In mid-September, Stanford’s undergraduate admissions office welcomed a new leader with the arrival of Bob Patterson, the former deputy director of undergraduate admissions at the University of California, Berkeley. As he settles into his new role at an elite private school, it is time to reflect as a school on the progress that admissions has made over the decades—and how much work is left to be done.
Admissions at elite private schools began highly merit-based, a simple filtering of students based on academic achievement and personal connections. Such a system did not last long. Harvard University, long a bastion of the New England Protestant elite, became increasingly concerned with the rising numbers of Jewish students arriving in its freshman class. In response, Harvard created the holistic admissions process in the 1920s that defines admissions to this day. Instead of raw numbers, admissions would consider leadership skills, athletics, and character in admissions—qualities Jews were believed to lack in those anti-Semitic times.
Eventually, the civil rights movement and national politics convinced universities that these policies had to be changed, and whole new classes of people walked through the ivy-covered gates in the 1960s and 1970s, including ethnic minorities and women. Affirmative action became the means of building and guarding this diversity and is a policy that continually sparks controversy and debate, but it nonetheless has been in place for decades.
At the same time, social mobility has steadily declined in the United States. Higher education was once heralded as the means to get out of poverty, but dramatically increasing costs are slowing progress. Access to high-quality K-12 education remains strongly correlated with socioeconomic status, and this correlation plays out in who receives admissions into our freshman class.
In a recent study looking at the higher education experience, Thomas J. Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford found evidence that working-class and poor white students had slightly lower chances of admissions to elite schools given otherwise identical applications. They found a
similar effect for students who are involved in career-oriented activities such as 4H, co-op programs, and junior ROTC. These numbers are distressing, and they encourage the perception that wealth and opportunity drive admissions more than talent.
Higher education must reclaim its place as a primary engine of social mobility. To do so requires scrapping our current model of admissions in favor of one focused on achievement beyond one’s economic means. Fundamentally, it means moving from being need-blind to need-empathetic.
Stanford and other top schools argue that their holistic admissions process takes into account the incredible variation in opportunity of its applicants. Yet, the numbers do not seem to bear this solution out. Despite Stanford’s pledge to be need blind, the percentage of students who are on Pell Grants—America’s most common grant to students from low-income families—is roughly one-third that of Berkeley. The story is repeated at our other peer schools.
One could argue that outreach is the crucial missing factor, but clearly these students are finding their way to flagship public schools. Instead, we need to reinvent our admissions system to encourage more socioeconomic diversity, and in the process ensure that Stanford graduates are grounded in a lucid reality of the world around us.
With a new admissions director comes an opportunity to reconsider old policies and build a new approach. We do not have to continue taking our lead from the usual trend-setter, Harvard. Indeed, Stanford can lead the rest of America’s top schools in instituting changes to admissions to attract a greater diversity of students. One of the first opportunities to demonstrate this leadership will come in the next few months when Stanford reconsiders its relationship with the ROTC, which has been banned since the Vietnam War.
We can never stop fighting to ensure that every student is given the best possible chance of reaching America’s pinnacle of success. This year, we have an opportunity to continue making progress on admissions—let’s take the opportunity and usher in a new era.
Danny Crichton ’11 is majoring in Mathematical and Computational Sciences with a minor in Human Biology. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.