Your Score is Relative

Who makes the cut?
Who makes the cut? // WEEKEND

When Diana Orozco ’16 was applying to college, she wasn’t getting any help from her mother. Rather, her mom was too busy doing her own high school work.

“While I was writing my college admissions essay,” she said. “I was also helping my mum spell words such as ‘serious,’ in her own homework.”

A first-generation student whose parents were undocumented immigrants from Mexico, Orozco, who traveled from Los Angeles to New Haven two years ago, represents the new breed of applicants to elite colleges. Until the late ’60s, Yale and its peers were more extensions of prep school than campuses open to all.

Admissions officers, looking to draw the best of the best to these colleges, now actively seek out students from “non-traditional college communities” like Orozco. Admissions officers interviewed at Yale said the University has made great strides in recent years to expand its applicant pool, but that they are still expanding and experimenting with outreach programs.

But, as Orozco can testify, some students need help just to become competitive applicants. She received support throughout high school, and during the admissions process, but the resoures available to her were the exceptions that prove the rule. Without the help of a multi-millionaire benefactor, Orozco did not believe she could have even left California for college. Her story, along with those of the other students interviewed, spoke to the challenges that accompany students coming from low income communities who approach the world of elite college education.

Even as admissions use broader metrics to evaluate a greater number of candidates, both they and the students they seek must still deal with the real effects the achievement gap and the lingering prejudices that accompany the admissions process.

 

The New Bar

When William Morse ’64 GRD ’74 was at Yale, he saw more students from three or four New England boarding schools than from the rest of the country combined.

“I went to a Yale where my hockey team was full of kids like John Kerry — we all went to private schools and came from the right type of family,” he said.

The college application process was a lot simpler back in those years, said Geoffrey Kabaservice, an author who has written about the Ivy League admissions process. Simpler, at least, for those who had connections.

He added that if you were from the right background and schools, where you went for college was largely a matter of personal choice.

“There are stories of the Andover senior classes back in the day congregating for one meeting where they all are asked which college they’d like to go to,” Morse recalled. The seniors who raised their hands for Yale were counted and their names were written on a document that was sent to the University — these students were near-certain acceptances.

Starting in the early 1950s and 1960s, Yale began to shift its policies, looking for a wider range of applicants. The college, in the words of then-Undergraduate Admissions Officer Inslee “Inky” Clark “could do a lot better than the bottom quarter of Andover.”

But while the current dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale, Jeremiah Quinlan, said Yale has reached a level of diversity that “Inky Clark could not have imagined,” the University’s student body is still not representative of all of America.

The University boasts that 52.3 percent of Yale undergraduates receive some form of need-based financial aid, but the reverse also needs to be considered: 47.7 percent of Yale students come from families that earn over $200,000 a year. Only about two percent of Americans earn this much. Thirty-five percent of Americans at four-year state or private colleges received Pell Grants, the main type of federal aid for low-income students. In contrast, the number of Yale students who receive such grants is about 14 percent.

The same disproportionately low numbers apply to every group of nontraditional college students. Fifty percent of college students in America are first-generation college students yet they only compose 12 percent of the incoming class of 2017 — more students, 13.8 percent to be precise, were legacies, meaning that either one or both of their parents attended Yale.

So why are there such major discrepancies between Yale’s applicant pool and that of America’s more broadly?

For some, the status quo barely changed. Pulitzer Prize-winning Bloomberg journalist Daniel Golden wrote in his book, “The Price of Admission,” that many of the spots available at schools such as Yale are actually reserved for the wealthy or the children of alumni through either legacy preference, the collaboration between a university’s fundraising and admissions office or other means such as athletic recruitment.

But all seven college admissions officers or college counselors interviewed disagreed with Golden’s thesis.

Morse said Yale’s legacy students, unlike other recipients of affirmative action, actually tend to have higher test scores and grades than the average applicant. David Petersam, president of Virginia-based education consulting group AdmissionsConsultants, said some schools prefer legacy students because they know these students have a genuine love of the institution.

Still, the University concedes that it hard to move away from traditional pathways. And harder to do so in the most appropriate way.

In a cover story for its January/February issue, Yale Alumni Magazine published an article with a provocative title: “Reaching beyond the low-hanging fruit: Yale seeks smart students from poor families. They’re out there — but hard to find.”

Immediately the Magazine was caught in a hailstorm of national criticism. One reporter for The Atlantic said the subtitle implied that the low-income students already on campus weren’t smart enough. A fellow at Harvard Law School, Sara Mayeux, said the magazine was incredibly “tone-deaf” and “insensitive” in its remarks.

Still, five college counselors interviewed said they were sympathetic to the arguments made in the Alumni Magazine. Michael Goran, director and founder of IvySelect College Counseling, echoed the sentiments of the other college counselors interviewed when he argued the magazine was merely acknowledging the difficulties top schools have in contextualizing the achievements of students from different backgrounds.

“If it was easy to find these students, Yale would not be expending huge resources on outreach efforts and hiring staff to recruit nontraditional students,” Goran said.

 

Where do you look?

When looking for the best applicants, scores are both the first and, potentially, the worst sources of information.

The current SAT exam, with its straightforward 600 to 2,400 point scale, is not a purely objective gauge of achievement, said Daniel Edeza, assistant director of admissions at Yale. Edeza said social science studies had clearly proven that a student’s test scores often correlated more with the test-taker’s income level than academic ability. According to data collected by College Board, a student’s Writing score on the SAT tends to rise by about 20 points for every additional $20,000 that a student’s family earns.

“Our job as admissions officers is not to count scores solely,” said Mark Dunn, senior assistant director at the admissions office. He added that although the admissions office saw test scores and GPAs as useful pieces of information, officers would never use score thresholds.

“Context is everything. We won’t ever outsource our jobs to the College Board or ACT,” he asserted, adding that each candidate is assessed on the basis of how well they performed given the specific resources accessible to them.

But, when Quinlan and the Yale admissions office talk about “holistic” admissions — one which considers every aspect of a student’s application and does not automatically discount students for any one single score or grade — their arguments are often met with eye-rolls and skepticism.

David Petersam, president of Virginia-based higher education consulting group AdmissionsConsultants, pointed out that its easy to read these newer approaches as “arbitrary and designed to pursue political goals.”

Petersam added that many of his rejected clients couldn’t help but feel cheated by affirmative action.

“They say to themselves, I scored a 2,300, I got straight As, is it really my fault that I went to a good public school?” he said.

But according to students and admissions officers, critics miss the reasoning behind these policies. Orozco pointed out these critics do not understand the structural disadvantages that she, and students of similar backgrounds, must overcome.

Orozco grew up in Inglewood, a city in southwestern Los Angeles County which is better known for producing NBA and NFL players than college graduates. Success for kids in Inglewood, according to Orozco, wasn’t attending university, let alone medical school or working on Wall Street. Rather her friends dreamed of graduating from high school and (preferably) without becoming pregnant, she said.

 

Intervention

Because of a twist of fate, Orozco didn’t attend her local high school, Inglewood High School, with metal detectors and crumbling buildings. Instead she attended the Brentwood School, a prestigious private school in LA that sends virtually every single student to a nationally recognized four-year college.

And one way to examine the playing field’s inequality is to follow students like her, who have straddled the disparate worlds of low- and higher-income backgrounds, and can attest to advantages some gain at birth.

Orozco’s twist of fate came from an unusual personality, one who in Orozco’s words has “changed the lives of dozens of students just like me.”

Eric Eisner is an abrasive former Hollywood producer who lunched with Tom Cruise and dined with Martin Scorsese. Yet after retiring in his late 40s, he found himself not at a golf course as expected but in some of the worst schools in LA. After meeting students in low-income neighborhoods who score in the top percentiles of standardized tests or who receive glowing recommendations from their teachers, Eisner “adopts” the students as “Young Eisner Scholars.”

Eisner and his team bestow YES scholars with tremendous resources and personal attention, rather than simply setting stipends.

“We treat every kid in the program as if they were our child,” explains Eisner, adding that it was this attention to detail meant that he had to cap the number of students his organization could accept to give each individual the attention they deserve. Jesus Morales, a sophomore at the University of Michigan, said he and his fellow YES scholars talk about Eisner to their friends more often than they speak about their parents.

Yet for Orozco, her challenges did not end with her acceptance to a high school that sends dozens of students each year to selective East Coast colleges. Rather in many ways, her challenges were only beginning.

For one thing, she felt like she was entering a foreign world. Now she was going to a school where students would regularly be given their own Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs when they turned 16.

“I experienced a world I had never seen before,” she said, adding that some of her classmates would frequently use the noun “private jet” or “PJ” as a verb to explain their travel plans. “I’m just going to PJ to New York this weekend,” was one expression Orozco said she heard on multiple occasions.

At school, Orozco and Roger Lewis, a scholarship student at the private school Loyala High School, said all the black and brown students stayed friends with just one another. Orozco emphasized that any social segregation was not intentional or explicitly imposed. Rather her unique socioeconomic situation made it impossible to always relate with richer members of the school.

Jim Patterson, an Upper School dean at Harvard-Westlake, said the concerns that Orozco and Lewis faced at Brentwood and Loyala were not unique. Harvard-Westlake — considered one of the most prestigious schools on the West Coast — often recruits high-achieving low-income students, and it has developed ways to approach the problems they face.

The school places these students under the care of an Upper School dean (Harvard-Westlake’s version of a college counselor) and works with these students to help them transcend the social difficulties they may face upon arriving at Harvard-Westlake, he said.

Still, he concedes that it is a difficult task. Seven students interviewed on Harvard-Westlake’s campus said social cliques were often predicated on wealth and status. And all six YES scholars or scholarship students interviewed for this piece said the consequence of income inequality do not end in the cafeteria but extend to the classroom.

Jeffrey Bradshaw, a former student at Pilgrim High School whose tuition was paid by the billionaire philanthropist Ron Burkle, said he always thought he was a smart kid before entering the private school as a sophomore. A straight-A student at his old high school in Compton, Bradshaw brought that same braggadocio when selecting his sophomore classes at Pilgrim.

“I signed up for AP classes left and right, I was just happy this new school was offering them,” he said. On his first AP Biology test of his sophomore year, Bradshaw scored a flat C. No one else in his class scored below a B+.

Upon receiving the test, he remembers bursting into tears and storming out of the room. The same trail of Cs and the occasional B haunted him throughout his sophomore year.  Bradshaw’s mother, a receptionist who once worked for one of Burkle’s companies, remembers her son telling her every day that he would drop out of Pilgrim and return to his local public school where the classes were much easier and the expected workload was significantly less.

These memories are not unique to Bradshaw, but rather a similar tale each student told the News.

Orozco remembers crying to her mother after receiving a C on first paper. She eventually pulled her grade up to a B+ and overcame that initial shock. By the time she graduated, Orozco was near the top of her class.

“I would work so incredibly hard but I would never let anyone tell me that I wasn’t smart enough,” she said, adding that this was a trait she still holds to this day whenever she gets a bad grade or struggles with a problem set at Yale.

 

Further into the gap

But despite the occasional bad grade she received as a freshman, Orozco is still at Yale, and excelling. She is in many ways the poster child of a student who, with a little bit of help, exceeded her socioeconomic expectations.

Indeed, the students who found their way to private high school through this sort of scholar program interviewed for the piece were unanimous in expressing their gratitude for the opportunity.

“I dodged a bullet. Literally. While I complained about struggling in classes, some of my kindergarten friends were in gangs or had knocked a girl up,” Bradshaw said. After a significant pause on the phone, he spoke in a softer voice. “Remembering this has always made me thankful of God and keep things in perspective.”

Mark Barnett was not as lucky. He did not score high enough to qualify for a YES scholarship.

Instead, he remained in Inglewood High School. There he found himself skating through classes and receiving good but not great grades. When he took the SATs, Barnett scored a 1,720, the 79th percentile. He added that there were many words on the test that he had never even seen before.

Upon entering San Diego State, Barnett felt out of place. A prospective English major, he quickly grew disenchanted after going through the same struggles that Orozco and Bradshaw first felt in high school. After his freshman year, he dropped out to attend a community college in Santa Barbara.

Yale, unlike San Diego State, boasts tremendous resources and support systems. But even here students who do make it through the application process from poorly performing public schools have often felt out of place.

“I felt like I was so behind everyone else. There was such a strong temptation to just quit and give up, the gap seemed that insurmountable,” John Gonzalez ’14, a senior from Modesto, Calif. recalled. Mikhail Reece ’16, a football player from Tampa Bay, Fla. said he had never had a workload comparable to what he faced his freshman fall.

Quinlan said his office and their partners in the College Dean’s Office and the Office of Institutional Research track the performances of students that the University admits, and they are aware of these issues.

The University is continuing to develop resources such as the Freshman Scholar’s Program or the pre-calculus modules that will arrive next summer to better prepare students whose transition to college is particularly challenging.

All three admissions officers interviewed said they would often have to turn down students who, despite excelling given their background, were not prepared for attending Yale.

“We have something like a Hippocratic oath as admissions officers,” Edeza said. That is, do no harm.

Still, he and Dunn both stressed that the admissions office accepts students who may struggle initially but with a little additional support will eventually flourish. Often, officers debate what it means for a student to be a “success” — will they have the highest GPA at Yale from the get-go, or will the make the biggest impact on their communities after graduating?

Eisner said it was for this reason that so many of his YES scholars do exceptionally well in the college process.

“There are relatively fewer qualified black or Hispanic students who can score in the range that other applicants, especially Asians, can score,” said Eisner, adding that because the pool is so slim, top colleges fight over elite-scoring African-American and Hispanic students knowing that they can all do the work. He pointed to Kwasi Enin, the Long Island, N.Y. senior who has made national news for his acceptance to all eight Ivy League schools, as an example of how coveted high-scoring minority students are.

 

Bridges

If 90 percent of success is showing up, then this applies to not just applicants but also to colleges — who must raise awareness that the ivory tower is open to all deserving candidates.

Quinlan said Yale’s focus is not on fighting for the small pie of high-scoring low-income students who are already applying to elite colleges. He added that there are many of these students across the country who do not even apply to selective colleges, and it is these students who Yale wants to attract.

“One of the core priorities of my first year [as dean of admissions] is finding and encouraging the brightest students to consider Yale,” he said.

Harvard Kennedy School of Government public policy professor Christopher Avery, who has been cited frequently by University President Peter Salovey and Quinlan when explaining the importance of Yale’s outreach efforts, said his research and the research of others demonstrates that only 34 percent of high-achieving students in the bottom quarter of income distribution attended one of America’s 238 most selective colleges whereas 78 percent of students in the wealthiest quarter of the income distribution did so.

Students from low-income areas interviewed said Avery’s research was not surprising.

“Unless a school had a really good football or basketball team, I had no idea what any of these schools were until I came to Pilgrim,” said Bradshaw, adding that many of his friends from home had only heard of Harvard. Even then, he said they didn’t know anything about Harvard except that it was apparently where you went if you were going to be president.

One way we can encourage low-income high-achieving students to apply to Yale is by accepting more students who come from that background in the first place. Quinlan pointed out that you must build momentum, and signal to these communities that Yale and our peer schools are accessible to anyone who is bright and capable.

Barnett said he applied to San Diego State only because one of his teachers went there.

“I always assumed that a school is a school. It’s the innate ability of the student that mattered and anyone reading the same book can learn the same material,” Barnett said. He did not realize there was a substantial difference between San Diego State or Stanford until he heard from classmates in college of the incredible resources and attention that are available to low-income first-generation students at some schools.

Changing these perceptions is part of our jobs as admissions officers, said Edeza. Edeza’s background is one similar to Barnett and Orozco. His father did not graduate from elementary school and his mother did not graduate from middle school. He went to a large underperforming Los Angeles public school. Still, he found his way to Yale through the help of Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID), a private organization that raises awareness of the college application process for gifted students.

He said one core part of his mission as the admission officer in charge of Los Angeles is to work with organizations such as AVID and YES to ensure more students are made aware of the possibilities of a Yale education.

When Corinne Kentor ’16, a student ambassador, visited Oak Park High School, a public school for middle-class students in Los Angeles, the questions she dealt with at the beginning of the session were almost exclusively about numbers: how many APs she had taken, what her GPA was or her SAT scores. After Kentor had skillfully put this subject to rest using the standard admissions line — each application is unique so each person’s scores can’t be compared — she proceeded to explain Yale’s financial aid policies.

At that moment, the sleepier heads in the room were roused. Seven attendants interviewed said they were astonished at how generous Yale was with financial aid.

“I had always thought of Yale as that place for characters from Gossip Girl or Montgomery Burns from the Simpsons,” said junior Faiyaz Khan. He added that he had never heard of Yale’s policy to allow all families earning under $65,000 to contribute nothing to their child’s education — a policy for which his family would qualify.

According to internal data collected by the University, its outreach efforts are working. Data tracking the student ambassador program — which sends current Yale undergraduates to high schools that likely cater to low- or middle-income Americans — demonstrates that high school students are more likely to apply to Yale if student ambassadors visit and discuss Yale’s robust financial aid policies.

Avery’s research also shows there is much work to be done.  Geography continues to be one of the biggest barriers to college admissions, he said, adding that at the very least, high-achieving low-income students such as Orozco in metropolitan areas have access to programs such as the YES organization or Prep for Prep.

And, for other students and families, lingering perceptions of elitism and distance can further drown out Yale’s outreach efforts.

Orozco recounted the first time her mother heard about Yale. She was watching a Mexican TV show when a wealthy man mentioned that his daughter was attending Yale, she said, adding from that moment onwards her mother always assumed Yale was a school where rich people sent their kids.

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