Wednesday, October 21, 2015

A Modest Proposal for Making College Admissions More Fair: Remove Subjectivity and the Glitzy Foofaraw

Recently, a group of over eighty top colleges and universities - a coalition which includes the Ivies - announced that it was developing a web-based platform that would provide free college admissions counseling to teenagers in an attempt to improve a process that favors affluent students above all others. As reported in the New York Times:
They said that the new online tools are meant to be one-stop shopping for information about financial aid, application requirements and more. Students could also use this online platform to interact with top schools, sending inquiries and receiving answers. 
The platform would include a so-called “locker” for creative work — essays, videos, drawings — that students would be encouraged to begin filling in the ninth grade, as a reminder that college is on the horizon. 
They could share those lockers with mentors. And come application time, they could upload its contents for admissions officers.
The goal behind this project is laudable. As a professional with over ten years of experience in test coaching and college admissions counseling, I agree that the current college rat race only intensifies our class divisions. And yes -- though I may be conservative in temperament, I think the worsening bifurcation between the richest and the rest is a real problem that requires a serious, thoughtful response. I'm skeptical, however, that this Coalition for Access, Affordability, & Success is going to succeed in its endeavor. While offering free resources to demystify admissions requirements seems like a good idea, the drift away from standardization that the "locker" represents will probably only make things worse.

Granted, my entire career is living proof that a bubble test like the SAT is coachable, as my students routinely see gains of 200 - 300 points after a typical summer intensive. How do my students and I accomplish this? We go back to the beginning and teach foundational skills in mathematics, grammar, and reading comprehension. Whatever topics our students have insufficiently mastered, we seek to fill in, even if that means going back to middle school and relearning fractions and decimals. It is in fact a tremendous lie to claim that you can get by on the SAT through strategies and "tricks" alone; in reality, only students who have real, translatable academic skills across the college-prep curriculum can succeed. True: Statistical research reveals that the SAT is an imperfect measure of college readiness that does correlate with economic status. But for a test students take on a single Saturday morning, it is remarkably valid, and its expectations are both objective and transparent.

Essays, portfolios, resumes, and other features of the more highly favored "holistic" admissions process, on the other hand, are incredibly subjective. And trust me: The more subjective a requirement is, the more easily it can be gamed by ambitious parents with a lot of money to spend. A student who attends a full course of SAT prep with me is still, ultimately, on his own when the day of the test arrives; I can't take the test for him or whisper sweet mathematical formulae in his ear. A student who comes to me for help with the Common Application Essay, meanwhile, has access to my advice and my editor's pen from the outline all the way to the final draft. I don't write the essay for him, mind, but the product that results doesn't really reflect the student's native writing talent; it is, instead, an amalgam of his talent and mine. In short? This latter assessment turns out to be more coachable than our hated standardized tests.

Alas, I don't think you can remove coaching effects completely without resorting to unacceptable coercion. Parents have an inalienable right to use whatever resources are at their disposal to prepare their kids for the college admissions process and beyond. I do think, though, that increasing standardization rather than decreasing it will help minimize the impact of family wealth. In particular, it may be wise for schools to do the following:
  1. Lean even more on objective assessments that the students must take alone in a proctored testing center. Schools should even do the student essays this way in order to get a real sense of each student's academic writing skills.
  2. Use essay prompts that don't ask personal questions. Today's essays solicit information about students' interests, hobbies, and experiences and consequently favor privileged, extroverted students whose parents can shuttle them to a wealth of enriching activities. Get rid of them and use more academically-oriented prompts instead. You could, for example, ask a student to respond to a reading selection or answer a long-form math or science question.
  3. Follow the Khan Academy example and use endowment money to open up more Massive Open Online Courses that striving students can take free of charge to supplement local curricula that may be lacking in advanced placement opportunities. Said platforms can be used for test prep services as well.
  4. Set benchmarks for admission that are binding and publicly available for review. If more students meet the benchmarks than there are seats, hold a lottery. 
Again, it's unlikely that we will be able to create a fully egalitarian system for college admissions -- but leaving things up to "portfolios" and the whims of fallible human beings is definitely a huge mistake.


  1. University admission in the UK was (and probably still is) extremely objective. So, as I understand it, is admission in France and Germany. Basically students in thes countries (and I guess most other European ones, but I don't know for sure) to pass a standard exam at the end of "High School" or its equvalent. If you get the right grades you go to uni. If not not.

    In the UK you would apply to different universities to study particular majors and they would tell you what grades you needed in the subjects you were studying to get in. Yes there might be a personal interview too but that typically was for the top top places. Then except for rare cases where the university wanted you for that course no matter what (in whihc case you'd get a requirement of 2 Es) you wouldn't get in unless you got the required grades.

    I recall that when I applied to Cambridge I was initially told to get a grade that I literally could not achieve because the school I was in didn't teach it to that level and the exam board they used didn't offer it as an option either. I had to get a special dispensation to be allowed to take what I could take instead of what they wanted.

    1. That seems a much more sensible system than the one we have here in the US.

    2. Sounds similar to my understanding of the post-elementary education system in Japan. Pretty much everyone goes to local public schools 1-6. In their final year they test to see what middle schools they are eligible to attend (7-9). High school is not compulsory, but those who intend to continue test again, with another round to decide college admission. Students who want to get into the best colleges not only need to attend a High School that teaches at the appropriate level, but also attend Juku after school (often referred to in English as "cram class"). Getting into the "right" middle school to be on track is very important.

  2. My modest proposal is simpler, and more fair.

    Because college graduation is simply a ticket to get a decent job and denotes no educational value ("women's studies" 'nuff said), there is no reason to impose any academic requirement at the outset. Therefore, the fairest system of allocating the golden tickets to make sure that all children regardless of origin or class have an equal chance is a lottery.

    Here is the system: Every high school graduate can enter the lottery. On the lottery day. the kids receive a number at random from a pool of numbers equal to the number of entrants. Number 1 goes first and gets to pick a college from the list of colleges*, and he is admitted. The process is repeated until the last kid gets to pick. When a college is filled, its name is removed from the list. The last kid won't have much of a chance to pick Harvard, which has a freshman class of about 1500.

    Most likely every entrant will have to submit a ranked list of places he would pick. To prevent the thing from dragging out for too long.

  3. I see no reason to think that standardized admissions will increase fairness, and I also see no reason to think that standardized tests such as the SAT are objective. Objective also means unbiased, and these tests are not unbiased.

    Any set of admission criteria will be biased. So, I think that a pluralistic approach is best with each college or university coming up with its own admission criteria, which may or may not require standardized tests. This sort of approach is growing as more and more colleges become test optional. Students who test well can still submit scores, but students who don't do well on such tests don't have to submit scores. Students can be judge according to their strengths whether it be test scores, GPA, or something else.

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