What Laymen and the SCOTUS Need to Know About Admissions

Note:  Although I’ve said it elsewhere on this blog, I want to emphasize that these opinions are mine.

Ever since the Michigan cases, and now with the Fisher case before the Supreme Court, something has bothered me: The way the average person just does not understand how college admission is done.  I suppose this is true of every profession: I have no idea what an accounting job or a chef’s job is like, for instance.

But just as we don’t choose Supreme Court Justices by looking at GPA and LSAT Scores and Bar Exams, neither do we make an admissions decision based on two simple criteria.  Every case in which someone says another “less qualified person” was admitted to his or her detriment misses this point completely.  And as my old logic professor used to tell us: Always attack the premise.

So, as we were thinking about joining an Amicus Brief with several other Catholic Colleges and Universities, I tried to put into writing what I’ve learned about admissions in the last 30 years.  Here goes:

  • At its core, an admissions decision suggests that someone or some group of people at the university has determined that the student is capable of doing the necessary college-level work to graduate with a bachelor’s degree.  Without this, any other discussion is moot: Admissions professionals consider it abhorrent to admit a student they deem incapable of succeeding.
  • At the same time, statistical models are really not as good as people might believe in predicting the extent of college success.  While the overwhelming majority of students admitted mange to stay above the threshold of satisfactory academic performance, there is of course wide variation between those who perform at a C (2.0 level) and those who perform at a A (4.0) level.  (And given central limit theorem, it will never be possible to enroll a class of students who all perform “above average.”) Using any combination of academic variables we collect at the point of admission, we can only get a statistical r-squared of about .2, meaning that only 20% of this variance is explained by the inputs we presume to be telling; the rest is clearly determined by other factors not deemed academic in nature.  This is true almost everywhere, not just at DePaul.
  • Thus, the definition of “Who is qualified for admission?” seems to be essentially unanswerable by the two simple things many deem to be the sole criteria: HS GPA and test scores.
  • This is especially telling when a college or university has to deny students who, based on simplistic criteria, appear to be more academically qualified than those who are admitted. When you only have so much room, you’re faced with admitting a whole group of kids who look and act alike, or mixing it up a little to improve the educational environment.
  • And additionally, such choices are compounded when an admissions officer attempts to measure potential rather than accomplishment (which of course presumes that “accomplishment” can be standardized across 35,000 high schools and hundreds of thousands of teachers offering millions of sections of classes.)  Obvious inequality of opportunity makes measuring either prior academic achievement or potential to succeed virtually impossible.
  • The history of college admission, however, is not one of making simplistic decisions based on two variables (N.B. that some state schools are mandated to do exactly this, however).  Admissions officers have long sought additional information (writing samples; letters of recommendation outlining, among other things a student’s learning styles and ability to contribute to the classroom and the community; out-of-class accomplishments) to round out the picture of the students they admit to the university, because a university is not solely an enterprise dedicated to passing information to those who are ostensibly most capable of receiving it.  John Cardinal Newman, for instance, in “The Idea of a University” and later Jaroslav Pelikan in “The Idea of the University: A Reexamination” both suggest that a university is a community that develops a wide variety of people for a wide range of outcomes.  Newman even suggests that only 1/3 of university education occurs in the classroom, suggesting that the remaining two-thirds come from self-directed study and other students.  Other factors, often far removed from academic realms (athletic ability, legacy status) are often considered in light of their effect on the total university community.
  • Beyond the core decision, however, one must consider the particular university’s mission or its raison d’etre.  Typically, the mission does not just stipulate why a particular university exists, but also articulates certain obligations, for instance:
    •  To the students it serves.  At DePaul, this ranges from traditional liberal arts programs to professional programs with career focus.  The university has an obligation to educate students who come seeking broader intellectual exposure or top-quality professional preparation, or both; all of which require exposure to a wide range of ideas and people.
    • To the community it serves. The mission statement of DePaul articulates a symbiotic relationship with Chicago, a diverse, global city, in which the university draws from, and contributes to, the city in an attempt to improve both.
    • To the market for its graduates. The critical underpinnings of financial and academic success of DePaul are based on the university’s ability to produce graduates who are ready to work in a demanding, diverse, changing society and workplace.
  • Thus, admissions officers take into account a wide variety of factors when considering an individual candidate, because admissions strives to create a campus community best aligned with the university mission.  In other words, admissions decisions are not simply sequential, serial binary decisions, but rather a series of complex, inter-related ones.  Race can be a factor, although almost always a very minor one, and often comingled with other variables that don’t fall under strict construction (socio-economic status, first-generation college student status, geographic diversity, etc.) This is, by most accounts, as much in the interest of creating a community with as wide a range of backgrounds and interests as is possible, as in the interest of attempting to account for the undeniable effects of race on educational opportunity and its covariance with other factors indicated above.

There it is.  I’d love to hear what you think, especially if you disagree.


3 thoughts on “What Laymen and the SCOTUS Need to Know About Admissions

  1. Wait, are you saying that our work is not simply black and white? I, too, wish people understood that our work is as much about admitting people as it is recruiting a desired mix of students. And, a desired mix of students requires all sorts of diversity. BTW, will this be included as an amicus brief?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s