My proposal for making college admissions fairer

After reading the Rewarding Strivers book, I had some thoughts about how to make the college admissions system more fair to students from varying socioeconomic backgrounds. Instead of boosting up the disadvantaged students, why not pull down the advantaged students?

Here’s the idea. Disadvantaged students are defined typically not by a bad thing that they have, but rather by good things that they don’t have: financial resources, a high-quality education, and so forth. In contrast, advantaged students get all sorts of freebies. So here are my suggestions:

1. All high school grades on a 4-point scale (A=4, B=3, etc). No more of this 5-points-for-an-A-in-an-AP course, which gives the ridiculous outcomes of kids graduating with a 4.3 average, not so fair to kids in schools that don’t offer a lot of AP classes.

2. Subtract points for taking the SAT multiple times. A simple rule would be: You can use your highest SAT score, but you lose 50 points for every other time you took the test. Or, even simpler: your official SAT is the average of all your scores rather than your highest score.

3. Subtract points for taking longer on the SAT. (I seem to recall that there is a policy where you are allowed an option to take as long as you want on the test. This is fine, but then you should lose points to be fair to the other students–many of whom have economic and social disadvantages–who didn’t take the extra time.)

4. Subtract points for taking a commercial coaching program such as Kaplan, Princeton Review, etc. These programs advertise that they improve kids’ scores and that’s how they make money. But many disadvantaged kids don’t have the option to take these. Require students to declare if they’ve taken such a course and subtract 50 points on the SAT for each such course taken. (Damn! I guess I’ve just forfeited my chance to run this proposal as a Washington Post op-ed….) Sure, students could lie on the form, but this would be on a permanent record, sent to both the college and the high school, and there’d be a real risk of getting caught and thrown out of school if you lie on this one.

5. Subtract points for going to a private school. Perhaps 20 points for every year of private high school and 10 points for every year of private elementary school. Or even something trickier such as 1 point for every thousand dollars spent on private school in the kid’s lifetime. I wonder if religious schools would complain about this one, something about religious discrimination. There should be a way to get around this one somehow, though.

6. Subtract points if your school (public or private) has its own SAT preparation program. These aren’t really supposed to be so effective (recall chapter 5 of BDA), so maybe just knock off 10 points for this one.

Perhaps readers could suggest further ideas? This is just a start, I’m sure. I’m trying to consider things that could plausibly affect test scores or grade point averages rather than being merely predictive of higher scores. I’m also restricting to items that are subject to parental choice. As a parent with school-age kids, you can’t retrospectively decide not to be white, or college educated, or whatever, but you can decide to send your children to public school, to not enroll them in a coaching program, and to only take the SAT once.

43 thoughts on “My proposal for making college admissions fairer

  1. I like these ideas. Although maybe that's just because all of them except (1) would have benefited me.

    The only one that seems a bit off-target to me is (5). Going to a public school in a rich suburban district can be roughly equivalent to going to private school, so public/private seems like it's not quite the right distinction to make.

  2. People don't choose to be advantaged. Why should student's SAT score take a hit just because their parents put them in the private school system when they were 5? More importantly, why should kids suffer just because their parents want/can provide them better resources?

  3. I'm confused.

    Why are you arguing that kids who put in extra effort (more preparation and training for the SAT, take more rigorous courses, elect to go to better schools) should be punished?

    That's akin to saying that we should make job opportunities equal for all college grads, regardless of whether they partied for four years and barely squeezed out a 2.0 GPA or wrote an honors thesis and earned a 4.0 GPA.

    Harder work and better preparation should be rewarded in college admissions, not punished. Imagine telling poor Susie, who's done everything right and worked her butt off, that she won't be getting into her state university because, well, she did everything right and worked her butt off.

    Admissions aren't fair, but that's the point. If we equalized everyone at the end, there'd be no point for the process.

  4. Couldn't most of this be simplified to reporting a student's rank in their school instead of grade? There are some excellent public schools in rich neighborhoods, and some dismal private schools out there. Rather than trying to figure out whether a given school is giving its students a 6 or 8 point advantage, you know that this set of students was in the top 5% of their class. You could even use average performance on SAT's to weight interschool rankings.

    But doesn't much of this promote performing well at a mediocre level? #1 tells me I'm better off acing remedial algebra than pushing for Calculus. #5 tells me I should go to a poor performing school over a pedagogically successful one.

    Might college be a little late to be rounding out inequalities, too? Perhaps funding schools equally across the nation, training more and better teachers, and trying to get children's media to promote scholarship would be better ways to address that while students are more malleable.

    #2 and 3 make the most sense to me.

  5. I'm confused… what is the problem that you're trying to solve? Why would anyone who is interested in education want to discourage students from taking AP courses or attending superior primary and secondary schools? Has America lost all its taste for competition and success or is it just educators? This post is seriously misguided.

  6. "Fairer" here is a loaded term (as it is in so many cases).

    Are you targeting an admissions process that maximizes the graduation rate (or some other measure of output quality)? I suspect not, especially in light of the bit in your previous post, "Among the top-scoring students who do go to college, 80% of the high-SES kids graduate, compared to 45% of the kids of low socio-economic status," and the penalty score you're looking to assess respective of private schooling.

    Do you think your notion of "fairer" likely to result in investing resources with lower expected outcomes? On the face of it, doesn't strike me as fairer to those paying the bills nor to those denied admission who would be more likely to graduate than those admitted.

  7. Raymond: You write, "why should kids suffer just because their parents want/can provide them better resources?" If the penalties are calibrated correctly, the whole point is that these kids would not "suffer." They gain points from their expensive education, SAT coaching, etc., then these points would be taken away. The net effect should be zero.

    Large: You write, "Imagine telling poor Susie, who's done everything right and worked her butt off, that she won't be getting into her state university because, well, she did everything right and worked her butt off." This already happens! But why should lucky "Nancy," who gets to take the SAT three times, get a benefit over "Susie" by getting her highest score to count.

    Paul: I agree that grade point average has difficulties. Val Johnson has written about using a hierarchical model to adjust for abilities of students in different classes, and he tried to implement that at Duke University, but there's no way that would be done at the high school level. Still, giving an extra grade point for an AP course seems a bit extreme to me. Maybe reduce it to 1/2 point?

    Confused: See the linked post on "Strivers." The problem this is intended to solve is the low representation of disadvantaged students in college.

    Brent: I agree that "fairness" exists only relative to some standard, not in an absolute sense. (See here for a discussion of this idea in a political context.) I agree that fairness to those paying the bills is different from fairness to students in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

    My real point was that, if you want to do something to help out disadvantaged students in college admissions, I like the idea of directly correcting for factors that will boost the test score (for example, taking the SAT multiple times or getting special preparation or extra time on the test).

  8. Brent has a point about examining the outputs. If we assume that the admissions office was trying to maximize graduation rates or college test scores or subsequent employment rates, then they could examine past performance to see how to weight a student's SAT score according to socioeconomic factors, etc.

    Of course, that would assume that everyone starts college on a level playing field and that socioeconomic factors are independent of graduation rates, which of course they're not. But we are assuming a particular goal for the admissions office.

    Who knows, this strategy may even result in disadvantaged students having to have a HIGHER SAT score in order to have the same graduation rates!

  9. Neat – if you are thinking of doing some modeling to get get better estimates of the amounts to subtract – you might wish to look at some of the work Val Johnson did initially for granting agencies (to similary make fair assessments when the inputs from differing assessors was not fair, i.e. some easier than others)


  10. Part of leveling the playing field is creating equal education opportunities for students, not just fairer admission criteria. Admitting hard working disadvantaged students is undoubtedly the right thing to do, but is resource intensive for a school. Colleges should make a commitment to taking disadvantaged students and providing them with additional resources, opportunities for tutoring/remediation and other types of support structures that mimic what privileged students have grown up with.

    Knocking down privileged students doesn't make sense from the college's standpoint whether you choose to look at it practically or cynically.

    Cynical: colleges want richer kids. they want to pay out less financial aid and they want more donating parents & alumni. Donations aren't bad. They fund programs.

    Practical: Admissions needs to ensure that the college has sufficient resources to legitimately educate an incoming class. Students who have privilege plus 12 & change years of strong fundamentals, better reading/writing training, and greater familiarity with the system are known quantities. In some ways, they'll be less resource intensive & easier to teach.

    The key is to think of a way to balance the system so that privileged kids can "subsidize" their peers by sharing educational resources and all the intangibles that come along with a fancy education.

    It's not just a one way street: privileged kids will be less inclined to coast if schools are maximizing the number of hard working kids versus the number of kids who know how to work the admissions system.

  11. Adam as far I know Val Johnson worked out a statistical justification for what your link suggested and I believe for possible use at Duke University (the students objected strongly)

    re: "The RPI lacks theoretical justification from a statistical standpoint"

    but I only heard about his work over a dinner conversation and don't have a reference.


  12. I'm sorry but fairer is a subjective test. If you define it as "ways to increase the odds for x class," then we should acknowledge that's the definition. One could, for example, say "fairer for children of servicemen" as a reward for sacrifice.

    That's one point, that x class is a construct. The next point is something you hit on often: why? Is college intended to be a socio-economic leveler? Is college a reward to a family that has succeeded monetarily and thus achieved the ability all parents want of being able to provide for kids? Is college an "objective" admissions standard in which each person is judged according to his or her "ability," whatever that is? If the latter, which seems to somehow underlie this discussion, then what is "objective"? At USC, they need athletes so their objective need is for jocks. They're a private school so they need some wealthy kids, probably a lot of them, to keep the money flowing in years to come. Columbia lacks much but not all of the former but certainly has the latter concern.

    If the idea is to say that we want to construct an objective scale – another underlying issue, it seems – then besides the fact this is impossible, then that would be better accomplished by giving a series of tests whose results could then be analyzed and adjusted. We could then argue over the adjustments but it seems very odd and fruitless to pick away at the existing structure as if it could somehow be tweaked appropriately.

  13. Here's a way to find strivers. Build a website that provides basic tutoring, and offers loads of practice questions delivered in a computer adaptive manner. Offer it free to anyone who wants to sign up. Then monitor performance on the site, with a focus on effort, rate of improvement, and overall level of achievement. You'd have more information about students than you can get with a one-shot SAT score, and you'd have the information long before the formal test scores rolled in.

    We built the website to do exactly this ten years ago this summer ( But we don't own it anymore, and it was never used for its talent search capabilities.

  14. My opinion of this is somewhat clouded by the fact that all of these suggestions but #6 would have benefited. In fact, I had no idea you could take the SAT multiple times or take as long as you wanted to. I'm pretty sure it was time limited in the Dark Ages when I took it. But they seem reasonable suggestions.

    However, I agree with Confused and some of the later posters. What are you trying to accomplish? Or why is your school taking undergraduate students?

    You could think you offer a good education and want as many people who would benefit from it to get that education as possible. You might want undergraduates to create a pool of future graduate students and future academics. You might view your college as a "gatekeeper" to all sorts of white collar jobs and think when you select your undergraduate pool, you are selecting the white collar workers for the future. Or maybe you view undergraduates and their parents as a source of revenue, via tuitions. By the way, you can't do all of these equally well at once.

    So figure out first why you are taking undergraduates, and then which applications you select should be driven by that. I get the impression that not alot of thought is being put in this first step. Some existing higher educational institutions might even work better without any undergraduates at all, they could be a collection of graduate and professional schools, and facilities that get research contracts from government and industry. But figure out what the your mission is, and that should drive your procedures.

  15. I'm generally sympathetic to these ideas, but…

    First off, as a matter of pure sales psychology, rather than taking points of a group XY, you should rephrase all of this as "give bonus points to YZ".

    I like the idea of rewarding people who don't take SAT prep classes, but – realistically, why you could maybe monitor the big firms, I can already see even more privileged "clandestine" SAT tutoring (lying on those would be a lot less risky) as well as cover-up extracurricular activities that just happen to train SAT-relevant skills. (you wouldn't even technically be lying).

    While not being able to re-take SATs seems fair, it also increases the stakes of one single test, which I'm not sure is desirable.

    "Private school" can be a poor label – an inner city Catholic school, e.g., may be a lot less advantaged than the public school of a rich suburb – there are a bunch of well known Ivy-feeding public schools. (Also, politically, doing this would be at odds with federal policies encouraging charter schools – regardless what you think of those).

    I think the AP thing has gotten out of hand, but if you are going to use GPAs as relevant criteria, you also have to somehow reward AP classes, because people do need to put in more work for an equivalent grade.

    So while I have much less problems with you overall goal than many of the other commenters, I'm much more concerned about the unintended consequences of implementing your rules.

  16. Before making these suggestions, don't you think you might investigate just a bit whether or not, and just how much, any of the revisions you suggest might be likely to affect measures like the SAT?

    For example, are there any decent studies, conducted by researchers NOT in the pockets of the preparatory companies like Kaplan, which confirm that the preparation they provide really has a major effect on SAT scores? From my reading, quite the opposite appears to have been shown: those scores are altered only minimally by such preparation — certainly well below what would be required to provide the disadvantaged with enough leg up to allow them to be admitted to the same colleges that are now admitting them based on Affirmative Action guidelines. My general impression is that the amount of a break one gets as an Affirmative Action candidate on the SAT is somewhat above 1 SD; the amount that preparation, etc., provides on average is only a quite small fraction of that.

    And none of this deals with the really deep issue here. Measures such as the SAT are supposed to predict, for example, success in college. In fact the predictive value of the SAT does not become substantially less good even allowing the smallish "cheats" that might be built into the current system of admission. Despite the claims of bias against the SAT, it is well known that Affirmative Action candidates are, on average, not more, but less successful in college than their SAT scores would predict (so-called "overprediction"). Their lot is not going to be improved by taking away any advantage one assumes upper middle class non Affirmative Action students may enjoy in admission. (Arguably, it may make things slightly worse, if the real effect is to bring in a somewhat more capable group of non-Affirmative action students.)

    If anything, SAT scores, despite their "overpredicting" academic success for AA students, are apparently only more important for AA students in admission than for others. Those scores appear to have the most predictive power in determining academic success for those students who are admitted despite being well below the average in academic credentials. The real barrier to admitting a larger AA population to colleges, especially elite schools, is that the failure or academic difficulty rate of those already admitted is already so high that it's hard to justify making it still higher. The SAT, whatever its faults, appears to be among the most useful instruments for the determination of which AA student is most likely to succeed.

  17. What about randomly rejecting the papers submitted from top universities in order to give more publication chance to prof/students who do not have much experience/good education/etc?
    This would be "fairer".

  18. Shaun: I do think that if you compare two students with the same SAT, the one with a higher expected score (before taking the test) will be more likely to do well in college. The SAT is a noisy measure, after all. But decisions are not only made for their predictive value; fairness is a concern. To me, it doesn't seem fair that some people can take the SAT multiple times and get to count their highest score.

    Eric: I like your idea of actually adding information to the decision.

    Sebastian: You might be right that my rules have problems. Regarding the multiple-SAT thing, though, if you're really worried about one try being too random, you could allow people to take it twice and use their average score.

    Liberal: You write, "Before making these suggestions, don't you think you might investigate just a bit whether or not, and just how much, any of the revisions you suggest might be likely to affect measures like the SAT?" This is a blog entry! If I was being paid to do this, then, sure, I'd do some investigation. I'm hoping that this discussion will be read by others who know more than I do on the topic.

  19. Subtract points for going to a private school. Perhaps 20 points for every year of private high school and 10 points for every year of private elementary school. Or even something trickier such as 1 point for every thousand dollars spent on private school in the kid's lifetime.

    Dr Gelman – you seem to be implying that public schooling does not do as good a job at educating our children as private schooling does. Was this your intention, or just an tangential effect of your plan?

  20. Sounds very very confusing to me … you're basicallly assuming that be an advantageous student is unrelated to the student's on merit and effort…

  21. Gabe: Well, yeah. People pay big bucks for private schools. I assume they're getting something for their money!

  22. Andrew,

    Fair enough.

    But one thing that bugs me a lot about how the issue of IQ, SAT scores, college admission etc. get discussed in most blogs is that that discussion takes place without, apparently, taking into account the rather obvious consideration: if there exist easy and fair remedies to the problems being posed, why have educators (who really would like to remove bias from the admission process) failed to implement them?

    To my mind, the first problem with a new idea (or at least new to oneself) that would seem to solve a problem is this: why hasn't anyone thought of it before, and put it in practice? In the vast majority of cases, the answer is: because the idea is, in fact, an old one that doesn't really work.

    Very few policies indeed have been more carefully and extensively examined than that of Affirmative Action. The sort of problems I've been pointing to are very well known among those who keep on top of such things. No smallish tweak in how, say, SAT scores are weighted in the admissions process is going to achieve the sought for effect: a non-trivial number of minorities being admitted to colleges who are also likely to succeed. That is a very hard problem indeed. One the one hand, minorities simply must be given a rather massive break on their scores, or the number of them admitted will be trivial. On the other hand, the SAT (or some standardized test near equivalent, such as college admission achievement tests) appears to be among the best predictors of success for those students.

    This, fundamentally, is why we have the current system of Affirmative Action and the current weighting of SAT for such students.

  23. It's probably relatively easy to find the most talented kids from an unprivileged background and then admit them to college. I imagine it is much harder to have them succeed once they are in — the disadvantages of years of poor schooling, little outside help and unconducive home environments doesn't disappear upon entry to college as the stat from your last post show: "80% of the high-SES kids graduate, compared to 45% of the kids of low socio-economic status".

  24. Your decision to subtract points from privileged applicants rather than add them for disadvantaged ones reminds me of a series of experiments by Lowery, Knowles, and Unzueta (2007). They found that when racial inequities were framed as white privilege rather than anti-black discrimination, whites experienced a sense of threat to their self-worth, and as a result they were less likely to perceive the inequities and less supportive of social policies to correct them.
    You were talking about socioeconomic background rather than race, but I wouldn't be surprised if the same thing applied. Subtracting points from one group of applicants seems to say "you got too much" whereas adding them to another group says "you didn't get enough," even though it's just framing — the consequences for a competitive admission policy are the same.

  25. "If the penalties are calibrated correctly, the whole point is that these kids would not "suffer." They gain points from their expensive education, SAT coaching, etc., then these points would be taken away. The net effect should be zero."

    If the net effect is zero, then why bother paying for 12 years of private school only to have the benefits disappear? (well, at least in terms of SAT scores).

    If taking an SAT prep class leads to a net gain of 0, what's the point of preparing?

  26. Sanjay etc: Yes, I realize this from my own experience teaching, that students are much happier to get possible plus points than to get minus points. I suggested the minus points here partly to be provocative, to focus on the idea that some students are getting unfair advantages.

    Liberal: Good point. I'm trying to correct unfairness. I'm not saying that these small corrections will be enough to equalize differences in students' backgrounds. If that's a concern, then I agree that more direct affirmative action (of the sort recommended in the Strivers book) might be needed.

    Raymond: Exactly. If an SAT prep course had no expected net effect, maybe people would stop using them, which I think would be a net gain. Prep courses are just an arms race (beyond whatever basic preparation is needed to get kids used to the idea of a standardized test). As to private school, presumably you're sending your kid there to get a good education, not just to get a higher SAT score!

  27. I'm going to take a different line of criticism and say that these are fine suggestions, but even if they were implemented, they wouldn't be effective at eliminating class and status biases in college admissions.

    Let's assume that going to a prestigious college confers social status. It can only maintain its status conferring ability if it can effectively avoid conferring status to the undeserving, that is, those who have no status (only the rich get richer). Unsurprisingly, their gatekeeping device looks meritocratic, but its outcomes are actually modulated the test taker's pre-existing status. Voila!

    Now, if you eliminate the status modulation of the outcomes, the gatekeeping device is no longer effective! What else do you with an ineffective gatekeeping device, but drop it?

    That is, I think that if you successfully leveled the playing field on the SAT, either by boosting the underprivileged, or by handicapping the overprivileged, you would see the SAT become less relevant to the college admissions process, and see a redoubled emphasis on the personal essay or writing sample, or something else qualitative.

  28. I have a suggestion: for students with particularly impressive accomplishments, every twenty seconds or so, a transmitter should send out some sharp noise to keep people like them from taking unfair advantage of their brains.

  29. Uri:

    Wow, this post really seems to have bugged some people. Can you explain why taking the SAT multiple times, getting extra time on the SAT, taking an SAT coaching course, or going to an expensive school represent "particularly impressive accomplishments"? None of these seem so impressive to me.

  30. As this ETS document says:

    Collectively, these studies indicate that coaching does have some benefit. However, though consistent, the effect is small. A typical student enrolling in a formal test preparation
    program can expect a total score gain of between 25 to 32 total points on the verbal and math sections beyond what they could expect to gain without attending such a program.

    Either coaching helps and we may consider deductions or it does not help that much and
    students and parents should weigh carefully the decision to attend a coaching program against the benefits of devoting that time to other educationally relevant activities and extracurricular activities that are viewed as equally important for admission to, as well as eventual success in, college. A rigorous program of high school courses, along with familiarity with the content and format of the SAT I and practice on actual tests, can help students prepare for college and the SAT I.

  31. I had thought of something along these lines once. I was inspired by the supposedly fact (that is, according with the Brazilian government's official data/bragging) that sometimes, even lowering the bar for financially disadvantaged people does not result in an inferior performance for this group, they perform "equal or better" after they've been admitted. However, the logic of compromised outcomes from lowering the admission criteria is undeniable, and there is empirical support to that, if Thomas Sowell did his work right. So I thought just that, if instead, by raising the bar for those who have easier access to aids such admission-coaching, wouldn't be possible to get something that is both more fair and more effective. I think that, if the financially disadvantaged indeed do as well as their richer counterparts, it may be even due to a different perspective, from putting a higher value on this achievement and making more effort than someone with more options, with more financial security perhaps would.

    I just don't think that private schools are necessarily a good proxy for this sort of "penalty". In some places (at least speaking worldwide, I don't know how the status on the US, but it shouldn't be different) public schools are so bad that even poor people who value education for their children make an extra sacrifice to put them on better schools. I think that perhaps, private schools for low-income families could even be regarded as a "bonus" rather than a "penalty", if it's to bear anything on the judgement; however, it's up to the parents to put their children on private schools, then such "bonus" is quite unfair with those who did the best they could, those who would study in a private school if they could afford, but wasn't up to them to decide, and their parents put education below most things in their priority list for investment.

  32. I think the discussion here is aimed at trying to solve the wrong problem. It premised around the idea that colleges are valued by the quality of their output (i.e. how "good" the students they produce are, however you define "good"). What we should be doing is adding measures to evaluate how well colleges are doing on "value-add", i.e. how much improvement their students show from entry to exit. I think from a social point of view, the improvement is really what matters. If we did that, we would discover that perhaps we're getting more social value from community colleges than from the Ivy League. If we scaled all forms of government support to post-secondary institutions to the actual impact they have on students, at least some institutions would have an incentive to seek out the "strivers" and they would adjust their admissions policies appropriately. That seems to me to be a much effective solution than the ones that our host proposes.

  33. Josef Fruehwald makes an excellent point that shows the limitations of a certain strand of American liberalism.

    We have a situation where elite colleges are perceived to be the gatekeeper to elite jobs and social status. So the idea is to admit lots of non-elite students to the colleges, so they will also get elite jobs and status. But colleges are perceived to be the gatekeeper to elite jobs and status -because lots of elite students go to them! Admit too many non-elite students and the colleges lose their gatekeeper status, something else takes its place.

    In other words, the cause and effect is the reverse from what people tend to think. The class structure has evolved to give colleges a role in that structure. The colleges themselves are not actually creating or even really supporting the class structure. If the colleges do something different, the class structure will remain, colleges will just have a different role within it.

  34. I'm a graduating senior from high school this year, and I'd just like to make a few comments:

    1. You forget that AP classes are significantly more difficult that normal ones. In other words, it's much easier to get an A in a normal class than in its AP counterpart. Getting rid of the grade point boost for taking AP classes would provide a disincentive for students to take AP classes: if you would get a 4.0 for taking normal classes but a 3.0 for taking AP classes, which would you take?

    2. For me, knowing that I could take the test many times had a very soothing mental effect. I was less pressured, more relaxed, and probably performed better as a result. I was also unfortunate enough to get sick the day before my SAT testing… it would be a shame for a factor like sickness to be reflected on a student's college application.

    3. You are mistaken on this point. The College Board only rewards extra time for students with learning disabilities.

    4. As a student who studied tirelessly for the SAT, I can say from experience that large test prep companies do not yield favorable results. The consensus from most high scoring individuals on the SAT is that most score improvements can be made through self study. All of the resources that will significantly improve a given student's SAT score are available to a self studying student for little to no cost.

    5. This point is interesting to me. The most obvious question that comes to mind is whether there are any real differences in the quality of education between a private and public school (I haven't read any research on this topic).

    6. For this to have any effect, the college board would need to control for the quality of the individual schools' SAT prep programs. If one school has a rigorous 50 hour program while another simply has 5 hours worth of weekly seminars, subtracting the same number of points for both would be unfair.

    However, in the end, I think it's important to keep in mind that the goal of college admissions is to match qualified students with qualified schools. The goal should be to promote students to learn as much as they can in their high school years. At the end of the day, a student's GPA and SAT score are just numbers and college admissions officers evaluate them as such.

  35. What if the various facts/accomplishments/whatever you propose to use to adjust the admission process actually make a difference? (Which is similar to what Anonymous is saying.) For example, perhaps taking an AP course helps you do better in college. Perhaps the worse SAT scores of disadvantaged students reflect reality: They are going to do worse in college. If so, helping them enter college ignores an important part of the problem. Putting someone in a college that is much too hard hurts them, in my experience. At Berkeley the administration has tried to improve the graduation rates of various student groups (e.g., athletes) with tutoring and other help, but that hasn't worked well, as far as I know. At Berkeley I knew a black student who'd been admitted in spite of low SAT scores. He had huge trouble in his classes. "Why did I get a C on my paper? I spelled everything right." he once said. Then he dropped out. Admitting him had helped Berkeley admissions stats, but hurt him. He was really discouraged.

  36. Andrew,
    I may opine on the pros and cons of the specific proposal (I like some of them more than other). However, I think you should actually clarify what the meaning of the term "fair" is. If your goal is to achieve a grading system which is a proxy for the hypothetical scenario in which all students had an identical starting position, good luck with that. Why 10 points and not 50 points of penalty? Shouldn't there be penalties based on the educational background of the parents and the overall socio-economic status of the student's family? How much?

    More fundamentally, what is fair to penalize? An athlete taking drugs is rightfully penalized (by removing him from competitions, adding time to his performance or disqualifying him altogheter) for having taken performance-enhancing drugs. Yet, he's not penalized for training in advanced facilities or having an army of top-notch coaches. I am aware that education is not a race, but I think there should be a differentiation between contingent and long-term enhancement means. A clarification of their roles goes through the clarification of the concept of fairness.

  37. Dear Andrew:

    The question of how to find more minority "diamonds in the rough" has been an issue of intense concern for four or five decades. All the easy stuff has been tried multiple times.

  38. The real solution isn't docking points or adjusting grades or anything like that, but improving and standardizing (in the sense of more uniform quality) early education. Some people are always going to have access to more, but everyone should have access adequate resources.

    It's a worthwhile exercise to explore options that might make things more equitable while we work toward that, but we shouldn't lose sight of the forest for the trees. There are so many moving parts that trying to make these adjustments post-hoc is going to screw someone.

    Not sure if Uri intended it, but his idea is actually the premise of a short story but Kurt Vonnegut, I think in Welcome to the Monkey House. Great reading.

  39. Steve:

    Nowhere did I discuss finding "minority diamonds in the rough." My point was that I'd rather deal separately with the affirmative-action and fairness issues. On one hand, if underrepresentation of disadvantaged groups (lower-income whites as well as ethnic minorities) is a problem, then it might be best to deal with this directly, as suggested in the Rewarding Strivers book (see link at the top of this entry). At the same time, my impression is that there are some fairness issues which I think are worth addressing on their own terms.


    1. What you get out of AP classes is (a) you learn more, (b) you get "AP physics" etc on your high school transcript, and (c) you get preparation for the AP test. Colleges can feel free to use (b) and (c) in their evaluations–heck, they can even use (a) to the extent it shows up on other tests. I'm just saying not to add a point to the calculated grade.

    2. You write, "For me, knowing that I could take the test many times had a very soothing mental effect." That's fine. But the issue is that not everyone does take the test multiple times. That's the fairness issue.

    3. I've heard that kids in high-income areas are much more likely to get this extra-time-on-the-test version of learning disabilities.

    4. The research shows this too. On the other hand, lots of people apparently believe otherwise. In any case, I think some correction would be in order.

    5,6. I'm assuming that private schools are giving better test preparation in any case. But I agree that my corrections are not perfect; they're just intended to be my best guess and an improvement over the current system.


    I agree.


    I knew some white students at Berkeley like that. I remember one student who showed up to almost no classes and got a 14 on her midterm exam and a 2 (out of 100, I believe) on the final. She was really angry and had seemed to think she had a right to a good grade.

  40. This is new work from a guy that's still in grad school at U. Colorado Boulder, but it's really nice work. At the AERA presentation Stephen Raudenbush called it the most important work in the area of college admissions.

    Evaluating a New Approach to Affirmative Action Policy: Results From a Randomized Controlled Study
    *Matthew Newman Gaertner (University of Colorado – Boulder)

  41. Subtract points for submitting too many papers. Quality should be stressed over quantity. 10 points should be subtracted for every paper submitted in the last year. Submission privileges should be suspended for a few months after every rejected paper.

    Subtract points if your institution has subscriptions to major scientific journals. Or even trickier, subtract a point for every $10k the institution spends on journal subscriptions.

    Subtract points for being employed at a private university. Private institutions enjoy huge endowments from evil alumni bankers while public university are scrambling to keep their lights on.

    Subtract points for having access to grant writers.

    Get rid of tenure, force retirement of professors at age 60. Old people rarely have new things to say but they keep submitting papers on the same old beaten idea.

  42. Tom:

    These seems reasonable to me. But I don't know about the forced-retirement thing. Even after we can't do research, we can still teach and do service (of which blogging is an example).

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