What’s Next for College Admissions?
Murky admissions criteria got colleges into their current mess. Transparency can get them out.
In the wake of the Supreme Court decisions in SFFA v. Harvard and SFFA v. UNC—landmark rulings that deemed affirmative action, as we know it, unconstitutional—we are approaching a real turning-point.
Colleges can follow the clear intention of the Supreme Court’s ruling and embark on a different approach to admissions—seizing the opportunity to bring greater transparency to the admissions process—or they can continue with an even murkier version of ongoing policies, effectively trying to hide their criteria for acceptance.
What is apparent is that colleges are in a difficult spot. Both Harvard and the University of North Carolina argued in front of the Supreme Court that not explicitly considering race would result in unacceptable losses in enrollment of black students. Indeed, my analysis in the Harvard case (I testified for the plaintiffs as an expert witness) showed that if Harvard did nothing but drop race from their admissions decisions the number of Black admits overall would fall by over 60%, a staggering number.
We can safely assume that Harvard is going to work hard to avoid such a precipitous drop. But the analysis done by Harvard’s own expert would seem to compel them to drastically overhaul their admissions philosophy. Harvard could significantly mitigate diversity losses by getting rid of preferences for legacies and donors. They could also modify their athletic preferences, where the biggest bumps are given. (Harvard offers more varsity sports than any school in the country.) While it is one thing to give preferences for football and basketball (sports that are accessible at all income levels), it is another thing to give massive preferences for sports like sailing and golf. Yet Harvard to date has shown no signs of eliminating (or even mitigating) these preferences for the rich despite increasing public pressure to remove them—perhaps an indication that Harvard is deeply concerned that such an overhaul would affect alumni giving.
So, having passed up the most obvious reform, how will schools such as Harvard and UNC change their admissions policies in response to the rulings?
One way is to simply down-weight academics under the auspices of “test optional” admissions. The fact is that substantial racial differences in academic achievement emerge prior to college. For the high school class of 2019, 25% of Asian Americans scored a 1400 or better on the SAT. For whites, it was 8%. For black students, 1%. Indeed, if Harvard admitted students solely based on their academic track record, black students would make up less than 1% of Harvard admits. Many universities went to “test optional” during COVID. But in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling, universities, including Harvard and UNC, have been reticent to bring that approach back.
There is something nefarious about not considering tests. Yes, test scores favor the rich. The problem is that other admissions factors (so-called “holistic admissions criteria”) favor the rich even more: a recent study found that, after controlling for test scores, the richest students were still admitted at “more than twice the rate of the population overall.” Where Harvard legacies scored especially well was on Harvard’s personal and athletic ratings, not on academics—a method of evaluation that, as I testified, unfairly discriminated against Asian-American applicants, who were often arbitrarily marked down.
Removing test scores makes the admissions process even murkier than it already is, making it possible to avoid scrutiny and potentially obscure the continued use of race in the admissions process (an end-run around the Supreme Court’s ruling). But murky admissions decisions do nothing to restore trust in education, further favor the rich, and waste students’ time applying to colleges where they have no hope of admission.
An alternative approach to improving diversity is to make colleges more accessible for all. While not explicitly targeting race, increasing accessibility helps those from disadvantaged backgrounds, which in turn disproportionately benefits under-represented minorities. There are two clear avenues for that approach. The first is making college more affordable for the poor. Soon after the Supreme Court ruling, UNC announced that it would cover tuition to in-state undergraduates from families making less than $80,000 a year. The second avenue is making the admission process transparent and cheap. This is the approach taken in Texas, where those who finish near the top of their class are guaranteed admission to public schools in Texas.
These are reasonable adaptations but beat against the current of private colleges’ steadily increasing cost of tuition. My dream is that some innovative school will use the Supreme Court ruling as a springboard to improve their product, especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and to lean in to data instead of shying away from it. If it is not easy to know exactly how to reform admissions practices in the wake of the SFFA rulings, the spirit of transparency is at least a place to start.
What universities seem to have trouble recognizing is that deliberately murky admissions processes deeply undermine the public’s trust in higher education. It’s worth considering how universities have masked their admissions processes so far. Universities have been giving massive preferences on the basis of race and legacy status for years, consistently claiming that these factors played only a small role in their admissions processes. This was false—as access to data readily reveals. Worse, these preferences have been growing over time. For example, from the early 1990s to the late 2010s, Harvard’s overall admit rate dropped by more than half, from 16.9% to less than 8%. Yet, over this same time period, admit rates for legacies were basically unchanged and consistently above 30%.
The spirit of the SFFA rulings would appear to be a springboard to greater transparency. What would that buy colleges? It would allow them to use their data to help their students and incentivize them to do so. Colleges could deploy that data to show how the education they offer affects the earnings, graduation rates, and career satisfaction of their students. And what if they’re not doing a good job with some subset of students? Instead of pretending that they’re doing fine, they could be honest about it and invest the resources to change the situation.
Using data to improve the student experience and being transparent about it will especially benefit those from disadvantaged backgrounds who are much less likely to be in the know about how the system works. I’ve seen all the ways my kids have benefited in their college experience from my knowing the system—in everything from not wasting time applying to colleges where they won’t be admitted, to registering immediately for classes before they fill up, to knowing how one’s major likely affects future earnings. It is time those same benefits were extended to all.
Colleges have for years been leaning away from tests and from data towards more “holistic” (read: murky and non-transparent) admissions criteria. The universities’ approach is, as the Supreme Court’s majority opinion put it, to ask the public to “trust us.” But that trust has worn very thin. It is time for a new approach—with data placed first.
Peter Arcidiacono is the William Henry Glasson Professor of Economics at Duke University. He served as an expert witness for Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. (SFFA) in SFFA v. Harvard and SFFA v. UNC.
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