Stanford Admissions Update

The hoped for "thick envelope"... (image source: Locky's English Playground")
The Faculty Senate [met last week]( on October 7th to discuss, among other things, undergraduate admissions and financial aid. The Committee on Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid (C-UAFA) offered up its annual report, in which it discussed ongoing plans and new thoughts about admissions. Sifting through the information [found in the minutes]( (PDF), a number of gems emerge. First, there’s this quote from the former chair of C-UAFA, Professor Tom Wasow:

C-UAFA is an odd committee in that it provokes very lively discussions, and yet almost never votes. This is because people have very strong opinions about college admissions and financial aid, whether they know anything about them or not. But we have an extremely competent, professional staff that takes care of the business of undergraduate admissions and financial aid and continues year after year to supply us with superb undergraduates.

As one of those people who has a strong opinion about college admissions and financial aid (though I may lack any insider knowledge thereof), I can’t resist commenting on the rest of their report (note: special thanks to Priscilla Johnson, who provided a copy of C-UAFA’s report that is currently missing from the website). What are the most interesting points?

The first is one that I’ve asked about in previous conversations with administrators and I’m glad to hear that they’ve secretly been working on: empirical analysis of admissions criteria. Basically, Stanford uses a bunch of different factors to determine admission: SAT/ACT score, high school GPA, high school course load, essays, race/ethnicity, legacy, athletic skill, etc. However, before this most recent report, there was no evidence that anyone in admissions had ever looked at how those factors actually predicted success at Stanford. Does having a perfect GPA in high school predict a high GPA at Stanford? What about being a legacy? Are writing skills predicted by essay quality? C-UAFA announced that they’ve taken a step towards untangling this question:

This past year, we [C-UAFA] asked Professor Jon Levin, this year’s chair of C-UAFA, to look at correlations between the [selection] criteria used in the admissions process and the four-year GPA of students who came to Stanford. He did a pilot study with a graduate student that was extremely interesting. It’s not quite ready for prime time, but it addresses the kind of question that keeps coming up in C-UAFA.

Looking only at four-year GPA is clearly not the full measure of a Stanford student (I know a number of students who have invested more in extracurriculars than their school books and don’t seem all too much the worse for it), but it’s a first step and, for a subset of students (say, pre-meds or pre-law students), might capture more of the picture than for others. The report was presented to C-UAFA back in March, so I’m uncertain as to whether the “not quite ready for prime time” comment references an actual need for more time or whether some of the results are just a bit explosive. (Do legacies actually do worse than other students? Or better? Either way might fuel a debate that Stanford is uninterested in having, not to mention other debates around race or socio-economic background.) I’m hoping that someday we’ll have a chance to explore this report and learn more; in the meantime, I also hope that Stanford continues to expand these reports by looking at broader measures of student success, such as extracurricular involvement, university employment, etc.

The other major discussion from the report are about the pilot alumni interview program and about the role of the committee itself. The alumni program is an effort to offer interviews as part of the admissions process, given by trained alumni to all prospective students within easy travel distance. As a pilot, it’s currently only offered in certain metropolitan areas, but a nationwide rollout is being considered. Personally, I’m very opposed to alumni interviews. Admissions is already a subjective process, but including comparatively untrained alumni perspectives in the process seems to be a step backward. Part of the goal is to improve the yield of admitted students, which is admirable, but I’d hate to lose a qualified student to an unpleasant alumni.

Finally, Stanford continues to struggle with regional diversity somewhat. Gasp South Dakota was not represented in the class of 2014, but more disturbingly, the South, which has 30 percent of the US population, had only 14 percent of the slots in the 2014 Stanford class. If we exclude Texas and Florida, I have a feeling that the percentage would be even more strongly out of whack. I have no doubt that Stanford has made efforts to recruit there and in other underrepresented areas (Great Plains, Midwest), but it’s sad to see such a small contingent nonetheless.

Finally, I just want to give a shout out to Rex Jamison, the Academic Secretary of the University (and minutes-taker) for a few moments of enjoyable levity, including the remark  (in reference to the new Chair, Stanford Medical School professor David Spiegel) “[t]he Senate adjourned the first meeting presided by a psychiatrist, at 4:50 PM.”

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