Among the most emotionally fraught issues of our time is the question of who gets in — and who should get in — to the most selective colleges in the nation.

High-profile scholars, educators, and pundits stake out positions in books and screeds. Passionate opinion pieces abound. Legal cases make their way all the way up to the Supreme Court, only to be complicated by subsequent rulings that still have not resulted in total clarity.

What the endless debate about fairness in college admissions needs is a wise, thoughtful, informed, and far-ranging consideration of the issues and rigorous data to support the conclusions. That’s what Emeritus Professor Rebecca Zwick offers in Who Gets In? Strategies for Fair and Effective College Admissions.

I think this book will be immediately regarded as the definitive source on fairness in college admissions, and I expect it to be the gold standard for years to come.

If you were to ask people at random who they think should get into the best colleges and universities, some would say that the answer is obvious: The students with the best records should get in.

From that perspective, getting admitted to a great college is a reward for past performance. That’s not as straightforward as it seems, because what counts as a measure of performance is controversial. Is it grades? Scores on tests such as the SAT or ACT? Letters of recommendation? Evidence of grit?

The goal of rewarding past performance is only one of the five major goals of college admissions that Zwick identifies. Alternatively, schools may want to identify the most talented students – even if their performance on traditional measures is not superb – and nurture them.

Alternately, educational institutions may have the explicit goal of expanding college access to a wider range of people and increasing social mobility. They could also aspire to an admissions policy that maximizes the benefit to society. Or they could simply try to fulfill their own institutional needs. If, Zwick writes, for example, “the school needs more players for the lacrosse team or more oboists for the orchestra,” then those applicants could receive preferential consideration over applicants who do not fill those needs.

Another fundamental question with a non-obvious answer is: How do we know whether an admissions policy wound up being fair (ethical and just) and effective (it achieved what it intended to achieve)?

Should we look at how well the students do in college – as indicated, for example, by their GPA or their rates of graduating? Should we look farther into the future and see how they do in the job market, or whether they turn out to be good citizens? Or is a fair policy one that admits the most diverse class, including students from under-represented minorities as well as low-income or low socioeconomic status students?

The issue of diversity is perhaps the most contentious one in college admissions. Even among those who accept that diversity is an important goal, there is disagreement about how best to achieve it.

For example, there are those who believe that SAT scores measure little more than parents’ wealth, and should therefore be excluded from admissions criteria. Some believe that a good alternative is a percent plan, in which (for example) the top ten percent of students in every high school are automatically granted admission to one of the state universities, as long as they have taken the requisite courses.

Another solution that has been proposed repeatedly over the years is a lottery; establish some minimum qualification — such as a threshold SAT or ACT score — then choose at random from all the applicants who qualify.

Others suggest that qualities that go beyond grades and test scores should matter. For example, do the applicants show a capacity to overcome adversity? Are they well-rounded? Do they contribute significantly to their communities?

In separate chapters, Rebecca Zwick considers all of these claims and counter-claims and proposals for making college admissions fair and effective — plus a few more.

Zwick has been an eminent educational researcher for decades, so she has a wide and deep knowledge of the arguments and the results of the relevant studies. She also has something else that adds a unique strength to her conclusions: Access to an impressive trove of data.

The Education Longitudinal Study includes records from 13,000 high school students who have been followed from the time when they were in high school through graduation in 2004, on to their college careers and achievements beyond college.

Data include their test scores, grades in high school and college, demographic characteristics, and the colleges where they applied and were accepted. Using those data, Professor Zwick was able to provide a new test of many of the proposed admissions policies.

The final chapter ends with seven key principles that should guide the development of admissions policies. Here are excerpts from the last three principles:

  • “High school grades should continue to play a key role in admissions, particularly because of their apparent value in measuring students’ tenacity and commitment. Test scores can be useful in identifying talented students who have so far been unsuccessful in school…”
  • “Nontraditional admissions criteria and holistic evaluations are not always helpful to those they are intended to support. The less clear the admissions criteria, the more likely they are to benefit the wealthier, more savvy candidates.”
  • “Admissions policies should be transparent. Applicants are entitled to know the rules of the game so they can make their best case for admission.”

Professor Zwick has worked for many years at the Educational Testing Service (ETS), but that doesn’t mean that she is an apologist for tests such as the SAT or ACT.

“Asking whether standardized tests are good is much like asking whether cars are good. If they’re constructed well and used intelligently, they can be very valuable. Some are just plain bad. Even good ones can be harmful if misused. None are perfectly reliable,” writes Zwick.

If you read Who Gets In?, I promise you this: You will be surprised. You will be enlightened. You will think about college admissions in ways you never expected.

I have followed the college admissions debates informally for a long time. I thought I knew who was right and who was wrong. I thought I knew what the best studies would show. I was wrong.

As Professor Zwick notes, getting a college education matters. It matters for job prospects, job satisfaction, and pay; for health and well-being; for involvement in civic affairs, and more. So when it comes to college admissions, we need to get it right.

Who Gets In? Strategies for Fair and Effective College Admissions
Rebecca Zwick
Harvard University Press, May 2017
Hardcover, 261 pages
$35

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