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The Admissions Quandary Up Close and Personal

Students gain a better understanding of the significance of diversity in admissions.

When professor Jack Dougherty gave his class at Trinity College in Connecticut an assignment to sort through simulated college applications, he didn’t mention diversity. But his students quickly brought up the issue. How else, they wondered, could they have decided which three students to admit out of the 13 applicants, all of whom had good grades? They discussed and ranked the students in terms of geography, financial need, personal experiences and, yes, race.

In the end, the class decided on a Portuguese star soccer player who spoke three languages, a White San Francisco resident with drama interests and alumni connections and a Connecticut student leader of Habitat for Humanity whose race was unlisted.

Student Christopher Applegate says that the dilemma made him even more supportive of college diversity efforts. “It made you think, ‘What do I bring to the table?’” says Applegate, a White student from North Carolina who plays on the college’s basketball team. “Nobody wants to go to a school where all the students are the same. Diversity is great for the individual and for the environment you’re in.”

The admissions assignment was part of Dougherty’s freshman seminar, “Color & Money: Race and Social Class at Trinity and Beyond.” This is the first time Dougherty, an educational studies professor, offered the seminar.

Through readings and role-playing exercises such as a judicial debate, the 13 students in the class are discussing the winners and losers of the admissions process at elite schools and whether policies such as the financial aid system and affirmative action are creating significant social change.

The issues are particularly resonant at Trinity College, a nationally ranked liberal arts school in Hartford, Conn., where racial tensions have simmered for years. Of Trinity’s nearly 2,300 students, 22 percent are minorities, according to the college’s Web site.

Tensions reached a boiling point two years ago when racial slurs were written on message boards outside the dorm rooms of two minority women. A White student painted himself Black for a Halloween fraternity party. Groups of students protested what they said was a climate of discrimination at Trinity and asked college officials to do more to improve social relations.

In response, the college put together a report on the “campus climate” and brainstormed ideas on how to promote more interaction between diverse student groups. One immediate result was the addition of an essay question to the college’s admissions form. The goal was to reduce the number of applicants as well as to get a better sense of the prospective student.

“They’re swimming in race and social class,” Dougherty says of the students in his class. “We need to know what we’re swimming in to make better sense of our college and what’s going to happen to them outside of Trinity.”

The makeup of Dougherty’s class is even more diverse than the college’s demographics: Six of the 13 students identify as White; three are Asian; three are Black; and one is multiracial.

About a third of the semester has been spent on the issue of college admissions. With the help of the Trinity admissions office, Dougherty designed fake applications that were based on real ones sent to the school. The class realized the quandary of the admissions office — they thought all the students were good enough to be admitted.

After the class finally narrowed down the field to three choices, Dougherty hit them with this surprise: They were being sued for their choices. A White student charged that the admissions process definition of diversity focused on race, and that those students admitted ranked lower than he in academics.

It was a scenario similar to that of the two Supreme Court cases in which rejected students sued the University of Michigan. “Even though this was a simulation, many of them felt personally offended that someone would question their judgment,” Dougherty says. “They got very emotional in this process.”

Although the Supreme Court endorsed affirmative action in its 2003 decision on the Michigan case, it did so in a narrow and qualified way. Race could be used as a factor in admissions decisions, but points couldn’t be assigned to students based on their race. Applicants would have to be evaluated individually on how they would contribute to a diverse student body.

Dougherty says his students “ended up rediscovering the Michigan dilemma all over again. How do you value diversity without being able to count it in some way?” he says. “We haven’t really answered that, but we have a lot more respect now for the process.”

Student Chelsey Stewart says the assignment made her reconsider how she feels about the importance of SAT scores, which she had dismissed previously. Without test scores, she says, “it’s kind of hard to distinguish between two people who are exactly the same in everything else or who have similar grades.” Stewart, a Black ballet dancer who grew up in Hartford, empathized with the fictional White student who sued over the admissions process because “we didn’t have set criteria for what diversity was. It was really hard trying to see who should get admitted,” she says. “I’m still really surprised how I got into Trinity.”

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