Books for the News, Commentary, Education

Natasha K. Warikoo on college admissions (and its flaws)

Below follows a recent op-ed by Natasha K. Warikoo at Inside Higher Ed on our flawed college admissions process—and how it gets personal—drawn from her work and research for The Diversity Bargain.


I recently participated in two admissions processes. At Harvard University, I chaired a committee that admitted students to one of our doctoral programs. At home, I prepared an application for my son to attend private school next year. Having just written a book about college admissions, I understood all too well that these processes are inherently flawed.

I knew before the processes even started, for example, that students admitted in both instances would be more likely than the average young American to have parents with college degrees. I also knew that there would be a disproportionate number of white admits. And, I knew that participation in the process would confirm for most decision-makers and those admitted that these are fair processes that select the “best” candidates.

For my son, I had a wealth of knowledge to craft his application. The writing skills I developed as a student at Brown University, my social network of elite college graduates, and my husband’s training at the University of Oxford, surely helped us craft our answers to the schools’ questions. We understand elite spaces and how to position ourselves as elites. At the parent interviews, that put us at ease. I also told more than one admissions director about my recently-published book on Ivy League admissions, which may have helped bolster my value to them. As for our son, he’s used to being in new situations—summer camps, sports teams, and more, so he was comfortable navigating school visits, too. Beyond my family’s actions, we have friends with children attending the schools who could put in a good word for us, and other friends who clarified just what to emphasize for each school.

At the office, I tried to remember that GRE scores, like the SAT, are flawed. That me and my colleagues intuitively “trust” letters of recommendation from well-known four year colleges, especially from professors we know personally, even though we know access to those colleges is unequal.

Still, the number of hours I spent poring over files at the office and at home crafting responses to questions about my son’s interests, skills, and areas for growth started to cloud my professional expertise in educational inequality. The very acts of spending hours evaluating and producing the applications made them seem like fair systems.

I found this happens to students admitted to elite colleges, too, in my research on college students’ perspectives on college admissions. Most college students express beliefs about admissions in line with what admissions officers at their universities say. One Harvard student summed it up nicely: “Everyone that gets in deserves to be here.” This is true both in the United States, with our holistic admissions, and in Britain, where admission to Oxford and Cambridge is based on exams and on-campus interviews with faculty members. In supporting how their elite colleges do admissions, students embrace systems that most know to have unequal outcomes in terms of class and race. It’s hard not to when they spent so much time striving for excellence in high school and crafting their college applications.

Some weeks ago I awaited decisions from the private schools to which my son applied. It was hard not to feel a sense of excitement, of possibility, of accomplishment when we received a “yes” from an excellent school. I imagined that the school staff must have noticed my son’s special aptitudes for architecture and math, and his friendly, generous spirit toward others.

Despite my best intentions, I couldn’t help but get caught up in the assessments of worthiness and unworthiness. I realized that when we participate in a process, it makes it seem real, fair, and precise. And when we are rewarded, as my son was by one lovely school, we believe even more that it produces valid outcomes.

When the committee that admits students for our doctoral program made our final decisions, we, too, felt a great sense of accomplishment. This is an outstanding group of young people who surely will go on to contribute so much to the field of education. I firmly believe this. Still, would we feel any different if the group consisted of a different group of students from the applicant pool? And, would they accomplish any less?

The validation of these selection processes has dangerous side effects. Indeed, when we believe in them we ignore worthy, accomplished people who are not selected. This biases decisions down the line. Doctoral admissions committees like mine may only pay attention to applicants with degrees from elite colleges. Employers may be wowed by a degree from Harvard and ignore other worthy job applicants. And donors contribute to colleges that already have billions of dollars in an endowment while the state college down the road that does more to expand educational opportunities is struggling financially.

Those who gain entrée imagine themselves more worthy than those shut out. They will take this perspective with them when they make decisions about hiring, the welfare state, and equal opportunity down the line. This does not bode well for promoting social policies to support the majority of Americans who never even applied to places like Harvard and expensive private schools.

My husband and I got away with shielding our eight-year-old son from the admissions process for now. Instead, we told him school interviews were actually chances to see different schools. And, because my son is so young my husband and I, not our son, filled out his application.

In the future, though, we will have to come up with a plan to get him to invest in admissions processes while also recognizing the inherent flaws and unequal outcomes they inevitably produce. I want him to understand that he enjoys many privileges that so many other young Americans do not, and those privileges sometimes help him get selected. And yet, I want him to work hard to attain his personal best at school and beyond.

While I strive for that balance at home, at work I’ll strive to broaden our notions of excellence to go beyond our traditional markers of success that are so tied to privilege. I implore all admissions offices — school, college, graduate programs — to invest less time and resources into selection, because when we expend so much energy we can’t help but think that selection is flawless.


To read more about The Diversity Bargain, click here.