Selective colleges should focus less on applicants’ achievements and more on what they’ve overcome (essay)

When America’s elite universities encounter a challenge, there’s a proud tradition of establishing a seemingly judicious, impartial process — but one with rules that actually predetermine winners.

Several years back, one top school had a number of successful club sports clamoring for varsity status. The president had already decided that sailing should be elevated but needed to figure out how to handle the others: Ultimate Frisbee, wrestling, rugby and water polo. So he announced a selection process to determine which clubs should become varsity sports.

The criteria were as follows: first, a tradition of achievement; second, self-funding — not drawing on university or athletic department funds; third, Title IX neutral — meaning an equal number of female and male student athletes. While the criteria sound fair and reasonable, they were cunningly selected to rule out all sports save sailing. As a relatively new sport, Ultimate Frisbee didn’t have a tradition of achievement. The self-funding requirement knocked out rugby and water polo, which didn’t have strong alumni bases. And wrestling was pinned by the Title IX requirement. Only sailing met all three criteria and was elevated to varsity status.

Of course, this doesn’t come close to the most important process at selective colleges and universities that is ostensibly fair and impartial but actually rigged. That would be admissions.

While the college admissions process takes into account a range of relevant factors, the pivotal criteria for the vast majority of applicants are the easiest to observe and quantify or rank: grades, test scores, extracurricular activities and recommendations. All these factors reflect absolute achievement by 18-year-old applicants. And while absolute achievement says a great deal about a young applicant’s talent and motivation, it may say as much if not more about the resources and support they have received.

As a result, admitted students are increasingly from families with the resources to own houses in great school districts or afford private school. Here’s the explanation Princeton University’s dean of admissions gave The Daily Princetonian as to why Princeton admits between 30 to 40 percent of legacy applicants: “They have had the fortune of going to good schools. They have had opportunities that they’ve taken advantage of and are very strong applicants.”

This absolute-achievement definition of a strong applicant is why 75 percent of students at selective colleges come from the top income quartile, and only 5 percent come from the bottom quartile. And why, shockingly, at 38 schools — including five Ivies — there are more students from the top 1 percent than the bottom 60 percent. While wealthy students are able to display great talent, many are born on third base and — because they are admitted to a good school — think they hit a triple.

As Jeff Selingo noted last week, it’s important keep college admissions in perspective. There are only about 200 colleges and universities that can properly be called selective (i.e., an acceptance rate of under 50 percent), and they enroll less than 10 percent of all undergraduates. But these institutions play an outsize role in American life. They’re the lens through which American culture views the entire higher education system. If you go to any prominent company or organization, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone in a leadership role who hasn’t attended one of these schools. So even though there are only 200, college admissions at these schools is a matter of national importance. And the seemingly judicious and impartial admissions process that measures absolute achievement at a young age is rigging the game in favor of wealthy families and turning what had once been an engine of social mobility into a giant brake.

I’ve previously suggested that distance traveled would be a better metric for evaluating the performance of colleges and universities, i.e., evaluating how far an institution is able to take a student. In the words of Wayne Burton, the former president of North Shore Community College in Massachusetts:

For me, it’s the distance an institution brings someone from where they started to where they finish that should bring the highest acclaim. If I take a single mother in Lynn who doesn’t speak English, and she ends up with an associate degree in health care, that’s more praiseworthy than a private college that takes kids with 1600 SATs and gives them bachelor’s degrees.

It’s high time we began applying the distance-traveled concept to college admissions. A student who has traveled a greater distance — overcoming a lack of resources, family structure or support, and discrimination of any kind — is more likely to have the grit that is probably a better predictor of lifetime/career success (and certainly a better indicator of potential) than absolute achievement at the age of 18. A number of leading state universities have already begun to implement such an approach, at least informally. But few private universities have done so, and no school has done anything to popularize it.

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What would a distance-traveled approach to college admissions look like? It would require a concerted effort to evaluate student achievement relative to unique background and resources. Colleges and universities should consider establishing an “adversity index” for high schools to weight applicant test scores via a combination of factors like percentage of free and reduced-price lunch at their high schools, diversity in terms of minorities and immigrants, as well as local income level, unemployment rate, and crime rate.

More than any other metric, test scores should be indexed; wealthy students utilize SAT tutors and take the test multiple times, whereas most low-income students are untutored and take it once. In terms of grades, the admissions process should focus on class rank rather than absolute GPA.

In terms of essays and response questions, colleges and universities should ask both applicant and parent about family income, resources and structure from a young age to try to get a sense of the distance. They should also ask if applicants are helping to take care of siblings or other family members (or if a sibling or other family member has played a major role in helping to take care of them). Questions should focus on how applicants have solved problems with the resources they’ve had. Finally, colleges must recognize and reward paid work, no matter how manual or menial, and particularly if applicants have helped to support their families.

Reorienting admissions according to distance traveled also means de-emphasizing the most egregious examples of absolute achievement culture. Schools should not reward flashy volunteer experiences or unpaid internships. Stop focusing solely on participation or leadership in extracurricular activities and ask students to reflect on their impact on the group and the impact of the activity on their own development. Legacies should not receive a leg up. The status of recommenders should be irrelevant. CEOs and custodians should have equal say; what should matter is the content of the recommendation. And stop rewarding students with the resources to travel to campus. Whether students have visited campus before being admitted is irrelevant in a distance-traveled world.

Finally, it would help level the playing field if the SAT and ACT were administered universally and free of charge to students, as Susan Dynarski argued last month. And colleges should provide templates to all students for résumés, essays and response questions: students who’ve traveled a greater distance probably haven’t seen these done right, let alone practiced them.

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Unlike the sailing example, the college admissions process isn’t intentionally rigged. Distance traveled is hard to measure — much harder than test scores and grades — and particularly when sorting through the tens of thousands of applications that selective schools receive.

But we should insist that these 200 schools do the work. The stakes are too high. Poll after poll shows Americans believe the higher education engine is broken. Our best schools must stop being part of the problem and lead the development of a solution. Taking a distance-traveled approach to admissions can help. American colleges and universities need to do much more to measure potential than simply looking at absolute achievement at the age of 18.

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