Schmidt: In Admission Decisions, the Deciders’ Own Backgrounds Play a Big Role

In Admission Decisions, the Deciders’ Own Backgrounds Play a Big Role

APRIL 12, 2016

Anew study of admissions officers calls into question selective colleges’ claims that they have fully embraced holistic admissions as a means of promoting diverse enrollments.

The study, based on an unusual experiment involving more than 300 admissions officers at selective colleges, found that a large share of the institutions gave holistic consideration only to midrange applicants. They used academic cutoffs based on grades, standardized-test scores, or the academic rigor of high-school courses to admit those at the top or reject those at the bottom.

For applicants whose fate is determined solely by academic criteria, “there is no consideration of family or educational circumstances” by such colleges, says a paper on the study’s findings presented here on Tuesday at the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association.

Moreover, the study found, the personal backgrounds of admissions officers appeared to play a major role in determining how much they used holistic consideration to promote socioeconomic diversity.

“We’ve long known that many people have implicit biases, so why wouldn’t they be represented among admissions counselors?”

Admissions officers who were female or minority-group members were more likely to look favorably upon applicants from low-income backgrounds, suggesting they “were more inclined toward equity and social justice in the decision-making process than their white and male colleagues,” the paper says. The nearly half of admissions officers in the study who were working at their alma mater, on the other hand, were relatively more likely to smile upon high-achieving applicants from wealthier backgrounds.”We need to look carefully at whether the practices of admissions offices are consistent with the rhetoric,” said Michael Bastedo, director of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor’s Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education, who conducted the study with Nicholas A. Bowman, director of the University of Iowa’s Center for Research on Undergraduate Education.

“When an admissions office hires,” Mr. Bastedo said in an interview on Tuesday, “they are often looking to have a diversity among readers. This study shows that that can be really important.”

Donald E. Heller, who is provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of San Francisco and has extensively studied admissions systems, said in an email, “We’ve long known that many people have implicit biases, so why wouldn’t they be represented among admissions counselors?”

Cutoff Scores

The new study is the second that Mr. Bastedo and Mr. Bowman have based on a 2014 experiment involving 311 admissions officers. In a previous paper, they found that admissions officers who had been given rich background information about fictitious applicants’ high schools were more willing to recommend the admission of students from low-income backgrounds.

The experiment’s participants worked at 174 institutions that Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges had listed in one of its top three tiers in terms of selectivity. The admissions officers were presented with admissions files for three fictitious applicants to engineering programs, and were asked to judge the applicants using the same standards and criteria in use at their own institution.

All three of the simulation’s fictitious applicants were characterized as white men, but they varied in their credentials and economic backgrounds. The academic profiles of all three were adjusted according to the selectivity of the admissions officer’s college.

When asked in a follow-up survey what standards they used to evaluate applicants, 46 percent of the study’s participants reported that their college had an academic-cutoff score below which an applicant had virtually no chance of admission, the new paper says. Broken down by college selectivity, the use of such cutoffs was reported by 35 percent of admissions officers in theBarron’s top tier, 52 percent in the second tier, and 47 percent in the third tier.

The use of upper-range academic-cutoff scores, above which a student is virtually assured admission, was reported by 27 percent of the admissions officers. Just 5 percent of officers in first-tier institutions said they used them, compared with 28 percent in the second tier and 37 percent in the third.

Don Hossler, a senior scholar at the University of Southern California’s Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice, said this week that the study’s finding that comparatively fewer first-tier institutions use cutoffs probably reflects their greater financial health. “As selectivity tends to decline, so do the financial resources,” he said. Second- and third-tier institutions tend to have fewer admissions officers per applicant and more need to process applications efficiently, he said. They also are more worried about improving their institution’s rankings, and thus more focused on enrolling applicants with strong academic credentials, he said.

The paper summarizing the study’s results notes that the reported use of cutoff scores did not appear to influence the admissions prospects of either the higher-income or lower-income fictitious applicants. Mr. Bastedo said that result probably stemmed from the researchers’ decision to deliberately construct fake profiles that would put applicants in the middle range of those applying to a given admissions officer’s institution.

Internal Biases

The backgrounds of admissions officers, by contrast, appeared to play a significant role in shaping their views of the applicants before them.

Women gave applicants better admissions recommendations over all than men did. They showed a preference for the low-income applicant, who was described in the simulation as having lower standardized-test scores and having taken less-advanced courses than one other applicant. They showed no preference for the simulation’s high-achieving applicant from an upper-middle-class high school. Admissions officers of color were much less likely than were white admissions officers to admit the simulation’s high-achieving, upper-middle-class applicant.

Admissions officers employed by their alma mater displayed a strong preference for the high-achieving candidate from the wealthier background, a finding that is especially significant considering the share of admissions staffs who are alumni. The study found that 45 percent of the experiments’s participants worked at the same institution where they had received their bachelor’s degree.

The researchers’ paper says they were unable to determine whether the alumni admissions officers’ preferences reflected a comparative lack of interest in equity or a stronger desire to increase their alma mater’s prestige by pulling in applicants with excellent academic credentials.

David A. Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, which helped recruit the study’s participants, predicted that colleges’ most likely response to the study’s findings would be additional training of admissions officers to make them more sensitive to equity concerns. But he doubted that colleges would respond by hiring fewer alumni.

“Young alums tend to be the best marketers and advocates for their own institution,” Mr. Hawkins said, “and often make very effective admissions recruiters for high-school students.”

Mr. Bastedo argued, however, that while teaching admissions officers to be more concerned about equity is important, “hiring is also crucial.”

“When you have admissions officers who came from underserved high schools or lived discrimination, then they are going to bring that into the workplace as part of their lived experience,” Mr. Bastedo said.

In describing their study’s limitations, Mr. Bastedo and Mr. Bowman noted that, in the absence of any nationally representative database of admissions officers, it is impossible to know the extent to which their findings are representative of all people in the field.

In addition, the study’s subjects knew they were participating in a simulation, and might have made different decisions if they had thought they were dealing with real people and their choices had real stakes.

Finally, because the participants were making their decisions outside of enrollment-management systems in which other administrators would play a role, the study’s results more accurately reflect admissions-scoring practices than admissions decisions themselves.

Peter Schmidt writes about affirmative action, academic labor, and issues related to academic freedom. Contact him at

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