Lack of transparency causes confusion in admissions process

April 29, 2019 — by Victor Liu

In wake of the recent college admissions scandal, which saw wealthy parents purchasing spots in universities for their academically under-qualified children, it has become all the more clear that some of the rich and well-connected have privileges that extend even into the supposed meritocracy of college admissions.

Yet an even more important question still needs to be asked: Why is the entire college admissions process still enshrouded in the type secrecy that has allowed these wealthy parents to cheat the system?

Nearly every college that was implicated in the admissions scandal case touted — and still touts — a “holistic review” of applicants, promising all prospective students that a human admissions officer, not a computer, will read over their essays, sympathize with their letters of recommendation and understand the nuances of their backgrounds; however, a holistic approach to college admissions also invites unfair bias at best and corruption at worst.

Even under a holistic review for admissions, students are generally left in the dark about what admissions offices are looking for. For example, schools such as the University of Texas at Austin, one of the schools implicated in the scandal, advertises a “holistic review process” that includes nine categories, among which takes factors such as class rank, academic background, essays, letters of recommendation and even special circumstances into consideration.

Left unsaid, however, is information about how these categories are weighted in the overall admissions process. If college admissions offices across the country continue to keep the admissions process as opaque as it is now, the holistic admissions policy they favor so heavily only serves to further confuse applicants, not help them.

The relative difficulty with navigating holistic review systems also harms the disadvantaged students the approach was designed to help. Without revealing the intricacies of how a holistic approach actually evaluates students, applicants do not know which part of their college application they should focus on the most.

For example, a student could be entirely devoting their time on the “class rank” portion of UT Austin’s holistic approach to admissions, yet still fail to gain acceptance into the university because they neglected to polish their essays because they had perhaps thought that a stellar class rank could mitigate the harms done by lackluster essays, when in reality, it could not.

Although the lawsuit recently filed against Harvard University last year by a group of Asian American students has forced the school to release some documents that have revealed more information about their approach to admissions, the insight Harvard has begrudgingly given to the general public is still insufficient to understand how all universities operate; different colleges, say the University of Southern California, Princeton University or even UT Austin, can still claim that their admissions policies differ vastly from Harvard’s. Harvard, albeit being the poster child for what the United States has to offer in terms of higher education, still only represents just one university out of America’s thousands.

Without a hardlined stance that would force colleges to disclose how they determine who gets in and who does not, colleges can still continue the admissions practices that let rich parents with insider-knowledge to open backdoors that let their children cheat the system. And, without transparency into the way applicants are evaluated, colleges will be allowed to continue their current practices without needing to justify them.

If anything, “holistic admissions” seems more like a buzzword that enables colleges to make the same type of arbitrary judgments from admissions officers that let those rich but undeserving children into America’s elite universities.  

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