Programming for Diversity
Auburn computer scientist writes program to ease admissions process
It has not come as a surprise to Dr. Juan Gilbert, an assistant professor in computer science at Auburn University, that some highly selective colleges and universities would experience significant cost increases to implement admissions systems to comply with last summer’s U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the University of Michigan affirmative action cases. With the court preserving affirmative action but banning means, such as the point system that helped minority applicants in the Michigan undergraduate case, some schools have turned for the first time to an admissions process involving holistic and individual review of all applications.
Recently, the University of Michigan and Ohio State University reported that with revamped admissions processes they roughly spent an additional $1.8 million and $250,000 respectively, resulting in underrepresented minorities making up slightly lower shares of the fall 2004 freshman classes as achieved in previous years. The increase in admissions expenditures at the University of Michigan was 40 percent higher in 2004 than in 2003, according to the New York Times. The schools attributed the cost increases largely to the hiring of dozens of admissions counselors, added to ensure all applications underwent thorough review rather than merely scored by a point system.
“When I saw (last year’s) ruling, I got the impression that institutions might say individual review is too hard,” says Gilbert, who grew concerned that although most selective colleges and universities have pledged diversity in their student bodies some might eventually back away from their commitment over the expense or if they were legally challenged on it.
“It could cost them millions a year to do this. With that in mind, I set out to devise a process” that could help automate the process of individual review, explains Gilbert, who was named a Black Issues In Higher Education Emerging Scholar in 2002 (see Black Issues, Jan. 3, 2002).
Gilbert’s concern led him to develop software using “cluster analysis” that could help admissions offices better organize the individual review of applications. If applied to undergraduate or graduate admissions, the concept of cluster analysis could group large numbers of applications into a predetermined number of clusters using a number of criteria. Membership in each individual applicant cluster would be based on grouping applications by their similarity to one another.
“This software uses well-known clustering algorithms from computer science and information retrieval to automatically compare thousands of applications to each other and place them into clusters or groups, based upon a holistic view of their similarity. The clusters represent diverse application pools with respect to a holistic view of each application,” according to Gilbert.
Gilbert says grouping individual applications based on their similarity to one another can enable admissions offices to include racial/ethnic background as one factor of diversity among many without it being weighted over the other factors.
“Diversity is no longer defined by ethnicity alone,” he says. Gilbert wrote the software program to allow admissions officers to have a tool to recognize diversity among multiple factors, including family income level, GPA, test scores, geographic origin and any other selected admissions factor.
Gilbert named the software program Applications Quest and brought it to the attention of his department and the university’s technology transfer office. Auburn officials and officials from the software vendor that has Auburn’s admissions office as a client immediately recognized the program’s potential. Auburn officials hope to have the software in the market in 2004-2005 for the fall 2005 admissions season.
“(We) think the software has great potential,” says Dr. Brian Wright, interim associate director in the Auburn University office of technology transfer.
Auburn is conducting negotiations with Education Systems, Inc. of La Jolla, Calif., the maker of EMAS Pro suite of enrollment management software, to license Applications Quest to the California software company. If that happens, Gilbert and Auburn University would be able to share in the royalties generated by sales of Applications Quest. Auburn is a customer of Education Systems.
“I think the concept is very powerful,” says Andrew Nassir, president and executive director of Education Systems.
What will be critical for its market success is that the software has an easy-to-use “user interface,” according to Nassir. “The benefits of Applications Quest can be brought out through the EMAS Pro suite software,” he adds.
Dr. Bradford Wilson, the executive director of the National Association of Scholars (NAS), says the appeal of Applications Quest for selective colleges and universities “could be quite popular” if such institutions perceive the software to ease the process of individual applicant review. The NAS, an opponent of race-conscious affirmative action, has recently spearheaded a drive by its state affiliates under Freedom of Information Act laws to have selective public colleges and universities reveal their admissions policies and processes that take into account racial and ethnic diversity.
“We’d like to know how much emphasis is being placed on race in admissions,” says Wilson, whose group is also collaborating with the Center for Individual Rights and the Center for Equal Opportunity on the project.
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