Tuesday, June 30, 2015

School's Out for Summer

This is the final post before ECA shuts down for the summer, featuring some news updates and brief comments.

1)    I always appreciate reader feedback, and want to respond to Nola Lynch’s comment posted on the blog yesterday.  She found a distinction I made between consultants and counselors “extraneous,” and objected to my lumping all educational consultants together, including those who are members of IECA and HECA.  The comment may have been extraneous, but I was struck by the fact that the Boston Globe story described those who advise Asian-America students to appear “less Asian” as consultants. 

What I didn’t intend at all was a comment about the independent consultant community at large.  I think of our independent colleagues as being college “counselors,” and had actually forgotten that the C in both IECA and HECA stands for consultant rather than counselor. I plead ignorance rather than malice. My issue was with those whose advice is solely about strategy and gaming the system, a danger about which all of us need to be vigilant, regardless of our title.

2)    Steve LeMenager’s comment alludes to the unhealthy obsession with prestige and branding in college admissions and in our society, and a recent Washington Post story exposes the dangers.  A student at an elite magnet school falsely reported that she had been admitted to a unique program that would allow her to spend two years at Harvard and two years at Stanford.  She also reported that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg had personally called her to encourage her to go to Harvard.  The story received media coverage in her native Korea, referring to her as the “Genius Girl,” only to be exposed as false.  The unfortunate incident followed another Post story about a student from the same school who had earned admission to all eight Ivies.  Is that something worth celebrating or reporting as news?

3)    At the end of a monumental week of decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Court announced yesterday that it will take another look at the case of Fisher v. Texas, which it considered two years ago.  At that time the Court sent the case back to the U.S. Court of Appeals Fifth Circuit asking it to consider whether the UT-Austin affirmative action plan satisfies the legal demand for “strict scrutiny.” The Fifth Circuit approved the Texas plan last year by a 2-1 margin.  Will news of the scandal where the President’s Office at UT-Austin ordered students with connections admitted influence the way the Supreme Court reconsiders Fisher?

4)    On Friday the U.S. Department of Education announced that it will back away from its plan to rate colleges.  The Department will produce a website with lots of data for consumers but will not include ratings.  Avoiding the temptation to rate colleges is a good decision.  Today the Federal government; tomorrow U.S. News?

5)    Sweet Briar College in Virginia will remain open for at least another year under the terms of a settlement brokered by Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring between the College’s Board and a group of alumnae that had filed suit arguing that the closing of the college violates the trust that established Sweet Briar.  Saving Sweet Briar, the alumnae group, will contribute $12 million under the terms of the agreement, and the college will get a new Board and administration. I wrote about Sweet Briar’s closing as a case of institutional euthanasia, and I worry that the settlement is only prolonging the college’s demise, but I admire those who have worked to keep Sweet Briar alive and wish them success.

6)    The June 6 administration of the SAT was marred by a printing error that resulted in students having five minutes less on two sections.  The College Board has since announced that neither of the two affected sections will be scored, but that the error won’t impact the validity of student scores.  The College Board and ETS are easy targets, and there are plenty of folks glad to see them squirming after a screw-up.  There have been calls for everything from giving a free summer re-test to refunding part of the test fee because of the fewer questions to cancelling scores for any student who asks. The CB has responded by offering free registration for October for any student who took the June test.

The College Board’s confident assurance that the validity of a student’s scores are unaffected by the two missing sections begs the question, Why is the test so long?  If scores are unaffected by those two sections, then why do we need those two sections to begin with? The answer may be for PR reasons.  Nearly thirty years ago an admissions dean friend who was active with the College Board told me that it had the technology to give the SAT on a computer with the ability to produce accurate scores with only three questions (how you answered the first question would determine what your next question was).  What kept them from introducing the new test were concerns that the public would lose confidence in the SAT (that would never happen).  So is making the SAT long and arduous tied to building the brand?

7)    This morning’s “Around the Web” section of insidehighed.com lists the most recent post as one of its two selections, the sixth time ECA has been included.

ECA is headed off to summer vacation, remembering the wisdom of Alice Cooper (“School’s Out for Summer”) and Porky Pig (“That’s All, Folks”).  We’ll be back in September.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Less Asian?

“Do Asian American applicants face an unlevel playing field?” was the opening question posed to me by NPR All Things Considered weekend host Arun Rath in an interview about the “landscape” of college admissions.

It was not a question I was expecting, and for a moment I hoped I was having a version of that dream where you realize that the final exam is tomorrow and you’ve somehow forgotten to go to class for the entire semester.  The issue had come up in passing in a pre-interview the previous day with a producer from the show, but I didn’t expect it to be the focus of the interview.

I shouldn’t have been surprised.  I had somehow missed a news story a couple of days earlier that a coalition of 64 organizations filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights alleging that Harvard’s holistic admissions process deliberately discriminates against Asian-American applicants.  A lawsuit making the same claim was filed last November in federal district court by the group Students for Fair Admissions.  And within a couple of days after the NPR story ran the Boston Globe reported that college admissions “consultants” (not the same thing as college counselors) are advising Asian-American students to appear less “Asian” when applying to elite colleges.

I answered Rath’s question by explaining (but not defending) the nature of highly-selective college admissions.  In an environment where only 5% or 10% of applicants will be offered admission, there are lots of exceptionally qualified students who won’t get in. To borrow a phrase from logic, merit is necessary but not sufficient.   Selectivity, the desire to build a well-rounded class, and the belief in holistic admission all frustrate students and parents who want to understand what it takes to get in.  I also expressed my view that the hidden currency of selective admissions is uniqueness (that may not be the right word), in that the more there is of any quality or talent the less valuable it is, and vice versa.

As a college counselor (rather than a “consultant”), I sit down with every student who aspires to attend an Ivy or similarly selective college or university and explain that earning admission requires both a superb record and luck.  That is especially the case for students without a hook (recruited athlete, diversity, legacy).  The odds for unhooked applicants are much lower, probably less than 1%.  Of the thirteen students in this year’s senior class who were admitted to a national highly-selective school, only one didn’t have some combination of hooks (if you count a couple of Early Decision full pays).  All had superb credentials, but without the hooks they probably wouldn’t have been admitted.

So are Asian-American applicants intentionally discriminated against or just unhooked?  They are not currently underrepresented in the Harvard student body.  Asian-Americans make up 20% of Harvard’s student body, compared with 5% of the general population in the United States.  That doesn’t mean they’re not discriminated against, of course, if they “deserve” an even larger percentage. Affirmative action cases such as Fisher v. Texas refer to the concept of “critical mass,” an imprecise term, given that a precise numerical definition of critical mass looks a lot like a quota. Critical mass is normally thought of as a minimum number, but might it entail a maximum as well?

The plaintiff in the court challenge, Students for Fair Admissions, is an offshoot of the Project for Fair Representation, an advocacy group headed by Edward Blum devoted to ending race-conscious admission.  The group’s concern for the plight of Asian-Americans may be more a matter of convenience than conviction, as it has also filed a lawsuit against UNC-Chapel Hill with no mention of Asian-American applicants. Questionable motives do not automatically mean that the suit is without merit.

Most of the evidence of discrimination presented in the Students for Fair Admissions suit is prima facie, circumstantial in nature.  A 2009 study by Princeton professor Thomas Espenshade and Alexandra Radford concluded that Asian-Americans needed SAT scores 140 points higher than white students to get into elite colleges at the same rates.  The consistency in percentage of Harvard students from various ethnic groups over a long period of time is cited as evidence of racial balancing, as is the discrepancy in the percentage of Asian-Americans at Harvard (20%) compared with the percentage at Cal Tech (40%), which doesn’t take race into consideration in admission.

Then there is the historical argument against holistic admission.  Holistic admission, including such application staples as the personal essay, extracurricular activities, and letters of recommendation, traces its origins back to the 1920s, as documented in Jerome Karabel’s dense but fascinating history of admissions at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, The Chosen.  Holistic admission was part of a move from the “best student” paradigm to the “best graduate” paradigm, ultimately replaced by today’s “best class” paradigm.  Karabel’s contention is that holistic admission was a tool to limit the Jewish enrollment at Harvard, and the lawsuit argues that today holistic admissions limits the number of Asian-Americans.

I don’t want to believe that holistic admission is being used to unfairly discriminate today, even if it’s clear that in the past terms such as “character” and “leadership” were defined in a narrow, even racist, way.  I believe in holistic admission and regret that the Common Application has moved away from it as a pillar of its mission, but also recognize that holistic admission can be a veil of secrecy over the admissions process.

If Asian-American applicants are being disadvantaged in the selective admissions process, it’s less due to holistic admission than other factors.  One is the increasing international nature of the student bodies at highly-selective schools.  Why admit Chinese-Americans when you can admit students from China? 

The other is the “class full of differences” paradigm, which values and rewards spike talents and compelling personal narratives rather than the superb resume pursued by many Asian-American students.  At a counselors’ breakfast I attended last fall sponsored by five highly-selective colleges, the consensus among the admissions officers present was that 90% or more of applicants were qualified, even superbly qualified, but very few were “interesting.”

I was annoyed by that attitude, because I think that a college education should help young people become “interesting,” but in this case it’s also instructive.  Asian-American applicants don’t have to be advised to be less Asian, but rather more interesting, more individual.  In the same way that independent schools had to come to grips that what might be best for a student educationally, being a well-rounded individual, was no longer the best way to earn admission to a highly-selective college or university, the path pursued by many Asian-American applicants, superb grades and scores supplemented by a menu of activities like tennis and violin, is no longer the sure path to Harvard or other schools.


P.S.  My hope is to do one more post next week before the blog goes on summer break.      

Friday, June 5, 2015

A Few Things Considered

HEADLINE:  Ethical College Admissions Mentioned on NPR All Things Considered!

Several weeks ago I was interviewed for a story on the weekend version of NPR’s signature program, All Things Considered. If you by chance missed it, you’re not alone.  It aired on Saturday, May 23, in the midst of the Memorial Day holiday weekend, meaning that the listening audience numbered around 41. Even I missed it, because I wasn’t sure if and when the story would be reported.  Anyway, here’s a link.

How did this come about?  On the previous Wednesday afternoon, I received an e-mail from a producer at NPR.  She said that they were looking to talk with someone about “the current landscape of how colleges choose their incoming class” and that she had read an article I had written a couple of years ago for Eric Hoover’s Head Count blog for the Chronicle of Higher Education asking if the college admissions process is measuring the right things.  She mentioned grit and how one assesses it and racial preferences in admission as possible topics, and that they were hoping to do the interview before the end of the week.

The timing was less than ideal.  Our seniors were graduating that Friday, and Thursday marked the beginning of what we affectionately refer to as the “24 hours of hell,” with four major events crammed into a short span.  We have our Awards Assembly at 2, the Baccalaureate service at 5, and the Athletic Banquet at 7, then have Commencement at 10 a.m. the next morning.  For those of us with responsibilities in several of those events, it is exhausting and stressful.

I therefore responded that it was a hectic time, but that I might be able to find a couple of windows either Thursday or Friday.  Within five minutes the producer e-mailed that she would call in fifteen minutes.  During that call we talked about a couple of other possible topics, including how college admissions and higher ed have become a business, and we set the interview for Thursday afternoon, meaning that I would miss Baccalaureate.

The next morning she called again to confirm that they would send a radio producer to my office to record the phone interview with Arun Rath, the weekend host for All Things Considered.  That made me wonder if this might be different from the interviews I’ve done with newspaper reporters, where a fifteen minute conversation shows up in the story as a one-line quote.  She also asked an interesting question.  How do you know anything about college admissions when you don’t work at a college?  That question, usually unstated, is not unfamiliar to those of us who work at the secondary level, and it raises an interesting larger question. Does someone who works in the admissions office at one institution understand the landscape of college admissions better than someone who deals with lots of institutions? I cringe when I think about how little I knew during my admissions days, but that may be me.  In any case, I answered by citing my years of experience, NACAC leadership, and work with the blog, but wondered if they were looking for a perspective different than I could offer.

I tried to prepare for the interview with some notes and talking points regarding the admissions landscape.  One point I especially wanted to make was that there is not a single college admissions landscape.  There are at least two landscapes in the college admissions universe.  Most media coverage of college admissions focuses on the competition for places at highly-selective colleges and universities, but that landscape includes only 10% of the institutions of higher education in this country.  The other 90% are in a landscape where any qualified student will be admitted, and I have seen statistics that 80% of students are admitted to their first-choice schools.

I never got the chance to make that point, because the interview went down a different path than I expected.  With the exception of one question about “grit,” the rest of the interview was about whether Asians are discriminated against in the college admissions process, a subject I wasn’t prepared to discuss.  To be fair, the producer had mentioned that issue in passing in our pre-interview, but not that it would be the primary focus, and I had also missed a news story several days before that a coalition of 64 organizations had filed a complaint with the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights alleging that Harvard discriminates against Asian-American applicants in the admissions process.

So there I was, being interviewed for a national radio audience, asked to comment on Harvard’s treatment of Asian-American applicants.  I knew full-well that I was in a minefield where it would be easy to say something that might easily be misconstrued.  I saw my job as providing context about how admission works rather than defending it.  So I talked about how in my view the hidden currency of selective admissions is uniqueness, that the more of any talent or quality the less valuable it is.  I talked about holistic admission as a way to build a class and how frustrating that can be for students and parents who don’t understand why they don’t get admitted in an environment where most highly-qualified applicants are denied.  And I suggested that fairness is hard to achieve in a process where so many metrics are ultimately measures of socioeconomic privilege.

On the fairness front, one response that was edited out of the interview was my suggestion that the fairest way to admit applicants is using random selection from among those judged qualified.  I first suggested that in a Chronicle of Higher Education article in 1988, and some saw it as satire, akin to Jonathan Swift arguing for eating children.  But if selective admission is an exercise in Distributive Justice, allocating a scarce resource fairly, then random selection achieves fairness even as it prevents shaping the class.  When I originally made that proposal, neither students nor admissions officers found it compelling, and apparently the same is true for NPR.

Throughout the interview I felt off my game, and when I ended I was convinced it would never be used, especially after Arun Rath started to ask a follow-up question, then said “Never mind.”  But thankfully it didn’t sound as bad as I feared.

In the next post I will consider whether Asians are discriminated against and whether Asian students should be encouraged to look “less Asian.”