Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Holistic's winners and losers

Miss Self-Important has a post up on affirmative action and holistic admissions. WWPD readers may be familiar with my apparently bizarre stance - in favor of or at the very least neutral to affirmative action, but not in favor of holistic college admissions. I don't think racism is over. I do, however, think there's something ridiculous about telling 17-year-old applicants that they do or don't get into a school on the basis of what they're like as a person. What I've said about this in the past is that it's then unnecessarily devastating to kids when they don't get in somewhere. It's not that you flaked out on too many math homeworks to get into Yale. It's that Yale examined your deepest soul and found it wanting.

But what I hadn't considered was what this process does to those who do get in. MSI nails it:

[T]he opacity of admissions is actually an asset for the most selective schools, a kind of metaphorical analog to the statistical reality. [....] It's because we Harvard students are all so amazing that you can't ever prove that you deserved to dwell among us. No one deserves such favor; it is a pure act of divine sovereign grace to be admitted.
Rather than taking pride in the achievements that got them in, those admitted to top colleges are basically asked to believe they were selected as individuals and are simply better people than the other high-GPA, high-SAT applicants, better in an unquantifiable way. Not more/better leadership positions, sportiveness. No, just plain better. What does this mean for the egos of the meritocratic elite? Can't be good.


Miss Self-Important said...

Well, this moronic editorial aside, I think the Harvard students generally feel sort of insecure and not like they deserved their statistically improbable selection (although at some moments, particularly moments of anonymous internet trolling, they can get quite puffed up about it). The insecurity comes across a bit in the op-ed's phrasing too, where desert seems impossible. No one deserves to get in, so no one can question not getting in. It's literally like divine election, a decision was made by an inscrutable God whose justice we simply can't know, instead of committee of human beings who can perfectly well produce your application file and show you how you were scored relative to other applicants. When I've taught the affirmative action cases to the undergrads and pointed them to this problem in Justice Powell's endorsement of holistic admission in Bakke (salient b/c he specifically endorsed Harvard's admission regime), some of them have said that they wish the admissions process were more transparent b/c even though whatever magic went into it obviously worked for them, they have no idea why they were admitted, and that produces insecurities of its own, like the fear that one was never really "smart enough" to cut it at Harvard but was admitted for a vast variety of other academically irrelevant qualities not limited to race. But as I wrote in the post, these insecurities are less visible for the same reason that students complaining about getting too high of a grade are infrequent.

I think that if you do holistic admissions but have a relatively high acceptance rate like Chicago used to have or like many state flagships have, you do alleviate some of this anxiety. For anyone with solid academics, there was a good chance of acceptance, and they just didn't have enough applicants to get into hair-splitting comparisons between the self-enhancement value of 4-H vs. varsity lacrosse. But a single-digit acceptance rate together with holistic admissions is the perfect storm for arbitrary biases and anxiety.

Phoebe said...

Huh. My guess would have been that the impostor-syndrome approach would be more common among grad students (who can likely point to something less holistic) than undergrads. But now that you describe it, it makes sense - how will you know if what got you into an elite college will get you anywhere else particular? That uncertainty, combined with finding that once you're there, the fact that you're a Harvard student doesn't make you special, could maybe be unsettling.

I'd have thought there wouldn't be such insecurity, because the line is more that of the zillion applicants, a certain percentage are qualified, and it's only 'holistic' in terms of which of those few are admitted. But, this may be where my high school experience was misleading. We knew - indeed, our college guidance almost wholly consisted in the school's telling us - who could get in where with a 92 average, a 95 average, a 97, etc., and that it was mysterious only which 97-average kids would get into HYP. And even that wasn't all that mysterious - if they did a team sport (regardless of their interest in doing so at the college level), yes, if not, Brown or Stanford. But at smaller high schools, or schools where fewer kids are applying to selective (or any) colleges, I could see that things would seem much murkier, and it wouldn't be obvious that 'holistic' starts at a cutoff. Or maybe it doesn't - there won't always be so many applicants from one school for admissions officers to use as comparison.

caryatis said...

Hmm, well, when I was rejected I assumed it was because I'm white. Pretty sure that with my test scores and black skin I could get in anywhere. So I guess affirmative action cancels out the ego-sapping effects of holistic admissions for me.

Miss Self-Important said...

Isn't impostor syndrome in grad school more about not feeling competent in one's scholarly authority or expertise rather than feeling undeserving of getting into grad school in the first place?

Yes, the "there were so many fully qualified applicants" line is a way of assuaging some anxiety of insufficient qualification, but it doesn't actually answer the question, "so why did they pick me?" at the cost of sending someone else packing? On the one hand, you can say that with such a low acceptance rate, it's just a matter of luck. But it's not quite luck, as the Texas brief demonstrates, because there are hard numbers behind the appearance of luck.

And also yes to the difference b/w Stuyvesant and the average high school on the mysteriousness of college admission. My school had no well-established cut-off guides for most schools outside the Midwest simply b/c so few previous students had applied to them - it's hard to say how your application stacks up against the the class ranks/test scores of the four previous applicants to that school in the past decade. With locally selective schools like Northwestern though, we did have something more like your reliable estimates of getting into Harvard from Stuyvesant b/c it was the school to which almost everyone at the top of the class with any ambition applied. Chicago was less loved, but also decently patronized. But anything outside the Midwest - complete mystery. I imagine that is more or less true everywhere, in proportion to the quality and ambitions of the high school in question.

Britta said...

Hmmm...clearly holistic admissions benefited me, because I am from a Western state with a low population. Although the prejudices encountered at my new school were amusing/eye raising. At time I think people were surprised I wasn't clad in bear skins and didn't eat with my hands.

But anyways, at my fairly elite public school, there was no clear sense of who would get in where, and test scores and grades only get you so far, as in, they can be a firm cut off, but a 1600 over a 1500 doesn't necessarily guarantee admission for candidate A over candidate B. There were "top" students who didn't get in to the very top schools, and not so top students who did. There are also people who can write absolutely mind blowing essays which reveal maturity and depth of thought, and that isn't really public information that people share.

The argument "if I were A, I would have gotten x,y,z" is kind of a moot point, because if you were A, you wouldn't be the person you are today, and you would have very different life experiences, so there's no saying what you would have accomplished. Studies have shown that there are significant effects--on test scores and other forms of measurable achievement--to knowing you are considered a disadvantaged minority. I certainly experienced this when I attempted to attend Chinese school, a place where I was the only white person. Half the teachers didn't think I belonged there, the other half were condescendingly admiring, and none of them thought I was constitutionally capable of learning Chinese, because I was white. Guess how much Chinese I learned? None. In 5 years, I learned pretty much no Chinese. I would vacillate between studying wildly in order to prove my teachers wrong to not doing my homework because it didn't matter, and there was social promotion anyways so I'd move up to the next level with my friends and still fail to learn Chinese. To this day, it's my only experience of being a "disadvantaged" minority, and my only experience of failing at scholarship, which I have otherwise historically excelled at.

Phoebe said...


I've definitely heard impostor-syndrome-ish sentiments expressed re: getting into grad school, although they tend to fade once the 'I get paid to read books' honeymoon stage is over.

I'm not sure, though, why there'd be such anxiety at a place like Harvard over why one was allowed in. Once in, even if in for silly reasons, the name itself, plus all kinds of internal fellowships and prizes people who did undergrad there tend to have on their resumes, will keep opening doors. So it's not, as I understand it, as if there's this pool of people who got into Harvard for idiosyncratic reasons, then fail at everything else in life.


Getting crap about your background is probably standard at schools that draw from a wide geographical pool and that hand-pick for diversity. I got all kinds of it at UChicago for being a New York Jew, some more blatantly racist than other. The 'I got to college and there was no one like me' narrative is really strong, and in my experience is a sentiment shared by almost all.

Miss Self-Important said...

No, they don't usually fail (although they do take a lot of "time off"). But isn't that the thing - getting in and not failing opens all these doors that could've been opened for someone else, maybe someone smarter or harder working who deserved it more, but instead you got these opportunities for perhaps something so insignificant as being from an unlikely state or having an older sibling who attended. But I should re-emphasize - not a major life problem for most people, who take what they can get without ever feeling much guilt that it maybe should've gone to someone else, like the A student who really knows it was a B paper but isn't going to go complain over it, and will soon probably forget that the grade wasn't deserved in the first place. Perhaps we might say Britta's comment is a case in point.

Britta: Well, actually, the idea behind the Atlantic article does seem to be that if you were A, you would've gotten X, Y, or Z. The issue is not who you are, deep down, as an individual snowflake with dreams and aspirations, etc. It's who you are as an applicant to a college, numerically scored in several categories, and thereby rendered comparable to similar snowflakes. So it's a moot point only insofar as Caryatis is presumably done w/ college and not planning to do it again. But the interesting thing about the Fisher case is that precisely a claim like Caryatis's is at stake, and evidently, it can be tested.

caryatis said...

You're both right. Britta's point is that we cannot know, from looking at an 18 year old college applicant, what she would have been like had she been born a different race, because her whole life would have been different.

MSI is saying that we can look at that 18 year old with a given GPA and SAT and estimate how her chances of being admitted to a certain school would rise or fall with a different race (assuming that we change her race _right before_ she applies, and it has no chance to affect anything about her life other than the application form). This can be done pretty accurately, and for some schools has been done.

Britta said...

caryatis, MSI,

Yes, that is true, except that it's kind of a pointless thought exercise, because no one really can change their race right before admissions, except by lying on there admissions form. There have also been studies showing that the effect of being black really does have a measurable negative effect on quantitative measures like test scores, which can be traced back almost solely to pressures to prove oneself against racist stereotypes. Given that, we might come up with other thought experiments, like, what would average test scores for African American candidates looked like if we corrected for the effect of racism? It may very well even out. Unless this is being done, quantitative studies aren't really revealing anything all that useful, at least from a knowledge perspective. And also, given the underrepresentation of blacks and Latinos at top schools, Affirmative Action seems like a red herring if we want to deal with inequality in who gets admitted to good schools.


Yeah, though there does (or did) seem to be quite a pervasive sense on the East Coast that high quality academics and culture isn't available outside the NE or CA, with maybe a few hotspots in top university towns. (This might have changed with the ridiculous media hype around my hometown.) I don't find this offensive so much as funny. It is true that I learned a lot about other sorts of stereotypes in college though, for example, that New Jersey has a particular reputation. (For my own provincial ignorance, before college I generally assumed that NE Waspiness extended down the coast to right above Florida, so there wouldn't be any cultural difference between, say, New Hampshire and New Jersey. I had no exposure to stereotypes about "white ethnics" outside of books on the history of racism in the US.) For me in college, I felt neither like I didn't belong nor like I had found "my people." The kids at college weren't terribly different from kids I went to high school with, academics also felt like a continuation of the same. The biggest difference was the culture shock of encountering mainstream American culture, after the quasi-hippy-Euro-alternative America bubble I'd grown up in. It was my first time in the suburbs, my first time shopping at big national chain stores like Target and Old Navy, and my first time listening to a popular radio station in a car. While many of the students at school were rebelling against that, my experience of college was about learning enough of mainstream culture to know what people were rebelling against.

joeo said...

I agree with this. The holistic admissions criteria also drives families crazy with extra-curiculars and other bullshit.