UP CLOSE | Adapting admissions to 2013

Yale first admitted women in 1969, but the University is still searching for a truly representative admissions process.
Yale first admitted women in 1969, but the University is still searching for a truly representative admissions process. Photo by Yale University Library.

In almost every classroom, Vera Wells ’71 was the only girl.

A psychology major, Wells took normal undergraduate courses, met with regular Yale professors and received the exact same education as her peers. She was just as much a member of the campus as any of the other thousands of bright young students.

But still, everywhere she went, she inevitably stood out.

The year was 1969. Yale College had just opened its doors to female students for the first time in history, amid a mix of delighted cheers from male students and vehement protests from older alumni. Wells, a transfer student from Howard, was part of the first small group of women to ever graduate from the college.

“In classes, sometimes my classmates would ask me for a ‘female point of view’ on something that had nothing to do with gender,” Wells recalled in amusement, more than 40 years after her time as an undergraduate. “Also, you have no idea how difficult it was to find a public ladies’ restroom on campus.”

Under then-University President Kingman Brewster’s leadership, Yale underwent a dramatic transformation from an elite, male-only institution into a school that welcomed not only women but also minorities — controversial changes that initially sparked a great deal of backlash from alumni, some of whom saw the move as an attack on their alma mater’s all-important prestige and exclusivity.

Brewster’s decisions did more than alter the gender make-up of the campus. With the admission of women to Yale, the University set off on a determined trajectory of increasing diversity in its student population. Admissions practices since the Brewster years have included affirmative action, emphasis on specific underrepresented minority groups and outreach to students from low-income backgrounds, alongside initiatives that targeted specific academic or geographic priorities, like the recent push toward attracting more science-oriented and international students.

As a result, the current student body is the most vibrantly diverse in Yale’s history. Last year, roughly 40 percent of incoming freshmen enrolled with an intent to major in science, technology, engineering or mathematics fields — satisfying the target percentage of a multi-year Admissions Office initiative for the first time — and a record-breaking 40 percent of American freshmen identified as minorities.

But, inevitably, diversity has come with a steep cost.

Experts and students alike acknowledge that applicants with certain qualities are given inherent advantages over others, and with application counts skyrocketing to a record-breaking 30,000 per year, fairness becomes an increasingly important concern. As the University approaches several major leadership transitions and also awaits the outcome of a high-profile U.S. Supreme Court affirmative action case that could change the role of race in college admissions nationally, Yale may potentially face a whole new chain of changes in its admissions priorities in the future.

As with all tough choices, sacrifices must be made.

 

THE ULTIMATE ZERO-SUM GAME

Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeffrey Brenzel rejected 27,000 students last month.

From an enormous and ever-growing applicant pool each year, Brenzel and his team of admissions officers are tasked with the difficult job of picking out the students that are the most talented, the most passionate, and — in a measure that has been debated among experts for decades — the most valuable to the experience of their peers.

In making these decisions, the Admissions Office faces a clash of priorities. By nature, the office has multiple obligations: to admit the most academically qualified students, to evaluate candidates holistically and to assemble a diverse class. The collision of these admissions priorities may result in the rejection of many students whose backgrounds, identities or interests are overrepresented in the applicant pool.

Brenzel, University President Richard Levin and Yale College Dean Mary Miller each used the same term to describe the college admissions process: a “zero-sum game.” Choosing to admit one student results in the rejection of many more — and with stakes so high, the prioritization of one set of qualifications over another must be carefully weighed.

“If you admit students by some set of criteria, whatever criteria you’d like, you must of necessity admit fewer students with some other set of criteria,” Brenzel said. “You start with a baseline set of conditions, and if you’re going to look harder at one area, that is going to have a ripple effect on other areas.”

As a result, Brenzel said, changes in admissions tend to be “cautious and conservative.”

Since 1969, Yale’s undergraduate student body has slowly sloughed off its image as an elitist group of prep school alumni, and the national landscape of college admissions has undergone a dramatic transformation as well. Almost 20 experts, college counselors and former admissions officers interviewed said the shift toward diversity in admissions has been one of the most fundamental changes in higher education in recent years.

Many institutions used to select students by plugging applicants’ grades and test scores into a formula, said Joseph Zolner, senior director of the Harvard Institutes for Higher Education. But Zolner said schools have now backed away from these formulaic measures, so that “you can’t mechanically or mathematically eliminate someone anymore.”

“What’s happened is, in a certain way, our conception of diversity has broadened,” Levin explained, adding that the University tries “very systematically to reach populations that are underrepresented.”

But the zero-sum nature of admissions does not allow for total equality.

Brenzel stressed that no formal decision-making process is involved in determining which groups are favored in Yale admissions, adding that admissions priorities are a result of careful consideration of serious tradeoffs. During Levin’s 20-year presidency, for example, the University has gradually increased the number of international students it admits to 10 percent. Though internationalization results in a decreased number of accepted American students, Brenzel justified the decision by pointing to the unique experience and environment that international students bring to campus.

“Having a diverse student body is huge — every kind of possible nature of diversity makes not only Yale an interesting place to be, but makes the potential for developing new knowledge greater at every step,” Miller said.

But the positive effects of diversity itself are difficult to measure, prompting many people to take issue with prioritizing something that does not have a quantifiable benefit. James Onwuachi, college counselor at the Westminster Schools in Atlanta, Ga. and a former admissions officer at Vanderbilt, said America is “obsessed with statistics” — and despite people’s desire to “see something linked, dated, numbered, and calculated,” the ways in which diversity enhances a person’s education cannot be pared down to a mere set of numbers.

To trust in something that lacks quantifiable evidence, Onwuachi said, is a very hard task for this country.

 

‘HOOK’ CULTURE

A recent Wall Street Journal article written by a high school student rejected from her top-choice colleges asked a controversial question that admissions officers have skirted around for years: If college admissions focus so much on diversity, are non-diverse students unfairly shunted to the side?

Although the article’s author, Suzy Lee Weiss, came under fire for belittling the experiences of others, experts and academics within higher education have raised the same point since the movement for racial diversity took off in the 1960s, and especially since the adoption of holistic admissions procedures in recent years. Even in the last several months, with the Supreme Court case looming in the future, the age-old debate about race-conscious admissions has been taken up once again with renewed vigor.

Modern admissions practices typically stack candidates against similar peers rather than against the general applicant pool. Tom Walsh, director of college guidance at Roxbury Latin School in Massachusetts, recalled a friend’s metaphor: “There isn’t necessarily an applicant pool, but applicant puddles that make up an applicant pool,” he said. “You compete within the puddle. Can you rise to the top of your puddle?”

Zach Bills, director of college admissions at consulting group Top Test Prep, said he has seen certain racial groups — particularly Asian students — apply to college with high qualifications but often leave the admissions process with fewer acceptance letters because they are evaluated within the context of their background, which is overrepresented within the school’s applicant pool. Terry Kung, co-director of college counseling at Immaculate Heart High School, said that between two hypothetically equal students, one of Chinese descent and the other from a more underrepresented background, the first student is “up against a lot more” than his or her counterpart.

Though some counselors see the admissions statistics for Asian students as a flaw in the system, others point to the benefits of weighing applicants against their own contexts.

Bari Norman, president of professional college consulting group Expert Admissions and a former admissions officer at Barnard, said she thinks the idea of “hooks” — or special biographical or extracurricular attributes, such as being from a particular underrepresented background, that supposedly help some candidates gain admission at selective universities — is a media phenomenon rather than a tangible reality. No admissions officers think of applicants in those terms, she added, though the concept of hooks gives hopeful students “something to latch onto.”

“Being an admissions officer myself and watching countless kids go through the process, in many ways it’s actually the opposite,” Norman said. “When students try too hard to create a hook or a package, what they end up doing is seeming generic.”

Brenzel also denied that acceptance to Yale requires a hook — instead, he said, the Admissions Office focuses simply on “looking for the absolutely exceptional human being from every background and context in which their family circumstances have placed them.”

Whether or not applicant hooks are a media myth, experts agreed that the holistic evaluation of candidates is, by nature, a complicated process.

“It is not a meritocracy,” said Walsh. “It’s naïve to talk with students as if it were a fair meritocracy. If we wanted that, we could develop the British system and have kids take A-levels. But I don’t think that’s ever felt comfortable for America.”

Experts suggested that America’s emphasis on individualism and focus on social heterogeneity are causes of the country’s distaste for strictly numbers-based admissions.

Harvard School of Education professor Natasha Warikoo also mentioned the “redress rationale” — the idea that because minorities have historically experienced discrimination and lack of access to resources, universities have a responsibility to redress it in present day.

 

INSIDE AND OUTSIDE IVY WALLS

Slow, gradual process has characterized the changing admissions landscape since the 1960s. While some experts fear that an increased drive toward diversity leads to too much unfairness in the admissions system, others argue that top schools are still not as diverse as they should be.

Despite Yale’s aims of assembling a diverse student body, the makeup of each incoming freshman class remains less diverse than the American population. The same can be said of all of Yale’s peer institutions, including Harvard, Princeton and Stanford.

Harvard Kennedy School of Government public policy professor Christopher Avery, who recently co-authored a study on the lack of high-achieving low-income students at top schools, said that even at selective institutions, “diverse” still does not imply total representation. Avery’s study found that only 34 percent of high-achieving students in the bottom fourth of income distribution attended one of the country’s 238 most selective colleges, compared to 78 percent of students in the highest income quartile.

Though Yale may be trying its best to make its incoming class “much more representative” of students from all socioeconomic backgrounds, he said, many of the students in the target populations are not applying, due to a shortage of information or outreach.

Financial struggles may not be a truly accurate indicator of socioeconomic diversity, either. Many schools within the Ivy League report that roughly half their students receive financial aid — but according to Warikoo, when considering that Ivy League tuition fees exceed the country’s median income, much more than that percentage would receive financial aid if Ivy League schools were truly representative of the U.S. population.

In a similar quest for greater diversity, Penn State College of Education professor Sue Rankin advocated for sexual orientation to be added to applications, so that admissions officers may have a fuller view of a student’s personal identity.

Outside of the Ivy League and other selective institutions, genuinely representative diversity in universities is even more difficult to achieve.

Avery said the idea of holistic admissions — evaluating an applicant by considering all parts of his or her life — is not universal and is still applied only at selective institutions.

“The large majority of schools are not in the enviable position of a Yale or a Harvard,” said Zolner, explaining that only selective universities can afford to be the most diverse because their applicant pools are large and varied enough. “Each category of schools within this very diverse system of higher education would define the nature of its strive for diversity in somewhat different ways.”

Lawrence Bacow, a former president of Tufts University and a member of the Harvard Corporation, said the trend of focusing on socioeconomic diversity is relatively recent among schools, as many such schools previously emphasized only racial diversity. He added that schools have taken measures to ensure that the middle class is fairly represented, as well.

Over the years, the upward climb toward diversity has not been an easy one. Facing a combination of complicated factors such as national pressures, institutional priorities and obligations to be fair toward applicants themselves, no single university administrator — not the dean of admissions, and not even the institution’s president — can pave the road alone.

 

NOT A SCIENCE, NOT AN ART

Wells, the graduate of Yale’s first female class, called the University a “very different place” in 1969 and mused that it must be unimaginable for current students to consider it as a school once dominated by white, private-school educated men.

Forty years from today, Yale students may just as well think of the student body in 2013 as unimaginable, too. Next fall, the University will fall under the leadership of President-elect Peter Salovey, and the position of admissions dean will slide from Brenzel to current deputy dean Jeremiah Quinlan. As with each administration in the past, new ideas for the Admissions Office are bound to emerge — even if they probably will not be as radical as the ones brought up during Brewster’s tumultuous reign in the 60s and 70s.

Admissions priorities at any school are also often the result of national attention or action, Bacow said. Although university presidents have an important voice “shaping the conversation” toward new admissions priorities, they cannot make decisions without consulting the interests of others within the institution.

“One doesn’t just say, ‘Okay, this is where we’re going, follow me,’” Bacow said.

Beyond the turnover in leadership, other key issues weigh into the changing admissions landscape — most prominently, Fisher v. Texas, the pending Supreme Court case addressing the constitutionality of affirmative action in college admissions. While most law professors and experts are divided on the issue of affirmative action itself, the simple fact remains that because federal funding is tied to admissions priorities through federal statutes and the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, both private and public universities — including Yale, which has practiced affirmative action for virtually half a century — could be impacted by the ruling.

Addressing newly accepted students present on campus for Bulldog Days, Yale Law School professor Akhil Amar ’80 LAW ’84 opened his Constitutional Law lecture on Monday by discussing the moral and legal implications of of race-conscious admissions.

“Could you take into account someone who can play the tuba, or someone who comes from Wyoming, the same way you take race into account?” Amar asked. In a lecture hall of hundreds, none of the students could offer a complete answer.

Experts voiced a wide range of opinions on how admissions priorities at selective universities should evolve — from expanding diversity, to downplaying its importance, to reforming the entire admissions landscape altogether.

Ultimately, though, the pace of change in admissions is inevitably slow.

“We need to improve our outreach to parts of the country where high school students don’t believe they can aspire to a place like Yale, where they don’t know anyone who ever went Yale,” said Salovey in a Monday email to the News. “We need to be more aggressive in this kind of outreach.”

Whatever the case, Levin said admissions at Yale will likely not look the same for long. When the University opens its two new residential colleges, creating roughly 200 new spots for students. Levin said the new colleges will pose an interesting conversation for the Admissions Office on how to best fill these extra 200 spots in the class.

In total, all higher education administrators and experts interviewed agreed on the vital importance of diversity within the context of a university’s student body. But still, none claimed to have developed a foolproof method for achieving this diversity without being unfair to some applicants.

San Francisco University High School college counselor Jon Reider noted that his students recognize and accept that admissions priorities for race exist, just as priorities for athletes, legacies and faculty family members exist.

Though the admissions process at Yale and other selective institutions may not be “some kind of ideal merit system,” Reider said, students recognize the inherent unfairnesses, and know that “this is the reality.”

“Everybody talks about [college admissions] as not a science, and sometimes even less of an art,” said Walsh, the Massachusetts college counselor. “But it’s what we have, as a system. No one is saying it’s a flawless, perfect deal.”

In the end, Walsh, Bills, and several others all said the same thing: “They’re doing the best they possibly can.”

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