Crafting a Diverse and Talented College Class

Rebecca Zwick from Educational Testing Service shares her thoughts on building diverse college classes

Rebecca Zwick is a senior researcher at the Educational Testing Service and a professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is the author of Who Gets In? Strategies for Fair and Effective College Admissions (Harvard University Press, 2017) and is a contributor to Measuring Success: Testing, Grades, and the Future of College Admissions (Johns Hopkins University Press, forthcoming in January 2018). The opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily those of ETS or the College Board.

How to admit a qualified and diverse entering class is a major challenge for U.S. colleges today. We know traditional admissions criteria are associated with applicants’ family income and ethnicity. Must these criteria be abandoned to boost the enrollment of underrepresented groups? Would it be better to focus on “noncognitive” criteria or extracurricular activities? What steps can be taken to increase the presence of underrepresented groups on campus?

The National Association for College Admission Counseling, which conducts regular surveys of institutions, consistently finds that high school grades and admissions test scores are key factors in admissions. For most colleges, these measures serve as useful overlapping indexes of applicants’ skills. High school grades provide information about applicants’ accomplishments in particular subject areas. Research suggests that grades also play an important role in measuring the ability to “get it done.” But grading standards differ widely among schools and teachers. Test scores facilitate the comparison of candidates from different schools and backgrounds, including home-schooled students and those from outside the United States. They also help identify talented students who have so far been unsuccessful in school.

Research tells us Asian and White college applicants and those from wealthier families tend to receive higher grades and test scores than their Black, Hispanic, Native American, and lower-income counterparts. These performance differences, which reflect disparities in educational opportunity, tend to be larger in the case of test scores, leading some schools to go “test-optional.” Presumably, these schools rely heavily on high school grades, but questions have also been raised about the value of grades. Education writer Alfie Kohn, an opponent of college entrance examinations, has voiced concerns about the unreliability and subjectivity of grades, along with the possibility that emphasizing grades would lead students to focus on “grooming their transcripts” rather than on learning. And Harvard Law professor Lani Guinier recently asserted that “the current prevailing notion of merit in college admissions—as a function of standardized-test scores and secondary school grades—is neither objectively true nor natural.”

Doubts about traditional admissions criteria have led to calls to expand the information considered in admissions decisions. What about incorporating more “noncognitive” factors—personal qualities, like grit—into the admissions process as a means of increasing diversity? Or how about placing a heavier emphasis on extracurricular activities or personal statements? Although these ideas appear reasonable, their fairness, practicality, and likely impact need to be thoroughly examined. For example, it’s hard to see how grit could be fairly and accurately measured in the admissions context. Clearly, it’s not as simple as asking candidates if they’re gritty. Even Angela Duckworth, grit’s most prominent champion, has described the pitfalls of making educational decisions on the basis of students’ personal qualities. In addition, critics have pointed out that grittiness may be harder to achieve for those who grow up in difficult circumstances, so emphasizing it may actually disadvantage the very groups already underrepresented in higher education. In the case of extracurricular activities and personal statements, research has revealed disparities among student groups that parallel the differences in grades and test scores. Educational enrichment opportunities, family connections, and access to high school counselors and admissions coaches tend to be much greater for students with highly educated parents who are financially well-off. These advantages often translate to a more interesting and impressive extracurricular record, which ultimately provides vivid material for personal statements.

In any event, adjusting the relative weights assigned to grades, test scores, personal qualities, and extracurricular accomplishments in the admission process is something of a dull instrument for pursuing the goal of campus diversity. The most effective way to admit more students from under-represented groups is to actively recruit those students, and make admission decisions with the express intent of building a diverse incoming class. My colleagues and I have shown how quantitative techniques borrowed from operations research can help achieve a high-performing class while increasing the representation of particular student groups. A drawback is that the explicit preferences embedded in this approach are often controversial, or, in the case of race, illegal. Intriguing work recently conducted by College Board and university researchers suggests that simply providing admissions personnel with contextual information about applicants’ high schools, such as the median family income and the average number of Advanced Placement tests taken, can boost the likelihood that low-income students, and to some degree, racial minorities, will be accepted.

But it is likely that the largest diversity gains can ultimately be achieved outside the admissions process itself. The best long-term strategy is to improve educational opportunities for all students, starting with pre-kindergarten education and continuing through the high school and college levels. High school students need competent counselors who can inform them about college opportunities and advise them about college prep courses. Students and their families often need help completing applications for admission and financial aid. And many students cannot consider college without generous aid packages. But of course these measures are just a start. Academic, social, and financial support must be available on campus to help students thrive and eventually cross the finish line.