A Selective Report on College Selectivity

The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) has a new State of College Admission Report that “provides a detailed look at some of the long-term trends observed in data collected by NACAC over the last ten years” as well as “a recap of some shorter-term observations.” For some unstated reason its release has been delayed, but the Chronicle of Higher Education has published a summary.

Leading the Chronicle’s article are the report’s survey findings that “[a] majority of colleges attribute little or no importance to students’ race and ethnicity or first-generation status when reviewing applications…. Roughly a quarter of colleges,” it notes, “ascribed at least moderate importance to applicants’ race and ethnicity and first-generation status as ‘contextual factors.'”

The Chronicle seems to think that these findings — although they will surprise no one familiar with the contours of college admissions —  suggest that all the attention devoted to racial preferences is inappropriate. “In a nation fixated on a handful of hyper-selective institutions,” it argues, “the findings are a reminder that not all colleges are the same; how applicants are selected varies from campus to campus. Continuing debates about the role race should play in admissions might be relevant to one admissions office but not to another.”

Well, of course. But does anyone concerned about race preferences in admissions really need reminding “that not all colleges are the same”?

Unlike the Chronicle, and perhaps the authors of the report, I think that the report’s findings confirm rather than question the appropriateness of affirmative action’s critics’ concern with race. If “roughly a quarter” of the nation’s colleges “ascribe at least moderate importance” to a candidate’s race and ethnicity, then virtually or even literally all selective colleges do, and some must ascribe more than moderate importance to those factors.

From the Chronicle’s reporting, there now seems to be some and perhaps growing defensiveness among college admissions personnel about race preferences. For example, the Chronicle quotes David A. Hawkins, NACAC’s director of public policy and research, who insists that “No institution makes a decision based exclusively on one of these contextual factors. All of these contextual factors have some bearing, but they are clearly secondary to the academic credentials.”

Those are common defenses of race preferences, but they are misleading to the point of being false. Any institution that rewards race to any degree in its admissions admits some students who would not have been admitted but for their race. That of course doesn’t mean that the admissions office looked only at the race of those students, but the fact that those students would not have been admitted but for their race undermines the relevance and even the accuracy of the assertion that no decision is “based exclusively” on race.

The other side of that racial coin is that when race preferences are awarded, to any degree, some students are denied admission who would have been admitted but for their race, and that number can be quite large, as demonstrated here, here, and especially here. The fact that some of those excluded students might have been admitted if their grades or test scores had been higher does not change the fact that when race is the determining factor in the admission of some students, it is the determining factor in the exclusion of others, despite all the twaddle about race and ethnicity being merely “contextual factors.”

John S. Rosenberg

John Rosenberg blogs at Discriminations.

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