The Discriminatory Power of Holistic Admissions

In light of today’s Supreme Court decision in favor of affirmative action in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas, a new development regarding race and college admissions has emerged. On May 23, The Asian American Coalition for Education (AACE) filed a complaint to the U.S. Department of Education against three Ivy League universities, accusing the schools of discriminating against Asian American students in their admissions processes. AACE alleges that “negative stereotyping coupled with racial quotas and caps” have led to a decline in the rates of Asian-American students at top colleges, even as the population of college-aged Asian-Americans has grown.

Universities’ use of “bamboo ceilings” — caps on the number of Asian-American students admitted — occasionally arises in discussions of higher education. But this time, AACE is conducting a targeted, full-frontal assault on so-called “holistic” processes of college admissions. That’s profound, because in the past, colleges have used their holistic admissions process as a shield against accusations of discrimination. AACE seeks to sweep aside that protective device.

The three schools in this case are Yale, Dartmouth and Brown University, from which I graduated last year. I read AACE’s complaint with particular interest, especially its allegation that Brown’s holistic admissions approach enables officers to discriminate on the basis of race. Although my alma mater speaks proudly of its holistic process, their approach is most certainly capable of both intentional and unintentional bias — and not just racially.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, “holistic” admissions processes purport to consider all aspects of the applicant, rather than evaluating solely on quantifiable data like grades and test scores. Without weighing factors, officers evaluate the applicant’s academic, extracurricular and social experiences.

The truth about holistic admissions processes is that their applications end up providing admissions officers with so much information about an applicant that it is impossible to disregard that applicant’s racial or socioeconomic background. Indeed, AACE’s claims match similar criticisms that holistic admissions processes compromise oft-celebrated “need-blind” admissions. Given that schools have a financial interest in admitting students who do not require financial aid, there is certainly motivation to take a wealthier student in a scenario where most other factors of competing applications are equal.

Similarly, holistic admissions allows a school to reject an Asian-American applicant when applicants of other races are equally qualified. And the desire to limit the number of Asian-American students may also be financially motivated. Asian-Americans are typically less likely to be legacies or the children of wealthy donors. They are also less likely to be athletes. In the game of holistic admissions, they are the losers. AACE should be commended for challenging that game.

Criticisms that top colleges similarly tweak holistic admissions processes to augment or limit the number of students of certain races and socioeconomic statuses are not far-fetched. A number of studies, including sources cited in AACE’s claim, demonstrate that this occurs. Just pick up a copy of Daniel Golden’s “The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside” or Thomas Espenshade & Alexandra Radford’s “No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal” and you’ll be overwhelmed by the evidence. Former college admissions officers have gone on the record confirming their schools practiced discrimination against Asian-Americans. Furthermore, comparing admissions rates of public institutions with those of private colleges shows a much higher admissions rate for Asian-Americans. That’s significant, as public institutions tend to be more standardized in their admissions processes. There is less room for subjectivity, and therefore, less room to manipulate evaluation.

The term “holistic” looks good on paper. It sounds good on college tours. But in practice, it allows personal judgments and institutional interests to play a greater role in determining who gets to attend a prestigious school than simple measures of academic excellence, intellectual curiosity and talent. Does the college need to raise its ranking in the U.S. News & World Report? Does it desperately need money to build a new engineering lab? Maybe it wants to maintain its newfound success in a certain sport? These questions get answered in the admissions process.

The solution is definitely not to retire holistic admissions processes. That would disproportionately hurt low-income and minority applicants who do not have the same access to academic resources as students from more privileged backgrounds. But universities absolutely must redefine holistic processes, and they must be accountable to some system of standards. AACE’s recommendation that Yale, Dartmouth and Brown “disclose the qualifications of their applicant pools, at least at a level comparable to such data disclosed by elite public universities” is only a starting point. Colleges using this process ought to be willing to disclose the demographic statistics of the admitted students that result from holistic evaluation. That type of exposure would at least force admissions officers to think critically about their decisions in the context of race and other classifications.

It will be interesting to see what the DOE does with AACE’s complaint, especially as the national conversation about affirmative action in higher education picks up — which it is sure to do given the pronouncement on Fisher v Texas this morning. It is clear that unchecked holistic admissions are not viable if we are truly committed to transparency and equity in college admissions.

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