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Articles / Applying to College / College Admissions And "Fairness"

College Admissions And "Fairness"

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | July 5, 2018
College Admissions And "Fairness"

A few weeks ago, I posted a thread on the College Confidential discussion forum entitled College Admissions Will Never Be Fair. So far, it has generated six pages of comments. The original article from Bloomberg that inspired my thread has 75 comments from readers so far. Obviously, this is a sensitive topic. Let's think about the role that “fairness" plays in college admissions.

The big news this past week in the world of college admissions is the change ordered by the Trump administration regarding affirmative action. As the New York Times reports, “The Trump administration said Tuesday that it was abandoning Obama administration policies that called on universities to consider race as a factor in diversifying their campuses, signaling that the administration will champion race-blind admissions standards."

This comes at the same time that the Department of Justice is investigating Harvard University for alleged discrimination against its Asian applicants, spurred in part by a lawsuit filed against Harvard by a separate group of Asians. Obviously, fairness is in the forefront of college admissions these days.

Are Admissions Fair?

In my personal and professional opinion, I have to agree completely with the Bloomberg article. In the simplest general terms I can muster, the reason I think college admissions will never be fair is because, for most applicants who are not admitted, the process is unfair. Ask most applicants who were admitted what they think about admissions fairness and they will say that the process is fair. That's just common sense.

In my work with high school seniors applying to college, I have found some applicants to be ambivalent about fairness. For example, I have worked with those who know without a doubt that their chances of getting into elite colleges -- the Ivies, in particular -- are practically zero. They apply “for the experience" or “just for fun." The ease of the Common Application has enabled this kind of casualness.

When the bad news arrives, these applicants say something like, “No problem. I didn't expect to get in, anyway," and go on their way. To them, fairness is not a concern at this level of admissions competition.

On the other hand, I have worked with applicants whose profiles have amazed me. I often wonder how they have time in their busy lives to get any meaningful sleep. In some of these cases, their eventual denials at top (and even moderately competitive) schools left me both stunned and cynical. I must admit that I have had my issues with fairness.

Thinking of admissions fairness in light of the overwhelming number of applicants, though, I can understand that colleges with relatively small student bodies and tidal waves of applications every year simply don't have physical room for all their qualified applicants. Thus, many deserving aspirants are denied. This adds fuel to the fairness fire, especially when there are acceptances and denials at the same college among similarly qualified seniors at the same high school.

My purpose in addressing this issue is to offer some personal wisdom to those of you who will be applying to college this fall. I offer these comments, in particular, to those who will be seeking highly competitive schools such as the Ivies and other so-called “elites," where acceptance rates have been headed sharply south over the past decade.

Consider These Tips

First of all, I would like you to adjust your thinking. You may fancy yourself as a big applicant fish in the small pond of your high school. The adjustment in your thinking will happen when you put yourself in relation to the ocean of worldwide applicant standouts swimming in the applicant pools. What you may regard as a “Yowza!" in your profile quite possibly may elicit a “Yawn" from the admissions committee when compared to some of the pool's other big fish. So, adjust your perspective.

Second, let's take a look at what some others think about this. The writer of the Bloomberg article states her position quite clearly:

"... So how can schools assess applicants? There's no general agreement about what makes one candidate more qualified than another. Supporters of the Harvard suit dismiss 'personal ratings,' which are subjective and probably do enable anti-Asian prejudice. But let's face it, no measures are truly objective. SATs, GPAs, extracurricular ratings — they're all prone to bias."

“I'd suggest thinking more systematically about the longer-term mission of education, and how to create incentives to fulfill it. Perhaps parents' urge to game the system can even be turned to its advantage." …

Speaking of parents, the majority of comments to the College Confidential thread I posted about this article came from parents. Here is some of their wisdom about the issue of fairness:

- Just about any aspect of life will never be perfectly fair. Get over it.

- Nobody wants life to be fair, they want life to be unfair in their favor.

- The only thing that is truly unfair in the US system is how difficult it is for lower and lower middle income college ready kids without top stats to afford a four-year education. The very top scorers are going to land somewhere -- maybe not Harvard, but they will not lack for a fine education. Parents who can afford to pay at least their in-state tuition will find a place for their kids. Those kids will get a decent education and if they make the most of their opportunities, all doors will be open to them.

- Although I am opposed to any kind of biased admission into public schools, Harvard is a private school. They can admit whomever they want. If you don't like it, don't apply.

And, from someone who agrees with my advice about seeing the bigger picture:

- I think kids on CC tend to overvalue their accomplishments. It goes with the territory, they have little frame of reference. If you do XX in your high school and few others do, you may think no one else, anywhere, is doing that. If a kid raises money in a fundraiser, he may think it's hot, without stopping to consider more than the sum.

Perspective is a good thing.

Another comment echoes my “simple" take on admissions fairness as cited above:

- Doesn't it depend on your definition of "fair??"

For some people, admissions should be based on grades. Others think SAT/ACT scores. Or ethnic background. Or sports ability. Or great letters of recommendation. Or "potential" -- whatever that is.

I think that for many people, "fair" translates to "In my best interests, or that of my kids."

The comments following the Bloomberg article focus strongly on economic and demographic diversity vs. admissions success, as opposed to overall application profile aspects (academic numbers, ECs, recommendations, etc.). A sampling:

- Rich kids get tutoring from $100+ per hour excellent tutors which certainly can be very unfair or their well accomplished mothers are directly helping them in lieu of a tutor.

- When you can drop tens of thousands of dollars to increase your score substantially and pay for hired guns to write your exams, I'd say that starts to look a great deal like gaming the system.

- Effort spent on trying to improve the college admission process is a waste of time. Public universities should have the capacity to provide an affordable college education for anyone who is able to perform the academic work. State universities do a more than adequate job educating people in the academic skills that are required for quality jobs. Making the education affordable is the big problem. Private universities should be free to decide what students they want....

- 50 percent are donors, children of alumni and the next 10 percent are the well connected and celebs and their kids. 10 percent are reserved for internationals. So only 30 percent is open to merit, and the schools have an obligation to diversify, represent different regions, industries, races, languages, etc.

- The problem is we have about 20,000 of the smartest kids who all have close to and or above a 100 average, all have SAT scores that are great, all were president of club X, all had community service, all were in this club or that. The difference between this group is at best marginal. With competition this close, someone is going to be unhappy. At the very very top, it is a dog fight to get into the top colleges. Families with resources have an advantage. Many colleges look for students that achieved despite not having the family and school resources to do so. In the end many get disappointed applying to a top 10 college. That is why the admissions process is a holistic one.


From this small sampling of comments from both sources, you should be able to see that the issue of fairness will never be settled. I'll go back to my central position on fairness as it applies to college admissions:

If You Get in, The Process Is Fair. If You Don't, It Isn't

The final sentence of the last comment I cited above says, “That is why the admissions process is a holistic one." Well, at least it should be, in my view. Even at colleges that tout their holistic evaluation processes, applicants must be aware that they are fighting for a spot among the available seats that are left after decisions are made for legacies, athletes, celebrities, diversity segments (underrepresented minorities), internationals and perhaps even a wildcard category.

The admissions pie has many slices and if you don't fall into any of these preferential groups, your fairness experience may be subpar. On balance, though, even the legacies, athletes, URMs, etc., run afoul of “fairness." Not all get in. There are just too many applicants. When you consider all the variables of the college admissions process, you can find yourself in the uncomfortable condition of analysis paralysis. This can lead to frustration, and in some cases, a depressed attitude about applying to college.

If I could leave you with one thought about fairness, legacies, URMs, holistics, etc., it would be this: If you can look back across your high school career (or even earlier) and honestly say, “I've done my best in school and lived some actual life, not sacrificing my developmental years trying to create the perfect profile," then don't sweat fairness.

Make sensible college choices, apply and then enroll at the one that seems best for you among those that accept you. After arriving on campus, if you continue to do your best in school, as you've done before, then you'll be just fine, all things considered.

Now to me, that seems fair!

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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