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Posted at 05:00 AM ET, 12/02/2011

What matters most in college admissions — money or merit?

This was written by Esther Quintero, a research associate at the nonprofit Albert Shanker Institute. It first appeared on the institute’s blog.

By Esther Quintero

A recent survey of college admission directors and enrollment managers conducted by Inside Higher Education sparked considerable media coverage about an issue that is not entirely new: Money, not only merit, matters in college admissions.

According to the survey of 462 directors and managers, in the face of generalized budget cuts, universities are favoring applicants who don’t need financial assistance to pay their tuition.

About 22 percent agreed that “the financial downturn [had] forced them to pay more attention to an applicants’ ability to pay when [making] admissions decisions.” Directors acknowledged seeking more candidates who would not need financial aid, including out-of-state and international students. Furthermore, 10 percent of four-year colleges reported that the admitted students who could pay in full had lower grades than their peers who couldn’t.

These findings resulted in headlines like “College Admission Directors Finally Admit They Want Rich Students More Than Smart Students” or “Universities Seeking Out Students of Means.” Journalists wrote that higher education institutions are no longer in the business of recruiting “the best and brightest […] but the richest” and noted that “money is talking a bit louder in college admissions these days.”

David A. Hawkins, director at the National Association for College Admission CounselingM, told The New York Times:

“As institutional pressures mount, between the decreased state funding, the pressure to raise a college’s profile, and the pressure to admit certain students, we’re seeing a fundamental change in the admissions process. Where many of the older admissions professionals came in through the institution and saw it as an ethically centered counseling role, there’s now a different dynamic that places a lot more emphasis on marketing.”

The actual finding that money matters in admissions did not strike me as a particularly surprising. After all, social scientists have long been skeptical of meritocracy’s role in higher education – see here and here. What surprised me was that survey respondents were comfortable giving a “socially inappropriate” answer. Let me explain.

We know people are not comfortable voicing opinions that differ from the social consensus. Socially desirable responding (also, social desirability effect/bias) – that is, survey respondents’ desire to project a favorable image of themselves by saying “the right thing” – can often get in the way of survey research (see here). The more controversial or sensitive the topic is, the more likely it is people will feel pressured to respond in a way that seems “politically correct.”

So what does it mean when admissions officers are willing to come right out and say that they’re screening applicants based on money, and not just merit?

At a minimum, one must be curious whether that “right thing” to say has changed in higher education – that is, whether the principle of meritocracy has been compromised to the point where lip service is no longer necessary.

Obviously, I am not saying that the attitudes of admissions officers are direct evidence of what everyone else thinks, nor am I suggesting that access to U.S. colleges and universities was ever a pure meritocracy.

But the admissions officers’ responses are an open acknowledgment that universities are not the great equalizer, but rather just another set of businesses that must sometimes make tough decisions. The debate in admissions used to be affirmative action versus merit – see here. Now it is merit versus money. It’s worth asking what that means about our beliefs concerning the higher education system.

A more positive interpretation of these survey results is that we, as a society, increasingly acknowledge that meritocracy operates within constraints – that a large group of American students might be excluded from the system due to nothing more than their economic standing.

We’ve never liked hearing this – that our schools and universities reflect and perpetuate social inequalities more than they overcome them. Perhaps findings like this survey, showing that money is an increasingly large factor in admissions, will help us face facts – that the idea of higher education as the “great equalizer” has always been naïve in practice, and is in the process of sliding into the mythic realm.

Yes, we need to face facts, because there’s little hope that we can improve the situation if we don’t really understand it. Still, my fear is that higher education will come to be viewed as just another commoditized service that is worth exactly what the market will bear, and no more. For generations of Americans, colleges have been places where you go to pursue the American Dream, but not only that. They were places you were free to pursue knowledge, and art, and wisdom, and excellence – where we struggled to apprehend both the cosmos and the human condition.

As idealistic (and perhaps unrealistic) as these notions may seem, they also serve an important purpose: They drive people. They are a source of inspiration and aspiration. As such, they have been a catalyst for innovation, and progress, and the betterment of mankind. As such, they are priceless.

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