College Admissions and the Culture Wars

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Admissions to the nation’s most selective colleges and universities is now the ultimate zero-sum game. At stake aren’t simply parental bragging rights or a shortcut to a prestigious and prosperous future.  College admissions has also become among the most contentious fronts in the culture wars.

Disputes over affirmative action, legacy preferences, favortism toward wealthy donors, full-pay applicants, and those with political connections, and high schools submitting false information and inflating grades to boost applicants’ chances – occur with depressing regularity, reflecting the significance attached to access to the most highly ranked institutions.

These issues, of course, reflect widespread parental anxieties.  The upper middle class, in particular, is acutely aware of the dangers of cross-generational downward mobility, and worries obsessively about their children’s access to a financially secure adulthood.

The latest battleground in this the college admissions culture wars involves the trend away from standardized admissions tests.  Critics charge that the movement to abolish the SAT and ACT is misguided, that it reflects abandonment of a commitment to objective merit, and that it will ultimately harm those it’s meant to help.

Following this debate inevitably calls to mind Chico Marx’s classic line In Duck Soup: “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?”

Igniting the current debate was the University of California System’s decision in May to end the use of standardized testing in undergraduate admissions and scholarship decisions.  Pushback came from The Atlantic’s Caitlin Flanagan, who argued that the policy shift:

  • “will probably hurt thousands of Asian American teenagers, backfire for Black, Latino, and low-income students, and make little difference for affluent whites.”
  • “will give cover to the many forces invested in not improving the state’s K–12 education, especially in the poorest districts.”

The Atlantic’s article’s claims did not go unanswered.  In a letter to the Washington Post, the UC System accused the author of making “unfounded assertions and misleading generalizations,” which included:

  • Inaccurately describing the UC System’s (admittedly complicated) approach to admissions, which distinguishes between eligibility for admissions and admission to a particular campus. Only UC Merced guarantees admission to all students who are technically eligible for admission to a UC campus. Mistakenly implying that “the SAT allows many disadvantaged students to gain admission to UC.” In 2018, the UC System identified 22,613 applicants (including 4,931 low income and 5,704 first generation, who were eligible for admission based largely on their SAT scores, but only 168 took advantage of this opportunity. This controversy offers a textbook example of how debaters can speak passed one another.

The controversy has become a proxy for flash points in the current culture wars:

  • Whether resistance to standardized testing is part of a larger revolt against academic standards, merit, and rigor.
  • Whether UC policies are just the latest manifestation of California’s historic discrimination against Asian Americans.

The Atlantic’s Flanagan draws heavily upon a 2020 UC System Senate report that argues that: 

  • Highly unequal high school grading practices make high school GPA an unreliable standard for admission.

Grade inflation is especially pronounced at wealthier schools, which typically award higher grades.

  • The UC campuses already compensate for differences in SAT scores across racial, ethnic. and income groups.

Applicants from less advantaged demographic groups are admitted at higher rates for any given test score as a result of comprehensive admissions review process, which evaluates applicants’ academic achievements in light of the opportunities available to them and takes into consideration each applicant’s likely contribution to campus life.

  • The biggest barriers to admission to the UC campuses was lack of eligibility as a result of failure to complete all required courses with a C or better.

Roughly 25 percent of underrepresentation was due to this factor alone.

The article’s critics, in turn, argue that:

  • High school grades are as useful for comparing students from different high schools as they are for comparing students from the same schools, and do strongly predict college preparedness.
  • UC campuses are not sufficiently compensating for gaps in SAT scores.
  • While SAT scores do (modestly) predict first year students’ grades, it’s likely that it is high scorers’ advantaged background that eases their adjustment to college, resulting in higher freshman grades.

Like many debates in today’s highly polarized, hotly politicized society, a surprising degree of consensus lies below the controversy’s contentious surface.  There is widespread agreement that:

  • K-12 students are, to a large and inexcusable degree, segregated by class, race, and ethnicity and that their schools’ resources are highly unequal, and that admissions decisions should take those inequities into account.
  • The admissions process should balance a variety of goals, not only admitting the most academically prepared students, but those with the greatest potential, while promoting upward economic mobility, countering inequality, and producing graduates who reflect a given state’s diversity.

Given that consensus, what should be done?

Obviously, California needs to do much more to ensure that every child can attend a high-quality school.  In addition to insuring equitable funding and expanded access to experienced teachers with track records of success, other measures might include scattered-site housing for low-income families and expanded access to high performing schools, whether by abolishing enrollment boundaries, instituting admissions lotteries, or establishing magnet and vanguard schools.

It also makes sense to give greater weight to rank in class in college admissions, which should help alleviate concerns over grade inflation, recruit far more aggressively in lower-income schools, and establish bridge programs, after school programs, and special academies to expand opportunities to underrepresented students.

Jesse Rothstein, a professor of Public Policy & Economics at UC Berkeley, offers some other commonsense suggestions.  If California were truly serious about educational equity, it would increase funding at the less selective institutions, including community colleges, which serve most students of color and those from low-income backgrounds, and significantly expand enrollment at the more selective universities.

Rothstein also favors an approach similar to Texas’s Top Ten Percent Plan, which guarantees admission to the state’s flagship campus to students in the top of their high school classes, regardless of their standardized test scores.  The Texas plan did increase enrollment, graduation rates, and earnings for those students who came from schools that previously sent few students to UT Austin.  Nor did it reduce college enrollment, graduation rates, or earnings for those outside the top tier from traditional feeder schools.

However, because of the high total cost of attendance and a persistent perception of the flagship campus as unwelcoming, the number of Texas students from rural and low-income neighborhoods remains low.

Let’s not let political polarization obscure the real issues that are at stake:

  • Inequitable access to a high-quality K-12 education.
  • Inadequate high school advising and support structures that fail to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds navigate the path to selective colleges and universities.
  • Unequal access to the coursework required for admission to highly selective institutions.
  • Barriers to transfer that cause all too many students who start out at a community college students to lose credits and academic momentum when they move to a 4-year campus.
  • High non-academic costs, coupled with inadequate financial aid, that discourage low-income students from attending highly selective public institutions.

I’m increasingly struck by the way that American society treats many policy disputes and court cases as moral theater: As arenas where barely acknowledged class and racial tensions are played out.

Treating college admissions as a front in the culture wars may be psychologically satisfying.  But if we are serious about ensuring that higher education is in fact an engine of upward mobility, let’s build on a consensus that actually exists and take the practical, pragmatic steps that will expand access and opportunity.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.