Application requirements favoring families who can apply and commit early without comparing financial aid packages. A preference for legacy students and star athletes. A tendency to recruit from the same high schools year after year.
As colleges and universities seek to increase racial and socioeconomic diversity on campus, education journalist and author Jeff Selingo says it’s time to rethink the college admissions system to improve opportunities for disadvantaged students, including students of color and those from low-income families.
“How do we find the talent that we know is distributed throughout this country? That, to me, is that nut that we’ve been trying to crack for a very long time,” Selingo said in a recent episode of Strada’s “Lessons Earned” podcast. “And it’s going to become even more important because we know the demographics of this country are changing drastically. And I think it’s going to become even more important for colleges to figure that out.”
Selingo, former editor of the “Chronicle of Higher Education” and founding director of Arizona State University’s Academy for Innovative Higher Education Leadership, has been reporting and speaking on challenges in higher education for more than two decades and spent a year inside college admissions at three selective universities for his latest book, “Who Gets In and Why.” In this book, as well as a previous offering, “There Is Life After College,” Selingo advocates for changes in higher education that will not only help students leverage the college experience to launch meaningful careers, but also help colleges and universities remain relevant and valued.
Selingo said multiple factors weigh on the minds of college admissions counselors, especially those from Ivy League and other elite schools with very few seats to fill. Their task is not to ensure meritocracy in education or in the admissions system, he said, but to build an incoming freshman class that fulfills their college’s most urgent needs for certain types of students and talents in a particular year. “Who gets in” is often a question not only of academic profile but of who can pay close to full price, who offers a unique talent sought by the lacrosse team or the campus theater, or who plans to major in a program of study seeking certain types of students.
Selingo calls the sometimes baffling college admissions system a “black box,” noting that only the people running it can see inside. After observing college admissions from inside that box and interviewing dozens of applicants and their parents, he identified some steps colleges and universities could take to carve out more space for students from low-income families and for students of color who are marginalized by the current system.
Here are seven ways Selingo said higher education leaders could ensure that more students gain an equitable chance in college admissions:
- Eliminate early-decision applications. This process gives institutions more information earlier regarding how many full-pay, or nearly full-pay, students they will admit, helping them plan for how many lower-income students they can afford to accept. But because the applications are binding, students are under pressure to commit to one college early in their senior year of high school. They also may end up paying more to attend the same school that their peers may enter at a discount later in the process.
More importantly, Selingo said, early decision allows higher-income families to buy their way in early, filling seats before middle- and low-income families can even afford to apply. Perhaps more damaging, he said, early decision leaves too many students with the impression that there is only one right college for them, even though research indicates they could do well and achieve similar education and employment outcomes at high-quality but lesser-known institutions.
- Be upfront about what you’re looking for in this year’s incoming class so education consumers — students and their parents — have the information they need to make good decisions about where to apply and what to emphasize in their applications.
- Be transparent about what it costs to study at your school so parents and students can engage in realistic discussions about what they can afford and what the return on their investment will be.
- Look beyond traditional “feeder high schools” to recruit students from a broader range of public and private schools from across the country, creating opportunity for a more diverse group of students.
- Reduce preferences given to athletes and legacies, students whose parents graduated from a particular college. If every applicant were given the same attention as athletes and legacies — the majority in both cases are white — admissions decisions would result in a more diverse student body, Selingo said.
- Rethink application requirements to put more emphasis on high school coursework and grades and less on other application materials like extracurriculars, recommendations, and personal essays, which most college admissions counselors have little time to read anyway.
Higher-income, white students enjoy greater access than low-income, first-generation, and students of color to resources and support needed to participate in multiple extracurricular activities, pay for test prep tutoring or essay editing, or retake the SAT or ACT to improve their scores. They also enjoy greater access to their parents’ social and professional networks to secure internships, coaching, and recommendations so they can better package themselves and increase their chances of being admitted to selective schools. And in the end, Selingo notes, high school rigor and grades are the most important indicators of success in college.
- Expand the size of freshman classes. It seems like a simple answer to a complex problem, Selingo said, but admitting more students overall, even without making major changes to entrance requirements, would make room in elite colleges for more students from more diverse backgrounds and experiences.
Davidson College in North Carolina was among the universities where education journalist and author Jeff Selingo spent time in the admissions office for his book “Who Gets In and Why.” CREDIT: Christopher Record/Davidson College.