Are college admissions actually unfair? Expert explains the balancing act

'With any talent or quality, the more of it that there is, the less valuable it becomes'

The fairness of college admissions has come under fire recently—but fairness is not necessarily the admission process's main goal, says Jim Jump, former president of National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), in an interview with NPR.

"Institutions choose based on what their institutional needs are, and they're not necessarily going to be fair to every individual, because they can't pick every individual," he says.

Instead, schools are looking to build a diverse class. "Uniqueness is kind of the hidden currency of college admissions," Jump says.

"With any talent or quality, the more of it that there is, the less valuable it becomes in the admissions process...In a highly selective environment there are lots of really qualified people who aren't gonna get in," he says.

Jump did acknowledge, however, that the admissions process generally rewards privilege—for example, SAT scores rise with socioeconomic class.

"You're dealing with trying to equate people who've grown up in different backgrounds, who bring different strengths to the table. I'm not sure we'll ever get it right perfectly. It is more an art than a science," he says.

One step toward equality is disregarding applicants' high school discipline records, according to a new draft report from the Center for Community Alternatives.

The report, based on a survey conducted in conjunction with the NACAC and the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), found that nearly 75% of schools collect such information—but just 25% have a formal, written policy on how to use it.

The authors argue that schools should not use the records, but if they do, they should have clear regulations and training on how to do so because a punishing applicants' "minor misbehavior" from freshman year, "when a child's impulse control is notoriously weak, is unfair on its face."

New York University (NYU) announced last weekend that its first round of admissions will be blind to criminal backgrounds, but the second will involve a team "specially trained" in how to evaluate the information.

While the AACRAO has not taken a stance on the use of disciplinary decisions, the organization's executive director Michael Reilly says he is sympathetic to points made in the report.

"My advice to campuses who are collecting this information is to read this report and ask whether their practice is appropriate given the many inconsistencies in the high school justice system," Reilly says.

Todd Rinehart, associate vice chancellor and director of admission at the University of Denver and chair of the NACAC Admission Practices Committee, took a different stance.

"Admission committees aren't denying students access to higher education, but they have the prerogative to determine who is the best match for their respective institutions," he says (Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed, 5/26; Rath, "All Things Considered," NPR, 5/23).

The takeaway: Admissions criteria at colleges and universities are receiving public criticism for being unfair—but the goal is to serve the institution's needs, not be fair to everyone who applies, says one industry leader.


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