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Equity in College Admissions Keeps Failing Because Colleges Keep Refusing To Do Something Different

California’s college systems had strongly endorsed a ballot measure – Proposition 16 – that would have permitted affirmative action for prospective college students.  

It lost.  But they’re still reiterating their commitment to diversity and inclusion.  

The need is great.  The simple truth is that educational attainment is strongly correlated with family income, and that family income is strongly correlated with race.  According to The Public Policy Institute of California, 80% of low-income high school students in California are from an underrepresented group in higher education (such as Blacks and Latinos).  In fact, based on 2018 numbers, about 18% of Latinos in the state have an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, compared to 52% of white people in the state.

The system has clearly failed students of color and low income students alike.  Something needs to be done.  

The problem is:  it turns out designing colleges to be inclusive is hard, because colleges were designed to be exclusive.  The whole point of the admissions process is to keep people out, not make it easy for them to get in.  

This contradiction – where colleges want to simultaneously (1) be committed to diversity while (2) only letting in “the right” students, as measured by arbitrary standards that were designed to only recognize achievement from specific cultural milieus – is now coming to a head.  Colleges both in California and across the country are beginning to realize how hard it is to have both.

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education up and admits the ongoing failure of colleges to have both:  

“The admissions process is cumbersome, inequitable, and screwed up beyond belief. Enrollment officials often say such things at their national conferences. They wring their hands, trade advice with colleagues, and sometimes brainstorm big-picture solutions to familiar problems. And then everyone goes back home and gets buried in work.”

The response – very typical of higher education – is to create a series of panels, backed by big institutions, full of “thought leaders,” to come up with recommendations to address the issue.  

Of course good things could come of this.  But the discussion seems to be focused on adding even more cumbersome, enormous, gears and rube-goldberg widgets to the existing, exclusive, system, than it is to simply create opportunities for more students and let them in.

As Angel B. Pérez, chief executive of the college-counseling group, told the Chronicle:  “Every VP of enrollment and every college president I talk to says, ‘Yes, this process should be simpler,’ but then every single year colleges keeping adding requirements.”

We see that playing out once again.  Consider these proposals:

“A while back, Jon Boeckenstedt, vice provost for enrollment at Oregon State University, proposed a centralized admissions clearinghouse that would allow high-school students to start their applications as freshmen, entering biographical and parental information into a national database that would be supplemented each year by the addition of grades, accomplishments, test scores, recommendations, and students’ individual interests. In a related piece for The Washington Post, he imagined a Google-run, student-centered process that would guide applicants through the “life cycle” of admissions”

Both of those ideas involve creating massive new bureaucratic systems that are not even designed to admit more students, but to track them – not to simplify their struggle to get into college, but to have them do more work.  These kinds of solutions are not actually designed to create educational equity – they’re designed to expand the existing, inequitable, system.  

The solution is both obvious and incredibly hard for entrenched university systems to accept:  you create more equity by being less exclusive.  You create inclusion not by creating bigger sorting systems, but by doing less sorting.  The solution is to create more spaces, to let more people in, and to make it easier for them to get there.  

Calbright is one example of how this could work:  we have limited programs, and aren’t focused on degrees so much as job training, but we say “yes.”  We accept any adult Californian who isn’t enrolled in another college, and our programs are geared towards the needs of Californians who the education system and the economy has left behind.  

That is what a truly reimagined admissions system looks like.  It’s surely not the only way to go, but it’s hard to believe that our nation’s universities are serious about educational equity until they start looking at options that involve saying “yes” rather than building more and more complicated applications.

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