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Less Than Meets the Eye

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Less Than Meets the Eye

How admissions officers could be setting up minority students for failure May 4, 2021
Education

Admissions officers around the country can hardly contain themselves. With their schools seeing record numbers of applications and acceptances for minority students, they are taking a victory lap in the media.

“It is safe to say this is the most broadly diverse accepted class in the long history of Dartmouth,” Lee Coffin, vice provost for enrollment and dean of admissions and financial aid at the school, told the Wall Street Journal. At Dartmouth, 48 percent of accepted students identify as black, indigenous, or other people of color, and 17 percent are the first in their families to attend college.

At New York University, this year’s class is about 29 percent black or Hispanic, up from 27 percent last year; it also includes 20 percent first-generation students, up from 15 percent. MJ Knoll-Finn, NYU’s senior vice president for enrollment management, sees the situation as historic. She told the New York Times: “You could tell the story of America through the eyes of all these young people, and how they dealt with the times, Black Lives Matter, the wave of unemployment and the uncertainties of the political moment, wanting to make a difference.”

Applications at Harvard were up 43 percent over last year, and the percentage of black students admitted went from 14.3 percent to 18 percent. William R. Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s dean of admissions and financial aid, enthused: “We have the most diverse class in the history of Harvard this year, economically and ethnically. . . . This is an incoming group of students who’ve had experiences unlike any experiences first-year students have had in the history of Harvard or history of higher education.”

The celebrations may have come too early. Many of these admissions decisions, administrators say, happened because their schools went “test-optional.” Dropping the requirement that students submit SAT or ACT scores meant that admissions officers could rely only on grades, essays, and recommendations. Thus students with lower scores may have been more willing to apply to schools they otherwise would have considered a reach.

Despite the shift of public opinion against them, SAT scores remain fairly good predictors of not only how well students will perform in college but also the difficulty of the classes they’ll take. “Students with high test scores are more likely to take the challenging route through college,” University of Minnesota psychologists Nathan Kuncel and Paul Sackett maintain.

Too often, young people admitted to demanding colleges wind up switching to easier, less remunerative majors. According to researchers at the University of Texas–Austin, “More than a third of black (40%) and Latino (37%) [STEM] students switch majors before earning a degree, compared with 29% of white STEM students.” While the authors of that study suggest that the reasons for this discrepancy are social rather than academic, the truth, as Purdue University researcher Samuel Rohr discovered, is that “a higher aggregate score on the SAT helped predict the retention of science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and business students.” He concluded: “For every point increase in SAT, there was 0.3% increase in retention.”

In other words, admitting students with lower SAT scores to fulfill diversity quotas may prevent those students from achieving their academic and career goals—something they might have done at a lower-tier school. Indeed, it may prevent them from completing their degree at all. At the most elite schools, the likelihood is that students who didn’t perform as well as their peers on the SATs will simply be shunted into easier but less remunerative majors. For schools farther down on the academic ladder, these efforts could mean lower overall graduation rates.

When the University of California ended racial preferences in admissions, the results were lower levels of enrollment for black and Hispanic students at elite campuses—but higher overall graduation rates and a more than 50 percent increase in black and Hispanic students earning degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math.

All this may explain why faculty at the University of California did not support the decision to drop the SAT requirement. A task force of UC professors determined, according to Inside Higher Ed, that “dropping the tests without any other changes . . . would result in an average incoming student with a lower first-year GPA, lower probability of graduating within seven years and a lower GPA at graduation.” Either that, or professors would be forced to lower their grading standards.

The real results of this “test-optional” experiment will be found not in the composition of next year’s freshman class, but over the next five or ten years. Then we will see how many students admitted this spring are up to the challenges that their new schools and majors offer—and whether gaps in preparedness among groups can be made to disappear with the snap of an admissions officer’s fingers.

Photo: YinYang/iStock

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