Race and College Admissions
by Michael J. Petrin
The role of race in college admissions is once again the subject of much debate in our country. The affirmative action case Abigail Noel Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin[i] is currently before the US Supreme Court, and Suzy Lee Weiss’ recent article “To (All) the Colleges That Rejected Me”[ii] has garnered responses from all corners of the internet.[iii] While I, for one, believe that there is room for informed discussion and debate about affirmative action in college admissions, I would like to suggest that the following points be kept in mind:
Much of the current discussion is replete with attitudes of privilege and entitlement. The University of Texas at Austin, the school that rejected Abigail Fisher, is one of the top public universities in the country. In 2008, the year that Fisher applied, the average SAT score among admitted students was 1831 out of 2400 — a full 320 points higher than the national average.[iv] The average high school percentile for admitted students that year was 91.[v] The academic prestige of the schools that rejected Suzy Weiss (U Penn, Princeton, Vanderbilt, and Yale) is obvious and does not bear repeating here.
What is important to note, I think, is that admission to all of these colleges is extremely competitive, and although one may legitimately hope to attend a school of this caliber, nobody — not even a student with perfect grades and test scores — is entitled to admission. As for those of us who are fortunate enough to attend an outstanding institution (Notre Dame’s undergraduate admission rate last year was 23.3%[vi]), the proper response is gratitude — gratitude to God, to our families, and to our teachers for the many blessings that we have received.
Given that much of the debate about affirmative action turns on personal dissatisfaction, it is worth touching on how Fisher and Weiss fit into the admissions statistics of the aforementioned schools.
Fisher was not in the top 10% of her high school class, and was therefore ineligible for automatic admission to UT Austin on that basis, a policy that filled 80.9% of the school’s incoming class in 2008.[vii] Furthermore, her SAT score of 1180 out of 1600 puts her 51 points below the average score of 2008 admits (1231 out of 1600).[viii]
As for Weiss, her stats are certainly impressive — 2120 out of 2400 on the SAT and a 4.5 weighted GPA — but they are by no means good enough to guarantee a spot at an Ivy League school. To give just one example, Princeton offered admission to only 7.29% of this year’s applicants.[ix] This means that 24,567 high school students received bad news in the mail, and only 1,931 received good news.[x] In addition, a whopping 13,802 applicants matched Weiss in posting SAT scores of 2100 or higher — which means that at least 11,871 students with SAT scores as good as or better than Weiss’ were rejected.[xi] What is more, although a GPA comparison is complicated by the fact that Princeton does not publish statistics on weighted GPAs, even a perfect 4.00 out of 4.00 GPA would not have guaranteed Weiss admission. Last year, for example, only 10.4% of high school students applying with a 4.00 GPA were admitted to Princeton.[xii]
In the particular cases of Fisher and Weiss, therefore, it seems that their indignation may be misplaced.
One of the current buzzwords in the debate about affirmative action is “holistic.” When holistic admissions processes are discussed, however, “holistic” is often simply a codeword for racial preference. Yet holistic review does not just take into account race; it also considers extracurricular activities, community service, etc.
This point is perfectly illustrated by Fisher’s experience. She was denied provisional admission to UT Austin via a summer program, while 1 black and 4 Hispanic students with combined scores lower than hers (1180 out of 1600 on the SAT and a 3.59 GPA) were admitted to the same program — but 42 white applicants with scores identical to or lower than Fisher’s were also admitted.[xiii] Moreover, 168 black and Hispanic applicants with scores identical to or lower than Fisher’s were denied admission to the summer program.[xiv] UT Austin’s “holistic” review is thus clearly considering factors beyond race.
As for Weiss’ complaints about not having played an instrument or done community service, I don’t really know what to say. College admissions are competitive, and non-academic factors are taken into account in admissions decisions. If one chooses not to participate in extracurricular activities or community service, that’s certainly one’s choice and one’s right; but it’s odd to fault admissions officers for considering factors that they explicitly identify as important.
If, however, one wishes to argue that admissions decisions should be made on the basis of nothing other than GPAs and test scores, which seems to be what Weiss is getting at, why does race so often become the scapegoat?[xv] If holistic review encompasses more than just race (as is true at least in the case of UT Austin), why do so many discussions about holistic review focus on race?[xvi] If one wishes to oppose racial affirmative action, one should recognize that it is, in the words of UT Austin’s “Brief for Respondents,” “a factor of a factor of a factor of a factor” in holistic review.[xvii]
Finally, regarding the specific question of race, it’s important to decide what one considers the purpose of a university to be. If, as I would argue, universities in the US ought to serve the people of the US, then it would not be outrageous to hope for the racial proportions of their admitted classes to incline toward (but not necessarily match) the racial proportions of the country as a whole.
It should be noted, however, that admissions rates for black and Hispanic students are actually considerably lower than the percentage of black and Hispanic residents in the US. The 2010 census showed that 12.6% of the total US population is black, and 16.3% is Hispanic.[xviii] Both of these numbers are up from the 2000 census, which reported 12.3% and 12.5%, respectively.[xix] Furthermore, the percentages among young people are significantly higher. In 2009, 15.6% of US residents between 14 and 24 were black, and 18.5% were Hispanic.[xx]
But among private, non-profit Title IV schools, only 11.5% of students are black and 7.4% are Hispanic.[xxi] Public Title IV schools are closer to the general population percentages (12.7% black and 14.4% Hispanic), but they still lag quite a bit behind the percentages among young people.[xxii]
Unfortunately, most “elite” private institutions fall far below these numbers: Princeton’s class of 2016, for example, is only 7.5% black and 7.5% Hispanic.[xxiii] And since the number of Native American students rounds to 0% of that same class, Weiss’ comment that she “would have gladly worn a headdress to school” rings of ignorance, at best.
UT Austin’s numbers seem better — of the students admitted in 2008, when Fisher applied, 5.6% were black and 19.9% were Hispanic — but they are in fact far below the racial percentages for the state of Texas: 12.2% black and 38.1% Hispanic.[xxiv] This is relevant because 92.5% of the students admitted in 2008 were Texas residents.[xxv]
It is clear, therefore, that being a racial minority is not a guarantee of being admitted to the college of your dreams — or any college at all, for that matter. Black and Hispanic students are not being given a “free pass.” Indeed, they are not even admitted to colleges at a rate proportionate to the general population.
A Final Word
As I said at the beginning of this post, I believe that it is possible for reasonable people to disagree about the role of race in college admissions, but my hope is that the foregoing points might help to clarify the discussion, that is, to identify what dynamics are actually at play in admissions decisions and to prevent students of color from becoming scapegoats.
[i] Office of the Vice President for Legal Affairs, University of Texas at Austin, “Fisher vs. Texas,” http://www.utexas.edu/vp/irla/Fisher-V-Texas.html.
[ii] Suzy Lee Weiss, “To (All) the Colleges That Rejected Me,” Wall Street Journal (March 29, 2013), http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324000704578390340064578654.html.
[iii] E.g., Kendra James, “To (All) the White Girls Who Didn’t Get Into the College of Their Dreams,” Racialicious (April 10, 2013), http://www.racialicious.com/2013/04/10/to-all-the-white-girls-who-didnt-get-into-the-college-of-their-dreams/; and Hans A. von Spakovsky, “To All the Colleges That Rejected Suzy Weiss,” National Review Online (April 11, 2013), http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/345235/all-colleges-rejected-suzy-weiss-hans-von-spakovsky.
[iv] Office of Information Management and Analysis, University of Texas at Austin, “2011-2012 Statistical Handbook,” Table S 15, http://www.utexas.edu/academic/ima/sites/default/files/SHB11-12Students.pdf.
[vi] Office of Undergraduate Admissions, University of Notre Dame, “Admissions Statistics,” http://admissions.nd.edu/admission-and-application/admissions-statistics/.
[vii] Office of Information Management and Analysis, University of Texas at Austin, “2011-2012 Statistical Handbook,” Table S 15, http://www.utexas.edu/academic/ima/sites/default/files/SHB11-12Students.pdf.
[viii] University of Texas at Austin, et al., “Brief for Respondents,” p. 15, http://www.utexas.edu/vp/irla/Documents/Brief%20for%20Respondents.pdf.
[ix] Mike Caddell, “Princeton University Offers Admission to 7.29 Percent of Applicants,” News at Princeton (March 28, 2013), http://www.princeton.edu/main/news/archive/S36/44/74C02/index.xml.
[xii] Undergraduate Admission Office, Princeton University, “Admission Statistics: Statistics for Applicants to the Class of 2016,” http://www.princeton.edu/admission/applyingforadmission/admission_statistics/.
[xiii] University of Texas at Austin, et al., “Brief for Respondents,” pp. 15-16.
[xiv] Ibid., p. 16.
[xv] I would note that even if admissions decisions were only based on GPAs and test scores, it is unlikely that Weiss would have been admitted to an Ivy League school. For example, is it really plausible that of the 13,802 Princeton applicants who scored 2100 or higher on the SAT, less than 1,931 posted a score above 2120?
[xvi] The sex/gender of students also receives quite a bit of attention, though Weiss conveniently omits that element of holistic review from her article.
[xvii] University of Texas at Austin, et al., “Brief for Respondents,” p. 13. N.B.: The same could be said of sex/gender.
[xviii] United States Census Bureau, “Overview of Race and Hispanic Origin: 2010,” Table 1, http://www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/briefs/c2010br-02.pdf.
[xx] United States Census Bureau, “Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2012,” Table 10, http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2012/tables/12s0010.pdf.
[xxi] National Center for Education Statistics, “Enrollment in Postsecondary Institutions, Fall 2011; Financial Statistics, Fiscal Year 2011; and Graduation Rates, Selected Cohorts, 2003–2008,” Table 1, http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2012/2012174rev.pdf.
[xxiii] Undergraduate Admission Office, Princeton University, “Admission Statistics: Statistics for Applicants to the Class of 2016,” http://www.princeton.edu/admission/applyingforadmission/admission_statistics/.
[xxiv] United States Census Bureau, “Texas QuickFacts,” http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/48000.html.
[xxv] Office of Information Management and Analysis, University of Texas at Austin, “2011-2012 Statistical Handbook,” Table S 15, http://www.utexas.edu/academic/ima/sites/default/files/SHB11-12Students.pdf.
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