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The Art and Science Of College Admissions

The Art and Science Of College Admissions
By Julianne Malveaux

President George W. Bush says he thinks the University of Michigan’s affirmative action plan is “divisive” and a “de facto quota system” because it admits students solely on the basis of race. Either President Bush is woefully misinformed or he has chosen to ignore the facts of the University of Michigan admissions policy.

According to Dr. Mary Sue Coleman, president of the University of Michigan, “Race is among the factors considered” for admission to the university. The university also considers things such as geography (for instance, Michigan residents are given preference, and those from underrepresented Michigan counties also are given preference), legacy status, personal achievement, leadership and service, scholarship athlete and other factors. Indeed, in the “miscellaneous” category, through “provost’s discretion,” a student can earn 20 points, reserving slots for outstanding young people whose grades and scores might not admit them.

Composing a university class is an art, not a science. It’s not a matter of just admitting the applicants who have 3.3 grade point averages and 1200 SAT scores. What else do they bring to the table? Should it be recognized? More than a thousand high school valedictorians are rejected from Harvard University each year. Is that a tragedy for them or an opportunity for the university? Imagine the limitations inherent in admitting a class filled only with high school valedictorians.

When I was an undergraduate, I sat on one of my university’s admissions committees. I remember the rich discussions that took place about whom we should admit. Some folks were easy acceptances, others easy rejects, but there were those, like the White woman flutist from rural Massachusetts with a C+ average and the sparkling essay, who were more difficult decisions. Why had she earned C+ grades? How could her grades not measure the light that shined through her essay? Could we take a chance on her? After intense discussions, we took the chance, just like colleges take chances on “unconventional” applicants during every admissions cycle.

We do know one thing about the admission process, and the University of Michigan criteria affirm it. Standardized tests simply measure rote knowledge, they don’t measure someone’s ability to graduate from college and make a productive contribution to society. Why are we still using the tests, then? Mostly because when college admissions officers get three to five times as many applicants as they can handle, standardized tests become a screen. Most schools throw away everything under 800 or so, and flag everything over 1400 for review. The rest is “middle ground,” a space where the test tells you something, but not everything, about an applicant.

Some admissions officers place so little credence on standardized test scores that they don’t use them when they consider applicants. Indeed, one in five degree-granting institutions do not use standardized tests as part of their admissions criteria, according to FairTest. The Boston-based organization issued a report “Test Scores Do Not Equal Merit” that highlights some of the flaws in standardized tests.

When schools such as the University of Michigan develop a comprehensive set of criteria that include test scores, grades, achievements, legacy status, uniqueness and personal characteristics (including race), it seems that they get both the art and the science of college admissions. When whining malcontents point to African Americans with lower scores as reasons for their lawsuits, they seem stuck less on fairness than on their own misguided sense of entitlement. In their searches for scapegoats for their own failure, have they searched, for example, for White students with lower grades and lower scores than they presented? Why haven’t they attacked, at Michigan, the preference for rural students or for athletes? Are they suggesting that they are simply entitled to be admitted because they are White? Do they presume that any African American, regardless of grades, scores, or potential, is less qualified than they are? Do they expect that attitude to propel them to life success?

After all, each of us has had a door or two slammed in our face from time to time. In my case, sometimes it has been slammed because of race, but sometimes it has been in the interest of another kind of diversity. I was “too liberal” for a newspaper editor or I was excluded from conference participation because there were already “too many economists.” My conservative colleagues who rant against affirmative action forget that it works for them. I don’t know how often I’m told that media bookers are looking for “more” Black conservatives, choosing scantly published conservative pundits in favor of more experienced liberals in the name of balance and diversity.

When knocked out of opportunities in the name of diversity, it’s best to swallow disappointment by recognizing the fact that it’s not just individual qualifications but a mix that often matters when people put together a panel, compose an editorial page, organize an academic class.

I don’t know the University of Michigan plaintiffs, but I find their sense of fairness overly individual and oddly defined. The University of Michigan is committed to inclusion. To turn admissions officers into automatons, to inhibit their ability to compose a class taking a range of factors into consideration, seems far more divisive than affirmative action guidelines. Furthermore, to acknowledge diversity for every category but race seems an amusing and pernicious form of racism. The Supreme Court would do well to remember Bakke and find the University of Michigan plan constitutional. And the whiners whose knowledge of history is so limited might be advised that their behavior clearly illustrates that knowledge and life skills are obviously not measured by SAT scores.

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