Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Legitimacy of Holistic Admissions at U.S. Universities

With the competition for landing a quality job increasing with every passing year, acceptance into a high quality university is viewed as essential to maximizing the probability of landing one of these jobs. However, in lockstep with the competition for quality jobs, the competition to gain entrance into those universities widely regarded as high quality has also increased. This competition has produced controversy surrounding the procedure in which applicants are admitted creating a tug-of-war of sorts between various parties and their interests. One of the chief points of controversy is the validity of the “holistic” review process. In fact a lawsuit filled against Harvard University by the Students for Fair Admissions contends that holistic admission processes are inappropriately discriminatory and should be significantly clarified in their evaluation metrics beyond “whole person analysis”. Obviously a reading of the official complaint by the Students for Fair Admissions divulges a harsher conclusion than that above, but the sentiment above is more appropriate to produce a more fair admissions environment.

Proponents of the holistic method champion its multi-faceted analysis approach where a larger spectrum of an applicant’s qualifications for admissions is considered beyond the traditional metrics (standardized test scores, grades and certain extracurricular activities), which produces a more fair and accurate admissions process. Opponents of the holistic method believe that it is commonly used at best to hide the admissions process beyond a veil of ambiguity allowing universities to justify perplexing and arbitrary decisions and at worst to legitimize a quota system where more qualified candidates are rejected in favor of under-qualified candidates to achieve diversity demographics in order to evade public scorn. Clearly based on the perceived stakes, where getting into university A can set a person up for life versus university B which would create unnecessary hardships, the emotional aspect of this debate is high. Unfortunately this emotional aspect has produced an environment that abandoned a critical philosophical base for understanding the why or why not a holistic appropriate is appropriate.

First it is important to address that the holistic process has been attacked by some as a demonstration of “reverse racism” through the process of affirmative action. The term “reverse racism” is a misnomer and is not properly used in this descriptive context. Racism is giving differing treatment, either in a positive or negative manner, to an individual based on their ethnicity or race. Based on this definition, reverse racism would be akin to not giving differing treatment to an individual based on their ethnicity or race. However, when individuals invoke the term “reverse racism” the actual meaning is not what they are intending to convey. Instead they simply mean a different type of racism. Unfortunately some parts of society have associated the term racism to reflect only one particular form of racial bias instead of all forms of racial bias, which is inappropriate. Therefore, the term “reverse racism” should be eliminated from conversation in this context and replaced with the appropriate term – racism.

Second, it must be noted that the original intention of affirmative action was not to give “bonus points” to an individual based on their race, but to access how race may have influenced the acquisition of certain opportunities and thereby influenced the development of an individual through their performance when engaging in these opportunities. It should not be surprising that an individual with rich, committed and connected parents will have more opportunities and ability to prepare for those opportunities when presented than an individual without wealthy or even present parents.

For example it is expected that SAT scores would be higher for children of richer families both because of increased opportunity to prepare and increased opportunity to retest if the performance is not deemed acceptable. Also there is a higher probability that individuals from rich families will be better nourished than those individuals from poor families, which will directly influence academic performance and ability to participate in other valuable non-academic opportunities. Such environmental effectors are simple elements that can skew the value and analytical ability of “raw” metrics like standardized tests. Basically affirmative action is akin to judging the vault in gymnastics. Not all jumps have the same difficulty level; a non-perfect vault with a 10.0 difficulty will consistently beat a perfect vault with a 7.0 difficulty.

A quick side note: while the idea of affirmative action was originally based on the premise of race in an attempt to combat direct and indirect forms of racism, in the present the idea of affirmative action has shifted more to address differences in economic circumstance over race/ethnicity. The idea that rich individuals of race A will somehow be significantly excluded from opportunity A versus rich individuals of race B is modern society is no longer realistic. It is important to identify that more minorities will be assisted by affirmative action not directly because of race, but instead because of past racism that reduced the probability of these minority families to build intra-generational wealth thereby making them poorer than white families.

Based on the “potential judgment” aspect of affirmative action, some individuals may object to the idea that it is appropriate to punish an individual for having access to opportunities that others may not claiming that this behavior is a form of bias. This point creates the first significant philosophical question that must be addressed in the admissions process: is it justifiable that an above average individual in an advanced difficulty pool should find favor in an opportunity over a high quality performing individual in a lesser difficulty pool?

An apt example of this notion is seen in the disparity between the “Big 5” college conferences (ACC, Big 10, Big 12, PAC 12 and SEC) and the mid major conferences when selecting basketball teams for the NCAA Championship Tournament. While the committee tends to give preference to teams from the Big 5, the question is should they? A Big 5 power team, “Big Team A”, with a 55.5% conference winning percentage at 10-8 and an overall record of 21-13 has clearly demonstrated itself as slightly above-average among its peers whereas a mid major team, “Medium Team B”, with a 89% conference winning percentage at 16-2 and an overall record of 26-7 did not have the same opportunities to compete against the level of competition as Big Team A, but has demonstrated themselves a quality team with a greater unknown ceiling. Basically should someone slightly above the middle of the pack in one environment that could be viewed as more competitive be passed over for someone at the top at a tier 2 level?

In the arena of applicants the question of quality could boil down to: should the 100th best “area” A applicant be accepted over the 10th best “area” B applicant. Think about it this way: should applicant C from city y who scores significantly above average for that area on standardized tests and also has quality grades be accepted over applicant E from city x who scores slightly above average for that area on standardized tests and has quality grades even if applicant E’s scores are slightly higher? Note that obviously city x has a higher student average for standardized tests than city y.

Those who say yes to the above question based on the importance of fostering a racially/ethnically diverse environment must be careful not to fall into the trap of needless diversity, which is its own type of bias. With regards to fostering a diverse environment, its establishment must be based on thought and behavior, not on elements beyond an individual’s control.

There is an advantage to diversity of experience for it ensures a greater level of perspective and ability to produce understanding leading to more and potentially valid strategies for solving problems. However, this advantage comes from experience not from different skin color, religious beliefs, etc. For example the inclusion of person A just because he/she has certain colored skin or is of a certain ethnicity is not appropriate. Their inclusion should demand a meaningful and distinctive viewpoint. Cosmetic diversity for the sake of diversity serves no positive purpose and is inherently foolish and unfair/bias. Based on this point the crux of the issue regarding admissions is how to identify individuals with distinctive and valuable viewpoints in order to validate selecting a high achiever from a less difficult environment.

Most would argue that the standard analysis metrics are not appropriate for this task. For example grades are significantly arbitrary based on numerous uncontrollable environmental and academic circumstance; i.e. an A at high school x does not always carry the same weight as an A at high school y and some high schools allow students greater amounts of extra credit which conceal their actual knowledge of the subject through grade inflation. Standardized tests can be heavily prepared for and be taken multiple times depending on time and financial resources. Also they may not present an accurate representation of ability for almost no “real-world” task requires an individual to sit in one place in a time sensitive environment answering various questions without access to any outside resources beyond what is in their brain. At one point the “college essay” could have filled this role, but now it appears the essay has de-evolved into an ambiguous farce demanding only unoriginal “extraordinary” experiences and/or teaching moments where sadly it has become difficult to determine even if the student means what they say or are simply writing what they think the admissions officers want them to say.

However, while these flaws with the standard metrics exist, it is important to understand that abandoning the standard metrics entirely would be in error, for abandoning these metrics would be akin to replacing one “bias” with another. The standard metrics are an important puzzle piece, but they do not make up the entire puzzle.

For some the college interview has been thought of as a panacea for bridging the gap between holistic and standard admission judgment, but interviews do have caveats that must be monitored. Supporters of the interview process believe that it gives applicants an ability to demonstrate that he/she is more than just test scores, extracurricular activities and grades as well as allows both the university and applicant the ability to more specifically define the level of “fit” between the two beyond the mass generic questions utilized in the application process. Finally interviews can be a good deciding factor between board-line applicants.

Unfortunately interviews have some flaws that must be properly managed to ensure their legitimacy. First, individuals involved in the interview must be properly trained to avoid first impression bias as most interviews establish the tenor of the relationship between the interviewer and the interviewee very early, which threatens the objectivity of the rest of the interview. Also interviews must have a standard operating procedure, especially when it comes to the questions. Applicants must be asked the same questions for if different questions are asked to different applicants the subjectivity probability of the procedure increases, which hurts the interview as a comparison evaluation metric. It is fine to ask different questions if interviews are not going to be used when choosing one applicant over another, but most do not view the interview in such a causal light.

Another concern about the interview is they are unable to judge growth potential in how the university may positively or negatively influence the development of the applicant if he/she actually attends the university. Also if interviews do not have significant weight in the decision-making process then they may cause more harm than good due to lack of specific feedback providing more stress on an individual over relief as individuals wonder how the interview went leading to over-embellishment of the negative on small errors. Finally if interviews are deemed important it would be helpful if more universities offered travel vouchers to more financially needy applicants so if these individuals want to tour the campus and participate in the interview process they have an opportunity to do so that is not negatively impacted by their existing financially situation. Such a voucher may be important especially if interviews are used in “board-line” judgment.

A separate strategy may be the use of static philosophical probing questions in the application process. This strategy could better manage the difference in outside environmental influencing factors by gauging the general mindset of an applicant when it comes to solving problems. For example one question could be that if the individual were presented with a large jar full of chocolate and one individual sample; how would the individual calculate the number of chocolates in the jar? Note that this question demands both creativity and deterministic logic; creativity will produce more available options, but logic will be required to reason the best option from the list.

Another interesting question would be to ask what is the greatest invention in human history? Such a question would inspect whether an individual believes it is more important to build a foundation or if importance comes from what expands from that foundation. A third question could be what one opportunity would the applicant like to have had that they did not receive or was not available and why? These questions are superior to the generic banal analytically irrelevant questions that most universities ask on their admission forms.

Overall regardless of what methodology a university uses to accept or reject applicants the most important element is that this methodology is transparent. Universities must exhibit what attributes and credentials validate an individual’s merit for acceptance and then produce valid qualitative and quantitative reasons for why certain individuals gain admission and others do not. Transparency is the key element for a university to conduct their specific type of admission methodology without complaint. Returning to the original question whether or not a university elects to accept above average individuals from high “difficulty” environments or top performers from lower “difficulty” environment, either method is defensible as long as legitimate reasoning is available. However, there in lies the problem with the holistic method, universities are not transparent in its application, thus such behavior must change if a holistic method is to have any significant credibility.

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