‘Holistic’ admissions at Berkeley

When California voters barred the use of racial or ethnic preferences in college admissions, the University of California vowed to use a “holistic” process that considers socioeconomic disadvantages, leadership and motivation, as well as grades and test scores. As a reader of applications for Berkeley’s engineering department, Ruth Starkman saw the holistic process at work, she writes in the New York Times.

A highly qualified student, with a 3.95 unweighted grade point average and 2300 on the SAT, was not among the top-ranked engineering applicants to the University of California, Berkeley. He had perfect 800s on his subject tests in math and chemistry, a score of 5 on five Advanced Placement exams, musical talent and, in one of two personal statements, had written a loving tribute to his parents, who had emigrated from India.

The applicant was a 2 on a 1-to-5 scale (1 being highest) because he didn’t have enough extracurricular activities and engineering awards, she learned in training.

Now consider a second engineering applicant, a Mexican-American student with a moving, well-written essay but a 3.4 G.P.A. and SATs below 1800. His school offered no A.P. He competed in track when not at his after-school job, working the fields with his parents. His score? 2.5.

Readers were told to told to ignore minority background, but could consider whether a student came from a non-English-speaking household if it was a “stressor” that justified a special read looking for socioeconomic disadvantages.

To better understand stressors, I was trained to look for the “helpful” personal statement that elevates a candidate. Here I encountered through-the-looking-glass moments: an inspiring account of achievements may be less “helpful” than a report of the hardships that prevented the student from achieving better grades, test scores and honors.

Readers are supposed to look for “leadership,” a major criterion in the holistic process. That usually meant extracurricular activities. (Volunteer trips to exotic places were taken as a sign of  ”privilege.”)

In my application pile, many students from immigrant households had excellent grades and test scores but few activities. I commented in my notes: “Good student, but not many interests or activities? Why? Busy working parents? And/or not able to afford, or get to, activities?”

Many essays “lucidly expressed a sense of self and character,” Starkman writes.  Others “betrayed the handiwork of pricey application packagers, whose cloying, pompous style was instantly detectable.”

She read innumerable hard-luck stories, not all of them credible. Kids figure out what sells.

Favoring “stressors” over academic success has costs:  92 percent of whites and Asians at Berkeley graduate within six years, compared with 81 percent of Hispanics and 71 percent of blacks. In the UC system, 17 percent of Hispanic and black students who express interest in the sciences graduate with a science degree within five years, compared with 31 percent of white students.

It’s ironic that colleges claim to be looking for  “leadership” potential, writes Walt K in the comments.

. . . their entire process is designed to select compliant followers: people who have bought into the whole game, and are happy to play along.

People who do well on tests. People who do well in class. People who follow instructions. People who join clubs. People who follow the conventional wisdom People who teachers like. People who do what they are told. People who do all the ‘right’ things.

. . .  leaders are the ones who say, ‘To heck with this, I’m picking myself.’ Which may often mean bailing out on college to actually DO something instead of sucking up.

I think Walt K has a point.

Many elite colleges enroll few low- and moderate-income students, reports the New York Times. Berkeley is much higher than the average, due affirmative action for disadvantaged students.

Race-based admissions faces ‘strict scrutiny’

The U.S. Supreme Court didn’t reject the University of Texas’ race-conscious admissions plan outright, as many had expected. However, justices voted 7 to 1 to send the Fisher ase back to a lower court for “strict scrutiny” of whether the plan is justified.

“A university must make a showing that its plan is narrowly tailored to achieve the only interest that this Court has approved in this context: the benefits of a student body diversity that ‘encompasses a . . . broad array of qualifications and characteristics of which racial or ethnic origin is but a single though important element,’ ” wrote Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.

In 2003, a divided court in Grutter v. Bollinger approved a limited use of race by the University of Michigan Law School to achieve a “critical mass” of diversity, notes the Washington Post.

The University of Texas at Austin . . . admits about 75 percent of its freshmen based on their graduation rankings from Texas high schools. Since many of the state’s high schools are dominated by one race or ethnicity, this has created a diverse applicant pool.

For the remaining slots, it uses a “holistic” evaluation of applicants that includes race as one of many factors.

The case is named for Abigail Fisher, a white student who didn’t qualify for automatic admission. She argued “the attempts to boost the number of African American and Hispanic students cost her a spot in the freshman class of 2008.” She went instead to Louisiana State University (no doubt paying higher out-of-state tuition) and earned a bachelor’s degree.

Strict scrutiny just got a lot stricter, writes Kirk Kolbo, who argued against UM’s race-conscious affirmative action plan in Grutter, on Powerline.

. . . the Court’s opinion in Fisher goes into painstaking detail (more than five pages are devoted to the issue) about how the Fifth Circuit should go about applying strict scrutiny after the remand.

. . . Strict scrutiny requires both a “compelling interest” justifying the use of race as a factor in decision-making, and means of implementing that interest that are “narrowly tailored” to achieving it.

. . .  Fisher states that a university “receives no deference” on the question of whether the “means chosen . . . to attain diversity are narrowly tailored to that goal.”

. . . Perhaps the strongest point in Fisher is the statement that “[t]he reviewing court must ultimately be satisfied that no workable race-neutral alternatives would produce the educational benefits of diversity.” (emphasis added).

It will be much harder for racial preferences to pass muster, Kolbo predicts.

76% oppose use of race in college admissions

Seventy-six percent of adults oppose “allowing universities to consider applicants’ race as a factor in deciding which students to admit,” according to a Washington Post/ABC poll.

That includes 79 percent of whites, 78 percent of blacks and 68 percent of Hispanics. Sixty-four percent of liberal Democrats oppose race-based affirmative action in college admissions.

Universities don’t seek socioeconomic diversity

Focused on race-based affirmative action, many public universities aren’t eager to recruit low-income students, reports the New York Times.

“It’s expensive,” said Donald E. Heller, dean of the College of Education at Michigan State University. “You have to go out and identify them, recruit them and get them to apply, and then it’s really expensive once they enroll because they need more financial aid.”

The U.S. Supreme Court will rule soon on race-based admissions at the University of Texas at Austin. Many think affirmative action linked to race and ethnicity will be struck down.

Polls show that while most Americans oppose racial or ethnic preferences in college admissions, they also think colleges should give extra help to the poor.

Some states have already banned affirmative action, including California, Florida, Michigan and Washington, and in each of them, the selective public universities stepped up their efforts to recruit disadvantaged students, hoping to enroll more black, Hispanic and American Indian students in the process.

Even in states that have rejected racial preferences, flagship universities “vary widely in how hard they work to identify high-achieving, disadvantaged students and prepare them for college, how heavily they weight disadvantage in admissions, and how generous they are with financial aid,” reports the Times.

More than 40 percent of University of California students qualify for Pell Grants, which go to low- and moderate-income students. That includes 34 percent at Berkeley and 36 percent at UCLA.

At the University of Michigan, also highly selective and banned from considering race, only 16 percent of undergraduates received Pell Grants.

The private sector is less committed to affirmative action in hiring, adds the Times in another story.

“Tens of thousands of qualified low-income students, 30 percent of them racial minorities” don’t apply to elite colleges, according to research by Stanford’s Caroline Hoxby and Harvard’s Christopher Avery.  Colleges should recruit low-income high achievers, writes Fordham’s Mike Petrilli in a Bloomberg commentary.

In a follow-up study, Hoxby and a colleague sent college information packets to a random selection of low-income high-achievers. Students who got the information were 80 percent more likely to apply to and gain admission to a selective college than similar students who didn’t get the packet. The mailings cost $6 per student.

Diversity without racial preferences

Can Diversity Survive Without Affirmative Action?  The Supreme Court will rule soon on whether the University of Texas can use race and ethnicity in admissions, points out the New York Times‘ Room for Debate blog. If universities can’t use race, can they achieve diversity by giving preferences to low-income students, improving outreach and financial aid or ending legacy preferences?

Affirmative action for low-income students of all races is fairer than racial preferences, writes Richard Kahlenberga senior fellow at the Century Foundation.

Liberals are likely to bemoan any Supreme Court decision reducing racial preferences, but such policies never had the support of the American public and a ruling along these lines could pave the way for better programs. While universities prefer race-based programs that assemble generally well-off students of all colors, the end of such programs will likely usher in a more aggressive set of policies that will, at long last, address America’s growing economic divide.

California has preserved diversity, despite a state ban on race-based affirmation action, writes Stephanie Reyes-Tuccio, who directs the Center for Educational Partnerships at the University of California at Irvine. “Outreach to disadvantaged communities equals more outreach to students of color.”

Academic merit should be the primary criteria for admission, writes Richard Vedder, an Ohio University economist who directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.

It is unfair and wrong to accept a black child from a prosperous college-educated family with a $200,000 income while rejecting an equally qualified white person from a poor household with a $40,000 income where the parents never attended college.

“Taking more poor students . . . arguably promotes the American Dream of equality of opportunity, but also works to support minority admissions,” Vedder writes. But they must be qualified academically.

Beyond race-based affirmative action

After oral arguments today in Fisher vs. University of Texas, many think the U.S. Supreme Court will limit, if not eliminate, universities’ ability to use race in admissions. The plaintiff, Abigail Fisher, argues UT has achieved diversity by admitting the top 10 percent graduates at each high school and doesn’t need to use a race-conscious policy to admit more blacks and Hispanics.

A loss for affirmative action would be good for ethnic and racial diversity in the long run, argues Thomas J. Espenshade, in Moving Beyond Affirmative Action, a New York Times commentary. Americans would have to address “the deeply entrenched disadvantages that lower-income and minority children face from the beginning of life,” writes Espenshade, a professor of sociology at Princeton and a co-author of  No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life.

Race-based affirmative action affects only 1 percent of all black and Hispanic 18-year-olds, the students who apply to more selective colleges and universities, he writes. Eliminating the preference would cut black admissions by 60 percent and Hispanics by one-third at selective private schools. Giving preferences to low-income students wouldn’t make up the difference, “given the large numbers of working-class non-Hispanic whites and Asians in the applicant pool.”

Without affirmative action, racial diversity on selective college campuses could be preserved only by closing the racial achievement gap, Espenshade writes.

 If affirmative action is abolished, selective colleges and universities will face a stark choice. They can try to manufacture diversity by giving more weight in admissions to those factors that are sometimes close substitutes for race — for example, having overcome disadvantage in a poor urban neighborhood. Or they can take a far bolder step: putting their endowments and influence behind a comprehensive effort to close the learning gap that starts at birth.

That would be a long, hard struggle, but it would benefit many more people. “However the court decides the Fisher case, affirmative action’s days appear numbered,” Espenshade predicts. ”In 2003, in the Grutter decision, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote that she expected such preferences to disappear within 25 years — by 2028. The children who would go off to college that year are already 2 years old.”

Study: Education doesn’t liberalize views

Highly educated whites and minorities are no more likely to support workplace affirmative action programs than are their less educated peers, according to a new study in Social Psychology Quarterly.  Education does increase support for race-targeted job training, said Geoffrey T. Wodtke, a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Michigan, who wrote the study.

“I think that some of the values that are promoted through education, such as individualism and meritocracy, are just much more consistent with opportunity-enhancing policies like job training than they are with redistributive or outcome-equalizing policies like affirmative action.”

While educated blacks and Hispanics are believed to be the most likely to benefit from affirmative action, they don’t support it.  They may feel stigmatized, speculated Wodtke.

Don’t check Asian

College applicants now identify as white rather than Asian, if they can, to increase their admissions chances. That’s inspired Next Media Animation’s  Don’t check Asian.

Administration: Diversity justifies race-conscious policies

 Schools and colleges can consider consider race and ethnicity to promote diversity, advises the Education and Justice Departments in new “guidances” that reverse Bush Administration policy.

“Diverse learning environments promote development of analytical skills, dismantle stereotypes, and prepare students to succeed in an increasingly interconnected world,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in announcing the guidance Dec. 2 with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Race-neutral policies should be considered first, but need not be tried before being deemed “unworkable,” according to the administration. And race or ethnicity can be a “plus factor,” but not a “defining” factor.

“A school district should not evaluate student applicants in a way that makes a student’s race his or her defining factor,” says the K-12 guidance, in reference to decisions on competitive academic programs, for example.

Civil rights groups have been lobbying for the changes.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide in January whether to consider a white student’s challenge of the use of race in University of Texas admissions policy.

1-hour exercise raises blacks’ GPAs

After an hour discussing the fact that the college transition is tough for everyone, black students earned significantly higher grades, shrinking the minority achievement gap by 52 percent, report Greg Walton and Geoffrey Cohen, Stanford psychologists, in a paper published in the March 18 Science. The exercise stressed that it’s normal for new college students to worry that they don’t belong and that it gets better over time.

“When your group is in the minority, being rejected by a classmate or having a teacher say something negative to you could seem like proof that you don’t belong, and maybe evidence that your group doesn’t belong either. That feeling could lead you to work less hard and ultimately do less well.”

Twenty-two percent of black freshmen who participated ended up in the top 25 percent of their graduating class, compared to 5 percent of blacks in the control group. One third of blacks in the experimental group graduated in the bottom 25 percent compared to half of the control group.

The experiment was conducted at a “top university,” presumably Stanford, so these were very competent students. But it’s scary to go from being a star student in high school to being nothing special in college. I faced that as a Stanford freshman — without having to worry that I’d been held to lower standards because of affirmative action.

Black and white students in the experimental group “read surveys and essays written by upperclassmen of different races and ethnicities describing the difficulties they had fitting in during their first year at school.” The upperclassmen emphasized that they grew more confident eventually and were able to make good friends and develop  strong relationships with professors.

“Everybody feels they are different freshman year from everybody else, when really in at least some ways we are all pretty similar,” one older student – a black woman – was quoted as saying. “Since I realized that, my experience . . . has been almost 100 percent positive.”

The test subjects in the treatment group were then asked to write essays about why they thought the older college students’ experiences changed. The researchers asked them to illustrate their essays with stories of their own lives, and then rewrite their essays into speeches that would be videotaped and could be shown to future students. The point was to have the test subjects internalize and personalize the idea that adjustments are tough for everyone.

The exercise had virtually no impact on white students’ academic careers, but made a significant difference for blacks. In addition to higher grades, blacks who participated reported being happier, healthier and less likely to think about negative racial stereotypes compared to the control group.

Walton and Cohen believe similar exercises may help first-generation college students and immigrants succeed in college.