Should We Expect More Transparency From Highly Selective Admissions?

Outside the main quad at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.
Outside the main quad at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.

This is the second of a three-part series on fairness in highly selective, “elite” college admissions. Part one presented the problem created by the race to the top among the most highly selective schools. In part two, I discuss some of the challenges created by an unnecessarily opaque admission process. Part three will publish tomorrow.

Communication and Transparency

The reason I joined College Coach after five years working as an admission officer at my alma mater was to help make the process of applying to college easier and less stressful for the tens of thousands of families we connect with every year. The amount of anxiety, uncertainty, and stress that I see from parents and students every single day is wholly unnecessary, and I think the most competitive institutions—those I would call “elite” because they admit fewer than ten percent of applicants—owe it to prospective high school students to be much more transparent about the way they review applications. They especially owe it to students to explain what it takes to be competitive.

Changing this approach wouldn’t happen overnight, of course. Universities would need to come clean about their institutional priorities and the way they affect their admission decisions. They’d have to stand by the choice to accept an athletic recruit with lower grades and scores than another student; they’d have to be able to defend the way they prioritize diversity in their reading process, and the role of context in understanding a student’s achievement; they would need to be clear that the children of major donors get preferential treatment in the process, no matter the quality of their applications.

While I don’t expect schools to single out individuals in their class and identify the reasons they were admitted, I do expect them to be willing to stand by the criteria they use to choose their class. If a university wants to give an extra leg up to a student because his parents gave $10 million to endow a chair, the university should stand by that decision publicly as a choice that advances the interests of the institution. If it wants to prioritize diversity, it needs to be clear about why that’s a value that matters, and make that case openly and publicly. These are priorities that I think every (private) institution is well within its rights to establish, but the secrecy surrounding institutional choices suggest something nefarious is afoot, even when it isn’t. Transparency breeds trust, and colleges owe this to their applicants.

Colleges also need to do a much better job of establishing expectations for truly competitive applicants. Too often, admission officers encourage students to apply because, “while we are very selective, we look at the application holistically.” That’s not a lie on its face, but it’s also not the whole truth. Students with Cs just don’t get in unless they bring some other, extremely rare excellence to the table. If you’re outside the top ten percent of your class and don’t have an amazing hook as a part of your story, you can forget it. Professionals in college counseling know this. Admissions offices know this. But this kind of language appears nowhere on the websites at highly selective universities, and so each new class of great-but-not-quite-the-best students readies their applications—with time-consuming, challenging supplements—“just to see if I can get in.” They never do.

To help students better understand the landscape of competitive admission—and to give them an honest sense of their chances of getting in—we at College Coach are launching a weekly series here on the Huffington Post that, over the next two months, will help families better understand, through a variety of different factors, what it takes to be competitive at the most elite institutions in the country. Our hope is not just to help top-tier students see what it takes to get in, but to help many others understand the reality of highly selective admissions, and encourage them to tailor their educational and personal goals in a way that will align with their best-fit institutions, i.e. schools where their applications are more competitive and where the best educational opportunities await.

In tomorrow’s final installment of my series on fairness in high selective admissions, I’ll present some solutions for colleges brave enough to tackle this problem.

Ian Fisher is a Director, Educational Counseling with College Coach. He has an undergraduate degree in philosophy from Reed College, where he also worked for five years in college admission, and a M.A. in Policy, Organization, and Leadership Studies from Stanford University.

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