Study shows admissions officers might be biased—but not in the way you'd think

Admissions officers sometimes make judgements based on what they don't know, study finds

A recent study shows admissions officers might be unconsciously deciding against low-income students if they don't know much about the high schools those students attended.

The research, led by the director of University of Michigan's Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education, Michael Bastedo, and the director of the University of Iowa's Center for Research on Undergraduate Education, Nicholas Bowman, found that when admissions officers have detailed information about a low-income student's high school, they are more likely to admit the student.

To conduct the study, the researchers asked 311 admissions offers at 174 competitive institutions to review three fictional applicants—all of whom were "white male students planning to major in engineering."

Out of the three applications, one fictional student came from a low-income school, and the other two from upper-middle class schools.

Half of the admissions officers were only given the high schools' graduation rates and the students' educational attainment. The other half were given a detailed overview of the students' high schools, including:

  • College enrollment rates;
  • Average SAT and ACT scores;
  • Whether or not Advanced Placement (AP) courses are offered;
  • The percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals; and
  • The proportion of students who took AP classes and earned scores of 3 or above on their exams.

The results show that the group of admissions officers who received the detailed high school portfolio were 26% to 28% more likely to admit the low-income students. 

New enrollment managers: Here's how to take advantage of the information you do have

The results suggest that low-income students may face additional barriers to college based on how much information admissions officers have about their high schools. And while it might seem like there's a simple solution—have high schools to provide this information—lower-income high schools often lack the resources to create these kinds of in-depth profiles, according to Peter Osgood, the director of admissions at Harvey Mudd College.

Admissions officers should view the study as a warning to be more conscious of how this bias might affect their decisions, says Jon Boeckenstedt, associate vice president for enrollment management at DePaul University (Gewertz, Education Week, 3/22). 

"Low-income" does not necessarily mean delayed graduation

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