Admissions Models for Inclusion
Two New Admissions Strategies Could Reopen Doors the Anti-Affirmative Action Initiatives have closed — at least for the most disadvantaged students of color
They’re not complete substitutes for affirmative action, their creators admit bluntly. But in states where affirmative action has been banned or is threatened, two new approaches to the college admissions process are attracting strong interest from flagship public universities. Why? Because they give diversity a fighting chance.
The Educational Testing Service’s (ETS) new “strivers” approach to admissions has drawn the attention of admissions officers at the University of Florida, University of Virginia, University of Washington and University of Texas. The model provides a statistical basis for identifying and accepting motivated applicants whose test scores and grade-point averages have been depressed because of their difficult family backgrounds and poor high schools.
Using the Educational Testing Services’ “strivers” approach, college applicants who score between 1,000 and 1,200 on the SAT — a borderline range for many selective colleges — but manage to exceed the historical average for students from similar backgrounds by at least 200 points would be deemed “strivers.” These are the kind of go-getters with “fire in the belly” whom the best colleges say they are always eager to spot and recruit.
The reason Black and Latino students emerge in such dense numbers using the strivers model is “because there’s a higher concentration of African Americans and Hispanics in these disadvantaged groups,” explains Dr. Anthony P. Carnevale, the ETS official who has directed work on the admissions model. The strivers research will be unveiled officially in November.
Carnevale says the strivers research was conducted at the request of college admissions officers who were seeking to validate their informal practice of admitting strivers and at the request of civil rights advocates who were looking for new approaches to affirmative action. He has tested the program against the admissions results of “affirmative action as we know it” as well as other alternatives such as those adopted by the University of Texas (offering admission to the top 10 percent from each high school) and the University of California (offering admission to the top 4 percent). These trials have led him to conclude that the strivers model is a step in the right direction, but not a panacea.
“It won’t substitute for the diversity we’re getting with affirmative action as currently practiced … It’s a little more than halfway there,” he says.
The use of race as a factor for consideration in the strivers model is optional. If race is not included, Carnevale says, strivers would capture less than half of the African Americans who selective colleges currently admit. Asked which Black students would be left out, he says: “It will knock out the kid who comes from an upper- middle-class family. They would have to compete head to head with other upper-middle-class kids.”
Carnevale adds the children of college educated, professional African Americans now are regarded as good college prospects and that turning them away from the best colleges would reduce the transfer of high academic achievement to succeeding generations. “You would lose momentum,” he says.
William Goggin, an independent Washington, D.C., researcher who has created a similar “merit index” that gives students credit for exceeding the average SAT scores of their high school classmates, has had the same problem with his model.
“It doesn’t salvage all the students you would get by using preferences,” Goggin says about the strivers approach. “It doesn’t help save the middle- and upper-income student of color.”
“The theory sounds interesting. I’m guessing it would help,” says Bill Kolb, admissions director at the University of Florida, the flagship university of a southern state where an initiative to ban affirmative action could be on the ballot next year. “Certainly, there is concern that the ballot initiative will succeed, and we’ll have to find ways to build our community besides race.”
Interest also is high at the University of Virginia, where the governing board of visitors recommended that the admissions office no longer consider the race of applicants (see related story, pg. 22). Jack Blackburn, Virginia’s dean of admissions, calls the strivers model “very interesting” and notes that Goggin has already visited the Charlottesville campus to lay out his approach.
At the University of Texas, where the Hopwood court decision ended affirmative action, admissions director Bruce Walker sees the usefulness of biographical data about students in identifying who might achieve beyond what their SAT score might indicate.
After voters in Washington state approved a ban on affirmative action a year ago, the University of Washington in Seattle began looking at whether applicants came from high poverty schools or did better on the SAT. than would be expected, based on grade-point average.
“We’ve already embraced the concept embodied in the strivers concept,” reports Tim Washburn, director of admissions and records. But despite the consideration of two additional social factors, he says, the number of African Americans in this year’s freshman class dropped by more than a third. For that reason Washburn is interested in the 14 social indicators included in the strivers model.
Still, Washburn sees a practical problem in using social disadvantages as a replacement for race in the admissions process. “Proportionately, you’ll find more minorities who have these experiences,” he says. “But numerically, you’ll find more White students.”
Opponents of affirmative action have a problem too, especially if colleges take the option to include race as a factor in the strivers model.
“I think if schools boost the S.A.T. scores based on the race of the applicant, that is going to be problematic,” warns Terrence Pell, senior counsel of the Center for Individual Rights, which has led the legal attack on affirmative action in admissions.
Roger Clegg, general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, which has crusaded against affirmative action, takes an even tougher line than Pell.
“Even if a college chooses a facially neutral set of criteria, if the reason they have chosen those criteria is because it is known it will advantage a particular racial group, that is discrimination,” Clegg contends.
Jay Greene, a government professor at the University of Texas, challenges the validity of the entire concept. “Adjusting for disadvantages doesn’t change that people aren’t prepared,” he says. “It explains why they may not be prepared.”
“Nothing changes your score. The circumstances under which it might be looked at would be adjusted,” says Kevin Gonzalez, an ETS spokesman.
Both Carnevale and Goggin say they are working to quantify a definition of academic merit that many Americans share, but one that until now hasn’t had a hard number to balance against a test score or GPA.
“It’s a sense of merit based on not just where you are, but how far you had to go to get there,” Carnevale explains.
Other researchers see the gap in SAT scores as an enduring obstacle to maintaining an African American presence at selective colleges if their admissions decisions cannot take race into account.
While all of the admissions officers Black Issues spoke to said they were interested in the strivers and merit index research, none was prepared to say they would definitely try either.
Complexities of Testing
Dr. Claude Steele, a psychologist at Stanford University, coined the term “stereotype threat” four years ago to describe the psychological pressures that weigh on many well-prepared Black students when they take college placement tests. It is a distracting fear they will live down to the stereotype of Black intellectual inferiority.
“It’s clear there is a racial effect to the SAT,” Steele says. “Those tests are going to systematically underestimate the intellectual potential of minority students, and I think that admissions officers are going to have to adjust for that and race is one way of doing that.”
Dr. Michael Nettles, an education professor at the University of Michigan, has been trying to figure out how some minority students overcome those pressures and manage to do well on the SAT and the ACT. He sees the strivers model as a short-term approach that, though useful, could be supplanted by a system for creating more high scorers to compete for admission to selective colleges.
“Our purpose is to get some clues about how the high achievers went about gaining high scores, with the idea we might recommend some behaviors and experiences that might help others,” Nettles explains.
Asked to compare his thrust to Carnevale’s strivers model, Nettles replies: “What he’s doing is looking at predicting how students would perform based on their background characteristics. What we’re seeking is higher scores on the test by minorities.”
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