Preferences in College Admissions

I find that one topic at fancy dinner parties really gets people going: “preferences” in the college admissions process. Legacies vs. non-legacies? Race-based or “color blind”? Accommodate athletes or not? I’ve found that most people’s opinions are highly driven by their own situations or their children’s application profiles.

So, I read with interest a recent New York Times article (here). Some candidates are running for the Harvard Board of Overseers on a platform of making tuition free. They also believe that Harvard Admissions discriminates against Asian-Americans.

So, do preferences exist? I think so.

Online, I found an interesting study, from some Princeton professors, that looked at some highly selective colleges and whether certain variables (race, legacy, recruited athlete) affects admissions (here).

The bottom line is that there is “statistical significance.” For example, being a recruited athlete has the same impact as a +200 point swing on the SAT (based on the old 1600-point scale). For the impact of race and legacy status, there is a summary here at Wikipedia.

My view? Colleges are free to do what they want. They all have institutional priorities other than purely maxing out on academics.

I am all for giving someone from a poor, rural, and white background a “boost” in admissions. I also am for giving a boost to someone who is a minority candidate from an urban public school. And, I get it when a college needs to field incredible athletes who in some cases may not graduate at the top of the class but are clearly qualified to do the work.

Moreover, IMO, applicants also are free to do what they want; our oldest child, for example, decided not to opt in for a legacy “boost” at Yale. He applied elsewhere.

But, I think an open debate about these matters is ideal. Each selective college needs to decide what kind of student body it wants and should then market accordingly.

But, it’s pretty clear to me: really clear preferences exist. And, if some colleges deny them, it just seems disingenuous to me.

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