Why Elite-College Admissions Need an Overhaul

March madness is almost here. No, I’m not referring to the college-basketball playoffs; I’m alluding to the anxious waiting of young people and their families of word about their fate from the highly selective colleges of America. And I’m talking as well about those who are about to venture forth on the ritualistic campus tours to determine where they will apply next fall. What few of these families realize is how broken the admission system is at these selective colleges.

At these institutions of higher learning, the goal is to “shape a class,” which involves trying to admit qualified and diverse students who will learn from each other as well as from their experiences in the classroom. These are the students who have the greatest potential to use their education in productive ways and to contribute to their own well-being and to the needs of the larger society. Diversity is not defined here as solely pertaining to race, ethnicity, or gender, although that weighs on decisions, but also on a range of interests and talents that students can develop and share with others during their college years. These are high-minded goals.

Undergraduate admissions decisions rest in the hands of a staff of well-trained and highly motivated young people: the often-dreaded admissions officers. They travel around the country touting the virtues of their school, train students to give campus tours, and provide professional videos of what life is like at their institution. A director of admissions, usually significantly older and more experienced, oversees their work. Faculty members, however, rarely have any input in these undergraduate admissions decisions. In fact, at most elite colleges and universities, the faculty have almost nothing to say about admissions policies or what criteria should be emphasized in admitting students. Even at the Ivy League schools, there is rarely a discussion with the faculty about how the admissions office defines a “success” or a “failure” in a past admissions decision.

Despite their considerable abilities, many admissions officers are arguably not as talented or as interesting as the thousands of students who are applying to these schools—lots of whom will be rejected. The smartest, most imaginative, and most creative administrators are seldom located in the office of admissions, despite the office’s dedication and determination to admit the most qualified students.

empirical study conducted in 1996 by Patricia Conley, a political scientist at Northwestern University, of 300 admissions applications at a highly selective college demonstrated that although admissions officers talk about having a good deal of discretion in making decisions that circumvent customary attributes, College Board scores, GPA, race, gender, ethnicity, legacies—the standard factors that can be easily examined in an application—are by far the most significant determinants of the admissions decision.

If you are not a kid who has gone down the straight-and-narrow path for your entire high-school career, doing exceptionally well in everything and racking up impressive scores, you are rarely advised to apply to one of these highly selective colleges—unless you fall into some category (e.g., a star athlete) where it is well-known that lower standards are typically applied in terms of many academic credentials.

Within the group of high achievers whose SATs and GPAs are already off the charts, youngsters are often pushed by their parents and secondary-school teachers to differentiate themselves from the thousands of others by doing something special in extracurricular activities. So they may, say, enroll in a volunteer program, not necessarily because of true passion but for the record.

Toward a More Perfect University.