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Why transparency in college admissions is bad

Andy Pettis is, like many of us, a conscientious parent of a Washington area high school student. He does not understand how some selective colleges admitted his daughter and others did not. She applied to six public universities in Virginia.
"She was rejected by two and accepted by four," he said in a provocative May 16 piece in the Post, "and we don't have a clue why."

Thousands of articles and many books have addressed this issue over the 30 years I have been studying the college admissions system, as a reporter, author and alumni interviewer. I can now predict pretty accurately, as can the counselors at Pettis' daughter's school, Robinson Secondary in Fairfax County, which colleges will take which kid. But there are always surprises that drive parents nuts, particularly if the student is rejected by the school he or she most wanted to attend.

There are few experiences short of death, disease, injury or divorce that have as much potential for trauma for American families as the college admissions process. The first great rite of passage for young humans once was killing a wild animal. That was replaced by getting married, or getting a job. These days it is getting into college. For many, the problem is coming up with the money. For others, the pain stems from being rejected with no explanation.

Pettis raised excellent questions in his article. Do legacy applicants, those related to alumni, have an advantage? Are there gender quotas? Does it matter if you are in-state or out-of-state? Do some government officials have influence? Do the children of potential big donors or celebrities have a leg up? Are there quotas for minorities? Does having a small family income help?

To some extent, the truthful answer to every one of those questions is yes.

It is easy to inspire outrage with stories about students who transfer to less competitive high schools to make their applications stand out, or threaten legal action if their high school reveals a cheating episode, or receive special accommodations on the SAT because their parents could afford a psychologist's fees.

Pettis suggests the logical solution: a transparent system that tells students why they didn't get in. Think about that for a moment and you will understand why many of us prefer mystery to certainty.

Impose transparency on the holistic system used by selective colleges--a subjective judgment based on several factors--and the result is no less maddening. The admissions office would have to issue statements like "the candidate's extracurricular involvements were not as intense and her teacher recommendations not as impressive as those of candidates we accepted."

The resulting discontent would lead to, you guessed it, standardized measures. In order to defend themselves against charges of vagueness, colleges would be forced to admit those with the top SAT or ACT scores and grades and ignore subjective factors that probably played a major role in Pettis' daughter's admissions successes.

The saving grace of American higher education is that as the number of students and professors applying to and qualified for top-ranked colleges has grown, and been rejected in increasingly large numbers, lesser known schools have welcomed them. Those schools have risen to a similarly high level of student energy and faculty wisdom.
Pettis's daughter got into four schools I suspect are just as good as the two that rejected her. I bet she will be excited and happy when she heads off to one of them this summer, even if her father cannot know for sure how she got there.

For more Jay, go to

By Jay Mathews  | May 23, 2010; 10:00 PM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  | Tags:  Andy Pettis, college admissions transparency is bad, parents upset they don't know why children are rejected, transparency will also upset people. transparency leads to unpopular standardized measures  
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I don't quite get why many people all need to go to the same colleges, unless it is because they want to pay in-state tuition, or because one school has a particular specialty.

I think transparency would lead to standardized measures.

This reminds me of the on line grade books. Now parents and kids can see the grades on line and can compare them to the students graded papers. But some still argue for more points on projects, essay tests and quizzes. The result is that schools have to standardize curriculum, assessments and day to day teaching decisions. Generally this is more equitable, but takes away from teacher creativity and holistic approaches.

Why are colleges more selective now? Is it that more students apply to more colleges? Is it that certain colleges (Ivy league, for example) are deemed "superior" by the media? Do we need more universities?

Posted by: celestun100 | May 24, 2010 10:30 AM | Report abuse

Is it as difficult to get into say the University of Nebraska as it is to get into the University of Maryland? Do applicants in states with less people have the same difficulty getting into the colleges of their choice as people in highly populated states do?

Posted by: celestun100 | May 24, 2010 10:32 AM | Report abuse

To answer celestun100's questions about why admissions to top colleges are more selective now, I think the big factors are:

(1) a flight to (perceived) quality due to the dramatic increase in the percent of the population who are college graduates. Back when my parents graduated, simply having a college degree set one apart in the job market. Today in many places the majority of young people have bachelor's degrees, so it's become much more important where that degree was earned.

(2) the increased acceptance of the Common Application has made it much easier for students to apply to a large number of schools. It used to be a huge pain to put together applications so students typically only did 3 or 4. Now it's so easy that it's not uncommon to apply to a dozen schools or more.

(3) increased willingness of students to travel for college. My mom grew up in Ohio but attended college in California and this was seen as very unusual. Today, nobody would think twice about it. So a lot of bright kids who in the past would've simply attended college locally are now competing for the handful of slots at the most selective schools.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | May 24, 2010 2:12 PM | Report abuse

For celestun100---The data I have seen suggest that the higher ranked the state university by US News and other rankers, the greater its prestige and national profile, the more difficult it is to get into. Having unusually large numbers of college goers from the state in question can also have an effect. So it is very diffucult to get into the flagship state schools in Texas, Calif, Va. and a few other states, and i suspect (I will try to check) more difficult to get into the University of Md. (located near some of the most affluent and college-conscious school districts in the country) than the U of Nebraska. The average weighted GPA of a UMD freshman is now 3.94, last time I looked.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | May 24, 2010 2:14 PM | Report abuse

I am in full favor of objective and transparent admissions standards. Still, it is a very complex operation and objective standards are hard to come by. Different schools can set different standards, even by differing standards by desired major. To get to one of Jay's favorite things- the SAT subject tests and AP tests provide vastly better indicators of capability than grades do.

You aren't going to stop people from gaming the system, you might as well let us look at the scoreboard. I am surprised that there aren't many schools that do it.

Posted by: staticvars | May 24, 2010 2:55 PM | Report abuse

@Jay and @Crimsonwife

Thanks for the detailed answers to my questions. Very informative. Thanks again.

Posted by: celestun100 | May 24, 2010 3:23 PM | Report abuse

"In order to defend themselves against charges of vagueness, colleges would be forced to admit those with the top SAT or ACT scores and grades and ignore subjective factors that probably played a major role in Pettis' daughter's admissions successes."

How do you know his daughter wouldn't get in on an objective standard? What you really mean is that underrepresented kids and legacies wouldn't get in on an objective standard.

And this is an area where you, a Harvard alum, would have an understandable bias.

Yes, indeed, they should require complete transparency. The reason they don't is because it would reveal that the playing field is profoundly unequal, particularly for the white and Asian middle class.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | May 24, 2010 5:19 PM | Report abuse

In other words, a transparent policy would generate law suits.

Posted by: billwald | May 24, 2010 7:23 PM | Report abuse

Since college admissions applications are now all computerized...

Just restrict all information related to race, gender, name, parents, income, etc. from the copies generated by the selection committee.

Let the rest of the application stand on it's own.

Posted by: Davidsonville | May 25, 2010 10:28 AM | Report abuse

Cal- at many of the top schools, there isn't a whole lot of difference in objective numbers between legacy and non-legacy admits. At Harvard, the average SAT score for legacies is a mere 2 points lower than for non-legacies.

Are there some uberwealthy legacies who are admitted even though they are unqualified? Sadly, yes. One of my DH's fraternity brothers was dumb as a rock but his father was on the Board of Trustees and their family name graced a campus building. But those are the exceptions, not the rule.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | May 25, 2010 4:51 PM | Report abuse

And FWIW I was not a legacy at the school I chose to attend.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | May 25, 2010 4:56 PM | Report abuse

I understand Mr Pettis wanting to know, but that will never happen. I have not worked in college admissions, but I did work in entry-level recruiting for a top-flight business for many years. Our HR dept always strongly discouraged us giving feedback to the candidates (who were usually from top schools - Northwestern, Yale, Michigan, Cal, etc) when they were rejected beyond a form letter.

On rare occasions, I would deviate from this (e.g., the interviewee was a referral by a current employee, such as a friend's niece). Inevitably, any feedback I gave either a) had the effect of me not only rejecting them, but specifically telling them WHY they were not good enough, which further crushed their spirits or b) turned into a technicality-fest where whatever aspect I mentioned that they fell short on, they would try to fix with a "new" answer right there on the phone & beg for another chance.

It's tough to not know, but it wouldn't help and it would be mind-numbingly time-consuming, not to mention the likelihood of lawsuits that others have mentioned. Just be happy w the two she did get into and it will v likely work out OK. There is no one good school. Plus, if she really wants to go to one of the "rejector" school, kick-butt her freshman year and then look into transferring.

Posted by: robpollard | May 26, 2010 12:26 AM | Report abuse

Here's the problem with your "legacies are only two points below argument"...
The legacies are competing in the stacked deck class with the Title IX's, URM affirmative actions, etc. That group as a whole brings the overall SAT numbers down. Assuming no other breaks, would the legacies get in on their own without legacy preference? In many cases the answer is no. (See Dan Golden's book "The Price of Admission").
I generally agree with Cal about the fact that this is an uphill field run for middle class Asian kids (much less so for middle class whites).

There was an article in the October issue of US News &World Report about how much tougher it is for Asian-Americans with similar credentials to get into elite colleges than it is for other groups.

USN&WR relied on a study by Thomas Espenshade, a Princeton sociologist. Espenshade found in comparing applicants with similar grades, standardized test scores, athletic qualifications and family history who had applied to seven elite private U.S. colleges and universities that: Whites were three times as likely to get admitted as Asians and African-Americans were at least five times as likely to get admitted as Whites..

Translating advantages into college admission SAT scores, Espenshade calculated that African-Americans who achieved 1150 (old SAT based on 1600 points) had the same chance of getting accepted to the top colleges as Whites who scored 1460s and Asians who scored perfect 1600s.

In 2006, Jian Li filed a civil rights complaint with the U..S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights against Princeton University, claiming that his race played a role in Princeton's decision to reject his application for admission that year.

Li is a US permanent resident who immigrated with his family to the United States at the age of four from China.... Li graduated from Livingston High School in Livingston, New Jersey in the top 1% of his class. He received a perfect score of 2400 on the new SAT, and a near-perfect score of 2390 on SAT Subject Tests in math level 2, physics, and chemistry. Despite an impressive list of extra-curricular activities, Li was rejected at Princeton and subsequently filed his civil rights complaint.

I'm not sure what's happening with Li's complaint.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | May 26, 2010 5:47 AM | Report abuse

I was turned down at Stanford (my long-shot application) in 1967. They sent a very diplomatic letter saying that their admission process worked as follows:

1. Take the obvious geniuses.
2. Weed out the applicants who clearly didn't have what it took.
3. Weed out the applicants who could have made it through Stanford, but only by spending every free minute studying.

And when they'd done this, they were still left with 6 applicants per place. The letter went on to say, in effect, "The process was partially subjective, and we realize that a different admissions committee would have admitted a different freshman class, but we have to have finality at some point."

Posted by: Staxman | May 26, 2010 3:28 PM | Report abuse

I wouldn't want to attend a college that did enrollment by formula. Jian Li may have excellent numbers but that doesn't mean he should've gotten in over an applicant who had slightly less stellar numbers because he actually had a life apart from studying. The extracurriculars mentioned for Li sounded on the weak side to me: AFS, Boys’ State, and a short-term community service project in Costa Rica.

Most of the successful applicants to Ivy caliber schools I knew had significant extracurriculars on top of good grades & test scores. Things like varsity athletics, student government, editor of the student newspaper or yearbook, musician in district or even statewide youth orchestra, leading roles in school plays, etc.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | May 26, 2010 8:53 PM | Report abuse

Personally, I think too many extracurricular activities can hurt your application, depending on the admissions board.

When I was applying for an appointment to the USNA I went to an interview for my Representative. The interview board made an interesting statement - that I didn't have as many extracurricular activities as most applicants, but what I did have I'd excelled at.

Maybe, instead of having little Johnny or Janey do a school sport every season, and student government, and, and, and, it might be better for their application (and their sanity) to pick one or two activities and go as far with them as they can.

Me, I was an active youth leader in Boy Scouts (Eagle Scout, Order of the Arrow, Junior Assistant Scoutmaster, etc., etc., etc.), placed second nationally in a NASA sponsored competition after being one of 10 semi-finalists out of 4,000+ in another competition the year before, and never played a varsity/JV/club sport (though I did play in youth leagues through junior year, but never the 'elite' travel leagues), and still managed to get an appointment to the USNA with no political connections and a 3.5 GPA and a 1410 SAT score.

I think, in my completely unsubstantiated opinion, that admissions officers look at a overstuffed application with 8 different varsity letters, volunteer work for amputee orphans in sub-Saharan Africa, and a credit for single-handedly organizing a fundraising drive to create a scholarship program for disadvantaged students, and say "here's another kid who organized (or, more likely, their parent(s) organized) their entire high school life to get into college, rather than doing these things because they enjoyed it." I mean, honestly, how many teenagers truly have such a broad array of interests?

If I were an admissions officer, such an application would look fake to me. Not fraudulent, fake. I'd want to see an application that genuinely reflects who the applicant is, not who they want me to think they are - and I'd be concerned that any teenager with that many different activities on their resume cares too much for what others think and not enough about what they want out of life.

Posted by: SeaTigr | May 27, 2010 10:39 AM | Report abuse

But, SeaTigr, you still achieved something significant in your extracurriculars, even if you didn't have the same number of activities. There was nothing mentioned for Jian Li on the order of being an Eagle Scout or placing 2nd in a national competition. Those take a significant time investment, unlike Boys' State which is something like one week out of the entire 4 years of high school. The Costa Rica community service trip sounds like another short one-off event.

Li should've spent a bit less time studying and more time rounding out his application. That would've made him a more attractive candidate to Princeton.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | May 27, 2010 9:08 PM | Report abuse

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