Wake Forest University

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Rethinking Admissions

Continuing the Conversation

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The Conversation Continues with Tufts’ Robert Sternberg

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009

Robert J. Sternberg

Rethinking Admissions conference may have officially ended on Thursday, April 16th, but the conversation about college admissions is far from over. Tomorrow, April 21, Wake Forest will host Robert J. Sternberg, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University. Dr. Sternberg is a professor of psychology and adjunct professor of education and is considered the “godfather of testing,” with more than 30 years in the field.

The central focus of his research is intelligence, creativity, wisdom, and leadership. He’ll be talking about how Tufts came up with an admissions process that takes into consideration not only academic credentials, but creativity and problem-solving skills as well. The lecture is free and open to the public at 11 a.m. in Pugh Auditorium at Benson University Center. If you can’t make it, be sure to check out this blog for updates.

A final thought

Thursday, April 16th, 2009

Wake Forest director of admissions Martha Allman was pleased with the conference. “The quality of research presented and the variety of viewpoints made this an important event in furthering the conversation on college admissions. I hope what will happen now is a closer examination of what each of us does at our institutions, and that that will lead to a fairer process.”

Slumdog Ivy Leaguer

Wednesday, April 15th, 2009
Daniel Golden

Dan Golden, author of “The Price of Admission,” gave a stinging indictment of the admissions practices of colleges and universities for favoring students from wealthy families, children of alumni and athletes. He estimated those students make up a third to 40 percent of the student body at many colleges. “It’s indisputable that students from rich families and private schools are over-represented at America’s top universities.”

He went on: “There’s something about these admissions perks for the rich that violates our basic notions of what America stands for — fairness, equal opportunity, upward mobility, particularly in an era of growing social and economic inequality. The unfairness breeds cynicism among teenagers who represent America’s future and learn even before they’re old enough to vote that money talks louder than merit.” His full speech will be posted soon.

What about alumni loyalty?

Wednesday, April 15th, 2009

Wake Forest President Nathan Hatch questioned Golden’s contention that universities offer preference to children of alumni only for monetary reasons. What about loyalty that transcends how much people give, he asked. Golden answered that if the system were changed, if schools made it clear that they weren’t offering alumni preferences, then alumni wouldn’t feel the need to game the system by giving more money.

No position on the SAT

Wednesday, April 15th, 2009

Golden said he had ambivalent positions on the SAT, and noted that he had not taken a position on it in his book. Anything would be better than basing decisions on wealth, though, he said. “Opponents of the SAT often talk as if it’s the only instrument of privilege in college admissions — ignoring the preferences for children of legacies and donors. Unlike those preferences, the SAT at least tries to gauge the candidate’s individual merit.”

The SAT could actually be helpful for lower income students who perform well and even lessen legacy applicants, he argued. “If a minority applicant from a low-performing high school does well on the SAT, that score could be a noteworthy indication of academic potential. If a legacy or a development applicant, with all of the advantages of wealth and parental education, bombs on the SAT, that’s a strong signal that he or she may not be serious about learning. Indeed, without SAT scores to act as a check on these preferences, it’s likely that the number of legacies and development admits at elite universities would be even greater than it already is.”

The future of preferences

Wednesday, April 15th, 2009

Golden noted that a movement is underway to stop the preferences of privilege, with several lawsuits working their way through the courts. What would an end to preferences mean? “It would open more slots for students of demonstrated intellectual brilliance or creative talent, and more slots for children of poverty with tremendous academic potential that’s been suppressed because they went to bad high schools or bounced around from one school to the next. … (It would) demonstrate the continued vitality of the American dream of meritocracy and equal opportunity.”

Impressive research

Wednesday, April 15th, 2009
Joseph Soares

Joseph Soares, associate professor of sociology at Wake Forest, says he was very impressed and pleased by the research reported by Prof. Tom Espenshade, Princeton University. “By using Mellon Foundation data and running simulations of different admissions policies, he showed that our policy of using test-optional admissions enhances social class and racial diversity and gets stronger students, measured by high school GPA and AP Exams.

Are you dropping the SAT?

Wednesday, April 15th, 2009

The best question of the day came from an AP reporter who asked Donahue, Guttentag and Cash if their schools were going to stop requiring the SAT for admission, as Wake Forest has done. Donahue said that for right now Harvard considers the SAT as one piece of a much larger process. Guttentag said that the Duke admissions office is always thinking about various factors and how to improve its process. Cash said Spelman had examined the SAT requirement and decided that it did no harm, so they see no reason to change their policy; the school is very clear with prospective students that the SAT is a very small part of the admissions process, she said.

It's about us, not you

Wednesday, April 15th, 2009

Christoph Guttentag, dean of admissions at Duke University, led off the session on “Crafting a Freshman Class.” His specific topic was on athletics and admissions, but he had a larger meaning beyond athletics. Every school, every team, defines “success” in its own way, and its recruiting is geared toward that.

The same is true of a university overall. The admissions criteria of a school should reflect its values, he said. Every admissions office faces a balancing act: assessing an individual student’s qualifications and what that student brings to the institution. Admissions decisions are essentially the “equitable distribution of unhappiness,” he said.

Ultimately, schools make their admissions decisions to further their own goals. “It’s about us. It’s not about you,” Guttentag said. “We don’t do a good enough job of being honest with parents and students. (The admissions process) is not merit-based, it’s interest-based, our interest. It’s how we define what we want to do.”

The growing divide

Wednesday, April 15th, 2009

Sally Donahue, director of financial aid and senior admissions officer at Harvard, talked about efforts Harvard has undertaken to enroll a more diverse student-body. “Nationally there is a growing divide between those who come from families with resources and those who don’t.” She noted the number of college students is expected to increase by 15 percent by 2020 and most of that increase will be students of color and students who need financial help.

Harvard has to deal with the misperception that it is only a college for wealthy students from legacy families, she said, noting that Harvard awarded $147 million in need-based aid to 60 percent of its students last year. To gain more students from less wealthy backgrounds, Harvard has expanded its financial aid programs and learned to talk to those students in different ways. To say a school is “need-blind” doesn’t mean anything to a student from a family whose parents didn’t go to college and who come from a less privileged background.