College admissions: The gateway to equity

CERPP director’s research bolsters U.S. Supreme Court brief on affirmative action

By Matthew Kredell

For the most selective colleges and universities in the nation, the admissions process is conducted with all the transparency of a CIA mission. This can leave students and parents with a lot of questions.

How are admission policies set and carried out? What legal limitations do universities have in deciding who to admit and why? Is race a factor in student admissions?

Jerry Lucido, professor of practice and executive director of the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice. Photo by Andrew Zinn

USC Rossier Professor Jerry Lucido considers college admissions the gateway to equity, as admission decisions can affect the future of a family for generations to come.

Lucido, executive director of USC Rossier’s Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice, attempted to bring clarity to a confusing subject with his chapter “How Admissions Decisions Get Made” in the Handbook of Strategic Enrollment Management (Jossey-Bass, 2014).

“People are really interested in looking inside the black box of college admissions,” Lucido says. “At the heart of what people wonder about is if it’s fair.”

Race-conscious admissions policies have come under attack from the Trump administration. In August, The New York Times reported that the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division is preparing to investigate and sue universities over the use of affirmative action in admissions decisions. This assault would go against the four U.S. Supreme Court cases that have defined how universities can use race.

As the first authoritative, comprehensive document outlining the admissions process, Lucido’s chapter was cited extensively in an amicus brief filed by the College Board and other education organizations in the most recent such case, Fisher v. University of Texas (2015).

The principal author of the brief, Education Counsel attorney Art Coleman, contacted Lucido looking for a detailed explanation of the holistic review admissions process that is used by most selective universities in the country.

Holistic review is a flexible, individualized way of assessing an applicant’s capabilities with consideration given to experiences, attributes, academic metrics, talents and background. Which factors weigh more heavily vary based on particular needs among the programs and schools of the university. Personal characteristics valued most in a candidate also differ with the mission of a particular institution.

“A major point of focus in our brief was the contours and elements of individualized holistic review in higher education admissions,” Coleman says. “When we read the chapter, we discovered that it captured many important points that we wanted to emphasize. I think the lens on the process of admissions it provided may have been important in helping educate the U.S. Supreme Court about the field in general, as a foundation for reaching the University of Texas-specific judgment that it did.”

The ruling confirmed that universities can continue to use race-conscious practices in admissions.

“With the U.S. Department of Justice poised to investigate affirmative action in college admissions, it is critical that colleges and universities align their objectives and practices with their missions to educate broadly and, in particular, to achieve the educational benefits of diversity,” Lucido says. “Doing so will provide a strong likelihood of withstanding legal challenges to their admissions policies and practices.”

In a perfect world, all students would have an equal opportunity to compete for spaces on their merits, but Lucido points out that academic measures of test scores and grade point average aren’t truly objective.

“The highest correlation with test scores is family income,” Lucido says. “Are they really objective if so highly correlated with social class? An admissions counselor must understand the context in which a student’s academic achievement has taken place. Has test prep been available to the student? Are Advanced Placement classes available at the school? That’s where the notion of socioeconomic status, race and culture have to be considered when looking at a whole pool of applications.”

Holistic review has been in place for four or five decades at some institutions, mostly the Ivy League universities. It evolved from an instrument of privilege to the key factor in universities aligning their admission policies more closely with their missions, helping to reach the twin objectives of equity and merit.

“To use race under current law, it has to be as part of a university’s mission for gaining the educational value of a diverse student body,” Lucido says. “While some race-neutral strategies may help, the most proven way to diversify a class is to be race-conscious.”