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Posted at 03:00 AM ET, 02/22/2012

College admissions: How diversity factors in

The Supreme Court just agreed to effectively consider whether affirmative action should be eliminated in college admissions via a case in which a white student claimed that she was denied admissions to the University of Texas because of race.

Amid this renewed attention to affirmative action in college admissions, here is a look at the issue by Jarrid Whitney, executive director of admissions and financial aid at the California Institute of Technology. He is a graduate of Cornell University — where he began his career as a financial aid counselor — and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He has worked as financial aid and admission at a number of different schools, including Dartmouth College and Stanford University.

This post first appeared on the College Admission blog on the website linked to the book College Admission, From Application to Acceptance, by Robin Mamlet, former dean of admission at Stanford, Swarthmore, and Sarah Lawrence, and journalist and parent Christine VanDeVelde. (Last year I called the book “a new college admissions bible.”)

Introduction to post by Mamlet/VanDeVelde:

Learning to engage with those who are very different from us is now a critical piece of a strong education. So diversity in college admission makes good educational sense and good business sense. A broad range of perspectives enriches both the classrooms and residence halls. We will all be expected to be able to navigate an increasingly global society as well as a country in which there is no longer a clear majority. It is also critical to nearly all colleges that they educate the future leaders of multiple communities – that they have a presence, a “footprint,” in a variety of populations and settings.

But in evaluating diversity it is overly simplistic to look at admit rates alone. This is understandably cut-and-dried in media coverage: x amount admitted of this race and y amount of that. In real life, it feels very different than that. Human beings are messy and complicated and bring with them messy and complicated back-stories, well beyond grades and scores. A process that looks at applicants holistically necessarily takes far more into account than just grades and scores – it looks at many aspects of a student’s background, as well as what each student has done with what has been available to him or her.

By Jarrid Whitney:

Admission Committee Scenario:

The applicant was raised in a small, rural, farming community in upstate New York and attends a public high school that sends very few students to a 4-yr college. He has a Caucasian father who grew up on a working-class farm and later became a commuter pilot and builds houses on the side, and a Native American mother who comes from modest roots on an Iroquois reservation and now owns a small business. The applicant’s parents divorced when the applicant was very young and neither of them attended college. His older brother graduated with a degree from an art institute…

I begin by sharing this scenario in the hope that it illustrates how an admission committee might start a discussion about an applicant. Obviously there are many other elements to consider before a committee can vote. The focus should never be just on the student’s self-reported race or ethnicity, but as you can see it should and does include other factors such as where the student was raised, the family background and educational history, language spoken in the household, opportunities available in the school or local community, and many additional aspects of a student’s heritage.

In order to engage in a conversation about how diversity may play a factor in college admission, one must first understand the personal and environmental context of each applicant and how that context is relevant to the academic and personal profile of the student.

There is so much debate in our country about affirmative action that many who disagree with such policies tend to narrow the argument down simply to race. Although it may be true that many colleges seek to enroll a diverse class of students, how “diversity” is defined varies greatly depending on the school’s current makeup and enrollment goals.

Equally important, each college’s selection process differs widely depending on the size and quality of its applicant pool. But one thing I can confirm after working in this profession for eighteen years is that each college or university that practices holistic admission — regardless of whether it is a public or private institution and regardless of its selectivity level — always seeks to understand the overall context of an applicant before making an admission decision.

I learned as a young admission officer that if I was going to advocate for any student in the selection process, I had to make the case that the student was a good fit, both academically and socially. In fact in my first position in admission, I coordinated the Native American recruitment efforts for Dartmouth College, an Ivy League institution with a long history of American Indian education. But even with that rich heritage, I had to work very hard to attract and enroll candidates who were well-prepared for the rigors of that school. Just because an applicant self-reported as an American Indian certainly did not guarantee that student admission. All the facts about each applicant’s case had to be thoughtfully examined.

What I often have to remind prospective students of is that the application itself is an opportunity for students to disclose and articulate information about themselves so that colleges can better understand where they are coming from.

In my current role at the California Institute of Technology, a highly selective institution, we recruit the most accomplished students from around the world who are dedicated to studying science, technology, engineering and math at the highest levels. Although we support affirmative action and strive to attract a diverse class, especially students who have been historically underrepresented in STEM fields, our admission committee will not admit students who are unprepared for the intense rigors of our education. Even though I’m personally passionate about access and equity for underserved populations, it simply would not be responsible for someone in my position to enroll a student who is unable to be successful in our program.

If you re-read the opening paragraph of this blog, I will disclose now that this was my personal story coming out of high school. Although my bi-racial background as a first-generation applicant may have been part of the conversation about my own candidacy for college admission, I’m certain that what actually helped me get into the school I attended was more than just that aspect of my heritage.

Admission officers look to see how a student has taken advantage of the resources afforded to them given their environment and whether they have gone above and beyond what is expected given their background. If my academic profile, extracurricular involvement, essays, and recommendations did not reflect that or were not on par with my chosen college’s eligible applicant pool, I simply would not have been accepted. Although diversity in its broadest definition has been proven to be an essential component of the educational experience, making admission decisions based on all relevant facts, in context, is the most critical aspect to crafting a class of college students.

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