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Jay Mathews: No easy solution to the mysteries of college admissions

Monday, May 24, 2010; B02

Andy Pettis is, like many of us, a conscientious parent of a Washington area high school student. He does not understand how some selective colleges admitted his daughter and others did not. She applied to six public universities in Virginia.

"She was rejected by two and accepted by four," he said in a provocative May 16 piece in The Washington Post, "and we don't have a clue why."

Thousands of articles and many books have addressed this issue over the 30 years I have been studying the college admissions system, as a reporter, author and alumni interviewer. I can now predict pretty accurately, as can the counselors at Pettis's daughter's school, Robinson Secondary in Fairfax County, which colleges will take which kid. But there are always surprises that drive parents nuts, particularly if the student is rejected by the school he or she most wanted to attend.

There are few experiences short of death, disease, injury or divorce that have as much potential for trauma for American families as the college admissions process. The first great rite of passage for young humans once was killing a wild animal. That was replaced by getting married, or getting a job. These days it is getting into college. For many, the problem is coming up with the money. For others, the pain stems from being rejected with no explanation.

Pettis raised excellent questions in his article. Do legacy applicants, those related to alumni, have an advantage? Are there gender quotas? Does it matter if you are in-state or out-of-state? Do some government officials have influence? Do the children of potential big donors or celebrities have a leg up? Are there quotas for minorities? Does having a small family income help?

To some extent, the truthful answer to every one of those questions is yes. It is easy to inspire outrage with stories about students who transfer to less competitive high schools to make their applications stand out, or threaten legal action if their high school reveals a cheating episode, or receive special accommodations on the SAT because their parents could afford a psychologist's fees.

Pettis suggests the logical solution: a transparent system that tells students why they didn't get in. Think about that for a moment and you will understand why many of us prefer mystery to certainty.

Impose transparency on the holistic system used by selective colleges -- a subjective judgment based on several factors -- and the result is no less maddening. The admissions office would have to issue statements like "the candidate's extracurricular involvements were not as intense and her teacher recommendations not as impressive as those of candidates we accepted."

The resulting discontent would lead to, you guessed it, standardized measures. In order to defend themselves against charges of vagueness, colleges would be forced to admit those with the top SAT or ACT scores and grades and ignore subjective factors that probably played a major role in Pettis's daughter's admissions successes.

The saving grace of American higher education is that as the number of students and professors applying to and qualified for top-ranked colleges has grown, and as they have been rejected in increasingly large numbers, lesser-known schools have welcomed them. Those schools have risen to a similarly high level of student energy and faculty wisdom.

Pettis's daughter got into four schools I suspect are just as good as the two that rejected her. I bet she will be excited and happy when she heads off to one of them this summer, even if her father cannot know for sure how she got there.

For more Jay, go to http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.

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