Better Answers Required to Justify Holistic Admissions Process

W. Lee Hansen

This op-ed originally appeared in the Badger-Herald, the University of Wisconsin's student newspaper.

Exactly how are minority applicant admissions decisions made at the University of Wisconsin? At Monday’s Legislative Assembly committee hearing, Provost Paul DeLuca and Admissions Director Adele Brumfield described the process. They also dismissed the Center for Equal Opportunity study of UW undergraduate admissions that reported “severe discrimination” favoring African Americans and Hispanics.

DeLuca began by stating, “No student is admitted simply because of race or any other factor alone. Academics are the most important factor in our admission process. We also have a desire to create a diverse academic community.”

But nobody contends that targeted minority students are admitted solely because of their race or any other single factor. What most people don’t know is a great many targeted minority applicants are academically competitive and would be admitted without regard to their race, ethnicity or national origin.

UW’s preferential admissions policy is criticized because some targeted minority applicants receive special consideration not afforded by other applicants. This is evident from admissions office documents obtained in response to an open records request.

As UW students know, applicant files include a wealth of information that goes beyond high school class rank and ACT/SAT scores. They also include details on courses taken in high school, extracurricular activities, letters of recommendation and personal statements. The comprehensive review of this information conducted by admissions counselors provides the basis for deciding whether or not to admit applicants.

Applicants with strong credentials, particularly those with high ACT/SAT scores and the requisite course preparation, are admitted without question. Applicants with less strong credentials are put into a “postpone” category for later reconsideration. Applicants with weak credentials are rejected.

But files of rejected applicants who are members of “targeted” groups, most notably minorities, but also athletes, veterans, returning adults and music or dance majors, receive additional consideration. It is at this stage that “other factors” come into play, and they include “student experiences, work experience, leadership qualities, motivation, community service, special talents … and [being] socio-economically disadvantaged.”

How these “other factors” affect admissions decisions has never been described. How much evidence of, for example, “leadership qualities” or “community service” is required to overcome the weaker academic preparation (e.g., high school rank, ACT scores, difficulty of high school course work) that led to an applicant’s initial rejection? Or “motivation,” “special talents” and “socio-economically disadvantaged”?

The CEO study is criticized for failing to consider these “other factors.” But UW can be criticized for being unable to produce any evidence that taking into account these “other factors” improves the ability of the admissions office to determine which of these less academically-competitive (initially rejected) targeted minority students have “the potential and the capacity to succeed.” Shouldn’t “a world-class research university” like UW have long ago undertaken research to answer this simple question? 

UW officials continue to maintain their “holistic approach” to admissions is consistent with the University of Michigan Supreme Court decisions. To regularly assert their compliance is not enough: We need to see the evidence.

W. Lee Hansen (wlhansen@wisc.edu) is a professor emeritus of economics.

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