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Is College Admissions Fair?

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College admissions is a high-stakes process, one which causes a great deal of stress for high school students. One of the greatest contributors to this stress is the eternal question: is college admissions fair?

This is a complicated question, and unfortunately doesn’t have a simple answer. In this article we’ll explore the fairness, and lack thereof, in college admissions. We’ll start by exploring how colleges intend for the admissions process to work, and then explore the pitfalls and shortcomings that exist within their system. 

Colleges Want Admissions to be Fair

Colleges view themselves as a great social equalizer, a meritocracy where bright students are given a chance to succeed regardless of their circumstances. While this is a beautiful dream, reality is slightly less rosy. Still, colleges have made progress in their admissions practices to try to improve fairness. 

Colleges began using holistic review in admissions to introduce more fairness to the process. The idea behind holistic review is to understand a student in the context of their circumstances, including socio-economic status and the high school you attended. By doing this, admissions officers want to see what you’ve been able to accomplish with the options you were provided. 

Other universities use a more numbers-based approach to attempt fairness. UT Austin, for instance, offers automatic admission to all students at public Texas high schools who are in the top 7% of their class. The idea here is that students at every high school in the state have the same opportunity to get into UT Austin. 

While these two approaches are completely opposed, they both have the same goal: to allow students a fair chance to get into that school. Each college has their own approach to handling admissions, but each claims, at the end of the day, that their process is as fair as they can make it, and that all talented students have a fair chance to get admitted into the school. 

Issues With Fairness

Unfortunately, colleges’ lofty ideals often run into trouble in the real world. We’ve covered two of the most common of these before; the question of whether or not SATs are biased, and whether or not Asian-American students are treated equitably in the college admissions process. Both of these had issues, but overall were more fair than not. So where do the troubles come from?

In this section, we’ll explore various ways some students have advantages (or disadvantages) in the college admissions process itself. 

Legacy Admissions

While we discussed legacy admissions policies in a previous article, we should touch on them again here. Legacy admissions is the practice of giving a slight admissions advantage to students whose parents attended a school. If, for instance, your parents attended Harvard, your chances of admission are twice that of students whose parents did not attend. 

The way this usually works is that legacy students’ applications are tagged for an additional review, and are given a second chance of admission as a college builds its class. This does not guarantee acceptance, merely makes it more likely that admissions officers will find a place for these students. 

While not every school takes legacy status into account, many of the country’s top schools do. This is because alumni provide a great deal of funding to schools through donations, and colleges believe alumni are more likely to give if they believe their children have a better chance of getting into their alma mater. 

Legacy admissions are among the most blatantly unfair admissions practices colleges partake in. Luckily, recently there has been a movement to limit or reduce the usage of legacy admissions. While most top schools do still favor legacy applicants, public opinion is turning against the practice. 

Recruited Athletes

Athletes who are recruited by a school have nearly a 100% acceptance rate. This is for several reasons, mostly to do with how the recruiting process works. When a student athlete is recruited by a top college, they must first show that they are academically prepared. Notably, however, academic standards for athletes are often lower than for general applicants (though they can still be strict). 

Thus athletes are admitted into college based on their performance in a single extracurricular, with their academics and other extracurricular participation taking a back seat. This even happens at top schools, with the Ivy League strongly favoring recruited athletes in admissions. 

This process is unfair due to how it contravenes universities’ stated principles of holistic review, where every aspect of an applicant is evaluated when making an admission decision. While we do not condemn student athletes, and acknowledge the value which may be found in athletic competition, the heavy weighting of athletics in some admissions decisions makes the playing field uneven. 

High School Preparation

Some high schools are better than others. They have more funding, better prepare students for college, and have more resources to devote to helping students with the college admissions process. This does not mean all students from the best high schools go to top colleges, or that it is impossible to get into a top college from a lower ranked high school, but a good high school definitely improves a student’s odds of getting into a great college. 

While colleges try to take into account the offerings of your high school when evaluating you for admission, some high schools simply offer more to their students that colleges like to see. This doesn’t just include AP classes or IB certification; high schools which offer coding clubs, expansive performance opportunities, or niche sports give their students an extra leg up in the college admissions process. 

Colleges use your extracurriculars to evaluate your passions, your leadership potential, and your ability to work with others. If your high school allows you access to extracurriculars which operate at a higher level, and which grant access to grander achievements, then you will be favored in college admissions. 

This extends to sports. Only the best players in a sport are offered college recruitment, but not all sports are equally popular. Every high school in the US offers football and baseball, but how many offer fencing? Or squash? Or crew? These sports also recruit athletes for colleges, and you only have access to be recruited if you played in high school. 

What Fairness Should Look Like

We’ve seen the ways college admissions can be unfair. This then leads to an important question: What would perfectly fair college admissions look like? What is the end goal for a fair admissions process? 

The easy answer is that the smartest and most capable students should get the chance to attend the country’s top universities. The issue comes down to how we decide which students are the most capable, which are the smartest, and how the differing levels of preparation high schools offer their students impacts those measurements. 

While this inherent problem will remain, we can recommend some ways to improve the fairness of college admissions. The first, and easiest, is by getting rid of legacy admissions. College admissions is about determining the merits of a student, not the merits of their parents. As we tell our students: your application is about you, that’s what universities care about. Admissions standards should reflect this belief.

The second is to do away with the major boost given to recruited athletes. Athletics should be evaluated like any other extracurricular activity, instead of being weighted so much more highly. The only comparable is performing arts, where students get into schools based on artistic talents. The difference is these programs are for an advanced study of the arts, while colleges maintain the belief that student athletes are students first, and athletes second. We encourage students to participate in sports if that’s their desire, but if they are students first, then they should be evaluated as students first, not as athletes.

Fairness and College Consulting

But wait, you may say. You’re a college consulting company. Is your business fair?

At Ivy Scholars, we help students become the best academics and people they can be, and to maximize their potential. This does give students who work with us an advantage in the college admissions process. We know what colleges are looking for, and the various pitfalls that some students fall into with their applications, and are able to give expert advice to students who work with us to maximize their chances for admission.

Overall, the college admissions process is not fair, and indeed, it cannot be. We do try to be fair in our practices (you can read our response to unfair practices in our article in response to the Varsity Blues scandal), and make sure we do not give any unfair advantages to our students. Thus we help our students write and edit essays, but do not write them for them. We advise our students on activities, but do not help them position themselves untruthfully to colleges. 

We have further increased the scope of our pro bono service, to offer the same advice to students who would not be able to afford it. We want to see all talented high school students succeed, and attend the best colleges for them, and are striving to do our part to make this a reality. 

Final Thoughts

College admissions are not a fair process, though they are more fair now than they have been in the past. Colleges want admissions to be fair, or at least to be perceived as such; nobody wants to participate in a system if they don’t believe there’s any chance they can succeed. Colleges also like to believe they are the meritocratic institutions they portray themselves as, even if that may not be exactly true.

While college admissions may not be exactly fair, that does not mean it is impossible. We have helped students of all backgrounds succeed in the college admissions process, and seen them go on to do great things. If you want to hear how we can help you with your admissions, schedule a free consultation with us today. We’re always happy to hear from you, and are excited to help you make your collegiate dreams come true.

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