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What’s Fair Play in College Admissions? Guest Post by Rebecca Zwick

Bella’s intro: Thinking about going to college? Have kids or relatives or friends who are? Welcome to the nerve-racking process of applying to colleges then waiting for those fateful decision letters. If any of those letters are rejections, you may wonder about the fairness of it all. How do colleges and universities decide who to admit? How should they decide? What counts as fair?

In an important new book, likely to be regarded as the definitive source on the topic, Emeritus Professor Rebecca Zwick addresses the thorniest questions about college admissions. Who Gets In? Strategies for Fair and Effective College Admissions synthesizes decades of research and writings on the topic, including Zwick’s own work.

I asked Professor Zwick if she would share some of her findings with Psych Central readers, and happily, she agreed. Thanks, Rebecca!



What’s Fair Play in College Admissions?

By Rebecca Zwick

What’s the fairest way to admit students to selective colleges?  Of course, admitted students need to be academically prepared.  And most schools would also like to broaden access to students whose past educational opportunities have been limited.  What’s the best approach?  It seems there is no shortage of ideas on how to enhance the fairness of the process.  But sometimes what’s “obvious” isn’t true, so it’s important to consider the available research before jumping on the bandwagon.  Let’s take a look at some recent claims on three topics—the role of “character” in admissions, the impact of athletic recruiting, and the prospects for admissions lotteries.

Claim 1:  Focusing more on candidates’ personal attributes and experiences and less on their grades and test scores would lead to a more diverse entering class.

We know that socioeconomic and ethnic groups differ substantially in terms of high school grades and admissions test scores–differences that largely reflect disparities in previous educational opportunities and experiences.  Asian and White college applicants and, more generally, those from wealthier backgrounds tend to have higher grades and scores than applicants who are Black, Latino, Native American, or from low-income families.  As a result, a heavy emphasis on grades and test scores in admissions decisions is unlikely to yield a diverse entering class.  So if admissions offices focused more on personal characteristics and experiences, would this produce an increase in diversity?  Not necessarily.  Even asking students to provide essays or personal statements to describe their qualifications can give an advantage to socioeconomically privileged applicants.  As sociologist Mitchell Stevens notes in his fascinating study of college admissions, these candidates “come loaded with lots of the raw materials” that can be used to craft “compelling stories” for the admissions committee.  By contrast, applicants from lower socioeconomic ranks have less material to work with and tend to have less know-how about how best to present themselves.  A study conducted in the UK showed that personal statements written as part of the college application process reflected the socioeconomic status of the writer.  Applicants from low-income families wrote about their experiences watching TV, keeping up with the current fashions, or working in the local pub, for example.  Candidates from wealthier families had more impressive experiences to draw on, like the one who wrote about “a work experience placement to shadow the Pakistani Ambassador to the United Nations.”

Sociological research says that the less specific the admissions requirement, the more it will favor the wealthier and more sophisticated candidates.  Essays, video submissions (a new trend), and portfolios, then, may not serve to level the playing field.  So while it’s a good idea to reevaluate traditional admissions criteria, we shouldn’t assume that focusing on personal characteristics is the way to go.

Claim 2:  Recruiting top athletes helps to facilitate the admission of students of color and students from low-income families.

According to this entrenched belief, athletic recruiting plays an important role in bringing talented but financially strapped students of color to college campuses.  But counter to stereotype, recruited athletes are actually less likely than other students to be underrepresented minorities or from low-income families.  Why?  Because participants in upper-crust sports like horseback riding, water polo, and sailing get a boost along with football and basketball players.  These individuals are mostly white and wealthy.

Just how big an edge do recruited athletes receive?  Using data from the 1980s and 1990s from three elite private schools, Thomas Espenshade and his colleagues examined admissions preferences in terms of the SAT bonus they represented.  Athletes received a 200-point boost relative to nonathletes, even larger than the bonus received by legacies–children of alumni.  This means athletes were treated as if their test scores had been 200 points higher, all other things being equal.

Former Princeton president William Bowen and his coauthors calculated admission rates for various kinds of applicants to 19 elite colleges in 1995. They found that, for a given SAT score, those most likely to be admitted were recruited athletes, followed by under-represented minorities, legacies, and finally, applicants who were not members of any of these groups.  On average, recruited athletes were found to have admission rates 30 percentage points higher than other candidates, assuming everything else was equal.  Furthermore, once they got to college, their performance tended to be sub-par.

Bowen et al. concluded that “giving admissions preferences to recruited athletes does little if anything to promote the equity goal of higher education (and may, in fact, detract from it) at the same time that it raises troubling issues for the pursuit of educational excellence.”

Claim 3:  A lottery would be the fairest way to admit students to college.

Opinion pieces advocating the implementation of a college admissions lottery appear with amazing regularity.  Lotteries are thought to reduce unhealthy competition and increase ethnic and socioeconomic diversity.  According to one recent essay, an admissions lottery would also “single-handedly end debates over affirmative action” and other admissions preferences.  What’s interesting is that most people are unaware that admission via lottery has been tried in US colleges.  One implementation that made headlines occurred in 1970, when the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences of the University of Illinois admitted part of its freshman class by lottery.  More than 800 applicants were rejected, including “some of the best students in the state,” according to the New York Times. A public uproar forced the chancellor to reverse himself and admit all of the rejected students.

To minimize the problem of rejecting highly qualified applicants while accepting less qualified ones, most lottery advocates have proposed a lottery with some kind of threshold—typically, a minimum SAT score of about 1000 (on an 800-to-1600 scale).  But several studies that used computer simulations to study lottery effects showed that lotteries with thresholds at this level produced only modest increases in diversity at best.  In addition, the (simulated) entering classes tended to show unacceptable college performance.

Compounding these disappointing findings is the considerable public resistance to admissions lotteries. A nationwide survey of 2,100 U.S. adults conducted in 1999 found that 83% opposed the use of lotteries for college admissions.  Why would this be?  According to researchers, lotteries are considered fair when there is no strong basis for distinguishing among candidates.  This fundamental principle, seemingly ignored by lottery proponents, presents a major obstacle:  To achieve a situation in which there are no reliable distinctions among college applicants requires a very high threshold, undercutting the goal of broadening educational opportunity.  Lotteries with low thresholds, however, will eventually lead to the admission of candidates with lesser qualifications than certain rejected candidates.  Outcomes of this kind will inevitably be viewed as unfair.  So once again, a simple solution proves to be less so.


Of course, it’s important to keep seeking better and fairer ways to admit students to college when space is limited.  The challenges are considerable:  Candidates’ qualifications are, in part, a reflection of society’s inequities.  Candidates whose previous schooling was inadequate will not be as well-prepared for postsecondary education as those who have always attended top schools.  Ideally, college admissions procedures would satisfy institutional goals without perpetuating these inequities.  It’s not an easy problem.  And for that reason, any claim of an easy fix should be viewed with a skeptical eye.

About the Author

Rebecca Zwick has been a Distinguished Presidential Appointee at Educational Testing Service since 2009 and is also a Professor Emerita at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  Her book, Who Gets In? Strategies for Fair and Effective College Admissions, has just been published by Harvard University Press.  The opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily those of ETS.


[Author photo is by Bob Blackwell.]

What’s Fair Play in College Admissions? Guest Post by Rebecca Zwick

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D

Bella DePaulo (Ph.D., Harvard; Academic Affiliate, Psychological and Brain Sciences, UC Santa Barbara), an expert on single life, is the author of several books, including "Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After" and "How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century." Her TEDx talk is "What no one ever told you about people who are single," Dr. DePaulo has discussed singles and single life on radio and television, including NPR and CNN, and her work has been described in newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, and magazines such as Time, Atlantic, the Week, More, the Nation, Business Week, AARP Magazine, and Newsweek. Dr. DePaulo is in her sixties. She has always been single and always will be. She is "single at heart" -- single is how she lives her best and most meaningful life. Visit her website at

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APA Reference
DePaulo, B. (2017). What’s Fair Play in College Admissions? Guest Post by Rebecca Zwick. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 6, 2020, from


Last updated: 2 May 2017
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