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The Maddening College Admissions Game

Applying for admission to college is the cause of unrelenting anxiety that was exacerbated by the U.S. Supreme Court's failure last year in Fisher v. University of Texas to clarify how much weight can be given to racial factors. Whether the high court will finally settle the matter in deciding the lawsuit recently filed by Students for Fair Admissions against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina is doubtful ("Harvard's Asian Problem," The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 22).

I say that because pure meritocracy has never been the sole basis for admission, despite what colleges used to assert.  Long before racial considerations entered the picture, legacy and development applicants had a leg up.  When I was applying to college in the mid-1950s, one of the questions was whether any of my immediate family was an alumnus.  It was quite apparent what this question meant then, and still does.  For example, applicants to a parent's alma mater had, on average, seven times the odds of admission as non-legacy applicants in 2011 ("Study Finds Family Connections Give Big Advantage in College Admissions," The New York Times, Jan. 8, 2011).

Since the decision in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke in 1978, schools have been permitted to rely on holistic factors.  One of these factors, of course, is race.  There is much to be said for racial diversity.  The problem is that colleges treat some minorities as less equal than others.  Asians are the most notable example ("Asians get the Ivy League's Jewish treatment," USA Today, Nov. 23). If grade-point averages and standardized test scores were the sole basis for admission, Asians would likely constitute the bulk of the student population at most top-tier schools.  For example, of those admitted to CalTech in 2013, 42.5 percent were Asians. To avoid an overwhelmingly Asian student body, other marquee-name schools essentially have established quotas, even though they bristle at the use of that term ("Asians: Too Smart for Their Own Good?" The New York Times, Dec. 19, 2012).

This was reminiscent of the dilemma faced by Harvard, Yale and Princeton in the 1920s when school officials realized that using exclusively objective academic standards for admission would result in an increasing number of Jews, as Jerome Karabel describes in detail in The Chosen (Houghton Mifflin, 2005).  To avoid this possibility, they decided to use more subjective criteria, which Karabel says has led to the "peculiar admissions process that we now take for granted." It's interesting to note that applicants from desired backgrounds who couldn't pass the entrance exams then were nevertheless admitted "with conditions."

Recognizing how the admissions game now operates, The Princeton Review urges applicants to either play up or play down their racial background ("Tips From the Princeton Review: Act Less Asian, Add Pics if You're Black," Bloomberg Businessweek, Nov. 21).  For example, it advises black applicants to attach a photograph, while advising Asian applicants to avoid discussing how their culture has helped them succeed.  It's a cynical ploy, but it seems to work.  

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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