I see thousands of "privileged" students
sent to our campus by their once-underprivileged parents. It wasn't easy
for many of them to get there. They don't deserve a guilt trip. For
millions of us, social mobility is alive and well in capitalist America.

Or maybe I'm just a reflection of what Patrick Henry said in his famous
"Liberty or Death" speech in 1775: "It is natural to man to indulge in
illusions of hope."

Gary M. Lavergne is director of admissions research and policy analysis
at the University of Texas at Austin.
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 54, Issue 11, Page B10

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