Thursday, November 19, 2015

Is College Admission Fair?

Is the college admissions process fair?  Asking that question brings to mind an old joke about television.  The joke, credited to comedian Fred Allen (among others), asks, “Why do they call television a medium?”  The punch line?  “Because it’s neither rare nor well done.”

Like the joke, asking if the college admissions process is fair relies on a potential double-entendre.  By “fair,” do we mean “just” or do we mean “not that good”?

Last month in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Eric Hoover and Beckie Supiano wrote a fascinating piece on the concept of fairness in college admission.  I was quoted rather extensively in the article, so I’m not exactly objective, but they did a great job of examining the various dimensions of a principle that’s hard to argue against and even harder to define.

No one in his or her right mind would argue that the admissions process should be intentionally unfair, but what does fairness in college admissions look like? Even if we agree that “fair” equals “just,” that raises more questions than answers (which regular ECA readers know we are perfectly comfortable with).  Does a just admissions process reward past performance or predict future accomplishment?  Is fairness about equal treatment or equal consideration?  Is it fair for an institution to admit based on institutional interest and priorities? Is an admissions process based on merit fair, given that much of what passes for merit is really privilege in disguise?  

Fairness lies in the eyes of the beholder.  I learned that first hand a number of years ago when my parents divorced after thirty years of marriage. I was in graduate school at the time, and as I watched them go through that experience I had three “a-ha” moments.  The first was an odd role reversal where I found myself the adult and them the children.  The second was that each of them was happier after the divorce than I had ever seen them together.  The third had to do with the concept of fairness.  Each of them said to me in separate conversations, “All I want is what’s fair,” but they had very different conceptions of fair. 

Fairness in college admission is challenging even when focusing on a single variable.  Take SAT scores for example.  We know that they have a high correlation with family income.  If two applicants have identical scores, one from an affluent suburban school and the other from a rural high school where 10% of graduates go to college, do those scores mean the same thing?  Should a set of scores earned after spending hundreds of dollars on test prep count the same as those for a student from an inner-city environment who takes the test cold? 

The same is true for things like GPA.  Is it fair to consider a transcript without context?  Students from the same high school with the same GPA may have very different schedules, and different high schools have very different grading scales, and even more important, different grade distributions.  What’s more fair, admitting the student who earns a certain GPA without breaking a sweat, or the student who earns the same GPA in the same courses through hard work that maximizes ability?

Both of those examples make the case for a holistic admissions process as best and maybe fairest.  But making fine distinctions among hundreds or thousands of superbly qualified applicants requires either a complex calculus or the use of professional judgment that is largely subjective.

The very first article I ever wrote on college admissions was an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education back in 1988.  In the article I argued that selective college admission is a textbook example of Distributive Justice, a type of ethical dilemma where the challenge is to find a fair way of allocating a scarce resource.  I also posited that the fairest way to allocate scarce spaces in freshman classes was using random selection once admissions officers had identified those who were qualified for admission.

It was an idea whose time had not come.  For months I heard reports of my name being cursed in admissions circles, and some close friends thought I must be joking, writing a satire akin to Jonathan Swift’s proposal to eat children.  The most interesting feedback was from students who wrote letters to the Chronicle.  They were opposed to random selection, wanting to believe they were admitted because they were better than other applicants.   The article was ultimately reprinted in several venues, including a textbook on logic.  I never figured out if it was seen as an example of good logic or poor logic.  I may reprint that article in a subsequent post.

Perhaps the appropriate question is not “Is college admission fair?” but “Should college admission be fair?”  Do highly-selective colleges and universities worry about fairness in the admissions process?  At some level, yes, in that they strive for decisions that make sense within a school group, for instance.  At another level, they worry more about what’s fair for the institution.  I have heard a legendary admissions dean say that “The admissions process is rational, but not necessarily fair.”  Another well-known dean put it a different way, “I work for … university.  My job is to bring in the best, most interesting freshman class to help the university achieve its strategic goals.  It’s not my job to be fair to students or schools.”

There is probably a disconnect between what the public expects from the college admissions process with regard to fairness and the reality of the process.  Just because fairness isn’t easy to define doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth aspiring to.  If college admission serves not just institutional interest, but the public interest, then the public deserves a process that is as fair as possible.  The alternative is that we lose public confidence and trust in our profession.

The next time someone describes college admission as fair, let’s make sure they mean "just" and not "just okay."

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Restricted Early Action

This edition of Ethical College Admissions will tackle two issues that are unrelated except for a tenuous connection to the November 1 Early Decision/Early Action deadline. WARNING: This post may serve as evidence that I am suffering from PNSD (Post-November 1 Stress Disorder) after surviving the two most hectic, stressful two weeks of my entire career.

Topic #1:  Is it time to rethink the counselor recommendation letter as a meaningful part of the college admissions process?

I’ve been thinking about that question on a daily basis through October as I tried to find time and energy to write the largest number of recommendations for Early Decision and Early Action applications of any year in my entire career.  This time of year is always a challenge, and I can remember Halloween nights when my children were little when I would take them trick-or-treating and then return home to write last minute recs, but this is the first time I’ve had the sense that this deadline might get the best of me mentally and physically.

So what’s different?  Clearly I’m older, and the three hours it takes me to write a good letter drains me, even as I still feel great satisfaction in capturing the essence of a student and telling their story.  Part of the additional burden is having the largest class in school history, twice as big as my first class 25 years ago, and yet I know my colleagues in public schools with absurd counseling loads won’t and shouldn’t feel any sympathy.

The other changes are more global and subtle. One is that the application process has become compressed.  When I started in this profession, the application process lasted from mid-October until the end of January.  My son was born nearly thirty years ago at the beginning of February, and I have clear memories of spending the previous weekend working on rec letters for the last major deadline.  The workload used to be fairly evenly distributed throughout the process, with a wave every two weeks.  Now the November wave has become a tsunami as colleges move deadlines earlier and earlier. 

For students the message is that the early applicant gets the worm, that applying ED or EA is advantageous.  With the most selective colleges having admit rates of 5-10% and committed to crafting a class, the best (and maybe only) strategy for the unhooked student is to apply early. That coerces too many students to make application decisions before they are developmentally ready.   

The college recommendation letter is an art form, perhaps even an example of “neo-realistic American fiction.”  Its role in the college admissions process dates back to the 1920s, when colleges became more interested in producing good graduates (defined in a narrow way that resembled country club membership), than good students.  At independent schools “the letter” takes on mythic proportions, such that when I was first hired as a college counselor writing “the letter” seemed to be the entire job description. 

Is it time to rethink the rec letter?  I have talked to colleagues the past couple of weeks who are convinced that it’s time to replace the narrative letter with a paragraph or series of bullet points.  I’m not ready to go that far, or to follow in the footsteps of a predecessor whose recommendation letters consisted of either “Recommended” or “Highly Recommended,” but I worry that the quality of my letters will suffer as the quantity increases.

At a time when there is discussion about designing a new admissions process, I hope that “reform” will not mean a new application platform alone.  I hope we’ll think carefully about what we’re trying to measure, which parts of the application process provide useful information, and how the timing of the admissions process impacts not just the colleges asking for the info, but also the students, teachers and counselors that have to provide the info. 

Topic #2:  Is it time to rethink Restricted Early Action?

“How many kids do we have applying early?” is a question I commonly receive at this time of year.  It’s a question I no longer know how to answer.  “Early” now includes Early Decision, Early Action, Restricted Early Action, “priority” deadlines, and rolling admission, so any attempt to answer ends up being an essay answer to what is intended to be a short-answer question.

In a landscape full of confusing options, the one that takes the cake is Restricted Early Action.  Restricted EA might be described as a compromise between Early Decision and Early Action, with a student restricted from applying other places (with exceptions) but having until May 1 to commit, and like most legislative compromises it is deeply unsatisfying.

Restricted EA came about because several high profile institutions threatened to withdraw from NACAC if not allowed to prohibit their EA applicants from applying EA to other institutions, as allowed by the commonly agreed upon definition of Early Action.  This was one of the early skirmishes in what has become the ongoing war within college admissions between institutional autonomy and common professional standards, and the vote to allow Restrictive EA was seen by many in the profession as another victory for the privileged few.

Restricted Early Action raises some interesting ethical issues. Restricted EA came about after some highly-selective colleges saw an insane increase in applications after making the change from Early Decision to Early Action, a change made in response to criticisms that Early Decision advantages students who are already advantaged.  I understand the desire to keep EA numbers from getting out of control, but how can a college interfere with a student’s freedom to apply to other institutions? I am surprised that someone hasn’t filed a lawsuit alleging restraint of trade.  The same argument could be made about Early Decision, but I think that Early Decision is different.  ED is a contract, a moral contract to be sure, where the student agrees to declare a first choice and limit applications in exchange for an early decision from the institution.

I would argue that Restricted Early Action is really a form of Early Decision, only Early Decision that is non-binding.  When the NACAC Admission Practices Committee and Assembly developed definitions for Early Decision and Early Action back in the 1990s, they drew the line between the two as being binding vs. non-binding, defining Early Decision as binding.  That is certainly defensible, but I would argue that the line is better drawn as single-choice vs. multiple-choice, with students restricted to a single choice in ED.  Colleges with Early Decision programs should then have the option of being binding or giving students until May 1 to deposit.

I don’t know that my “modest proposal” is any less confusing, but it is more consistent philosophically.  It doesn’t address more fundamental questions about early applications, such as whether Early Decision should exist at all or whether colleges should admit more than half their classes early.  Those will have to wait for another day.

ECA is off to the nation’s capital for the College Board National Forum, looking forward to discussions about the Coalition and prior-prior along with infomercials for College Board products.