Except for a constant parade of tourists, the Harvard University campus is quiet and uncrowded at this time of year. But that will change in a few weeks, with the arrival of the Class of 2017. It will be an extraordinarily exclusive club. For every applicant accepted by Harvard this year, 16 were turned down, resulting in a record-low admission rate of 5.8 per cent. Other universities in the exclusive Ivy League have equally low admission levels.
Sorting through the tens of thousands of applicants to these institutions is a high-stakes, complex and largely secretive process – and it is also one that the Institute for Public Policy Research’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education recently recommended that universities in the UK consider as a model for “recruiting and ‘crafting’ diverse and representative student intakes”. This, the commission said, would “ensure that students are educated not merely for individual advancement but also to be effective and responsible leaders with an understanding of an increasingly diverse society and interconnected world”.
But is the Ivy League admissions system as good as some claim it to be, and does it deserve to be emulated in the UK?
It is true that the Ivy League system appears to have successfully increased its member institutions’ racial diversity. The proportion of students who are non-white at most of these selective campuses, which cultivate the future leaders of civic and business life, outstrips the proportion of non-whites in the total population, and is also at a higher level than in most other US universities.
But disillusioned insiders and outside experts say that such confidence in the Ivy League, as a model of meritocracy and equity in admissions, may be misplaced and scepticism in the US is growing about its fairness.
“I don’t believe for a nanosecond that it’s meritocratic,” says Rachel Toor, a former admissions officer at selective Duke University in North Carolina and author of Admissions Confidential: An Insider’s Account of the Elite College Selection Process (2002).
Harvard researcher Michael Hurwitz, in his 2011 paper “The impact of legacy status on undergraduate admissions at elite colleges and universities”, showed that wealth and connections as well as race still heavily influence admissions decisions at the US’ top institutions. For example, the offspring of alumni, known as legacies, enjoy a 45-percentage-point increase in their probability of admission compared with those who lack personal connections.
The children of donors who gave at least $1 million (£654,800) to Harvard were five times more likely to be accepted than other applicants, the journalist Daniel Golden reported in his 2006 book The Price of Admission. Students who are athletes also get disproportionate preference in admissions.
You want a diverse group, where students can benefit from their classmates’ different backgrounds, something we in the UK have been slow to adopt. It’s very American
Figures also suggest that black and Hispanic students may be more likely to be accepted with credentials lower than those of white students who are turned down, but Asian students are less likely to be admitted despite their qualifications.
In the US, competition in education starts early. Wealthy parents fight to gain places for their toddlers in the top kindergartens, and that early advantage is consolidated for students whose parents can afford to send them to elite private primary and secondary schools or enrol them in expensive test-preparation or tutoring programmes. Some parents have even been caught paying bright students to take the SAT university entrance examination in place of their own children.
Meanwhile, the proportion of students on elite university campuses who come from low-income families remains comparatively small.
“It’s not a perfect process, because it is subjective,” says Katherine Cohen, founder and chief executive of the university admission counselling service IvyWise, a former undergraduate admissions officer at Yale University and author of a book about admissions called The Truth about Getting In (2002).
“You’re dealing with people. Applicants are people, and admissions officers are people – and they’re making judgements. It’s an imperfect process, yet it’s as good as it gets right now with the information they have.”
Given the huge demand for and the limited number of places at elite universities, Cohen asks: “How do you cut that down? They could compose two fabulous freshman classes from the ‘denied’ pile. The question then becomes: who are we inviting to our campus, and who has the potential to make an impact on the world?”
Entrance test scores and high school grades alone do not help much in this regard: the mostly highly qualified students who apply to selective universities all succeed on this score. So admissions offices consider “soft factors” that an academic profile might not show.
These include recommendations from teachers and secondary school advisers, personal essays, extracurricular activities, leadership potential, outside interests and performance in interviews conducted by admissions officers or alumni deputised to meet with applicants.
“They’re trying to get a sense of how you might fit in,” Cohen says. “They don’t want a kid who plays video games all day long and has no social skills.”
The universities also dig deeply into students’ backgrounds – whether they are the first in their families to apply to college, for example, what their parents do and their ethnicity. “Just from looking at the first page of the application, you can learn so much about a student before you even look at a transcript or test scores or essays,” Cohen says.
Jacques Steinberg, senior vice-president for higher education at Say Yes to Education, a non-profit organisation that encourages students in low-income school districts to apply to university, explains that for most of these institutions there is no minimum entry qualification and that, he thinks, is admirable. “We shouldn’t define merit as a cut-off score on a standardised test. You look at other variables, such as how hard were the courses in that high school; what were [their] grades. All those things are part of the mix.”
Top universities also reach out and recruit rather than simply waiting for the best applicants to come to them. “Recruitment has to be part of that model,” Steinberg says. “A lot of them spend a lot of time…on the road, and there are a lot of organisations like ours that are trying to work with the colleges to help identify good students.”
Janet Graham, director of Supporting Professionalism in Admissions and former head of the admissions office at the University of Cambridge, recognises this as a worthy feature of the US admissions system.
“You want a diverse group, where the students can benefit from the different backgrounds that their classmates come from, and that’s something we’ve been slow to adopt in this country,” Graham says. “It’s something that’s very American. You’re admitting them to get a good educational experience, and that doesn’t mean being educated with people who are exactly the same as you.”
As for the Ivy League system in general, however, she says: “There might be some good elements of it, but the model is so different, and so is the cultural and legal framework. It’s useful to discuss when we have similar issues, but we might come up with very different answers.”
US university applicants are not required to disclose their race, but students from ethnic minorities know that it is usually in their interests to do so, and admissions officers can often glean it from other clues if they do not.
Research by the Century Foundation, a non-partisan thinktank, shows that the representation of black and Hispanic students at elite universities is three times higher (at about 12 per cent of total enrolment) than the 4 per cent it would be if race had not been a consideration.
Concerted efforts on the part of institutions have resulted in an admirable level of racial diversity on top campuses. In a nation that is 28 per cent non-white, according to the US Census Bureau, the 2011 enrolment of non-white undergraduates at Columbia University was 48 per cent, at Harvard about 45 per cent, at Dartmouth College and the University of Pennsylvania 44 per cent, at Princeton University 38 per cent and at Yale 36 per cent, the institutions report. Although exact comparisons are not possible because of changes in reporting requirements, all of these numbers appear to be increases over previous years. In 2011, the proportion of non-white students at universities nationwide was 39.5 per cent, up from about 32 per cent in 2000, according to the US Department of Education.
The Ivy League institutions have done a laudable job of improving ethnic diversity, says Mike Reilly, executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, who has consulted with the European Association for International Education.
Based on their parents, some may get preferential treatment. That would be a terrible model to follow. It’s a deeply un-American notion and also, ironically, a uniquely American practice
“When we first spoke with [the EAIE] we asked: ‘How many of you are trying to enrol an ethnically diverse student body?’ ” Reilly recalls. “Nobody in the room raised a hand. If you asked that question in the US, almost everybody would say: ‘Yes, that’s one of our goals.’ ”
On the other hand, Asians appear to be accepted for entry at elite and other institutions at lower levels than their share of the applicant pool, perhaps because of a view that they might otherwise be over-represented on campuses. Asian students, as a group, have higher than average entrance examination scores and secondary school grades. In the University of California system, which has a race-blind admissions process, the percentage of students who are Asian-American has soared to as much as 50 per cent on some campuses.
To avoid any over-representation, elite institutions make it harder for Asians than for would-be students from other ethnic minorities to get in, Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade and researcher Alexandria Walton Radford reported in their 2009 book No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life. They calculated that Asian-Americans needed what were, at the time they made their estimates, near-perfect SAT scores of 1,550 to have the same chance of gaining entry to a top private university as whites who scored 1,410 and blacks who got 1,100. (The test’s scoring structure has since changed.) Whites were three times, Hispanics six times and blacks more than 15 times more likely than Asian-Americans to be accepted at a US university.
Of course, a cohort that is diverse in ethnic background does not necessarily equate to one that is diverse in terms of social class. “Not all under-represented minority students are low income and not all low-income people are under-represented minorities, so it’s a poor proxy for actual economic disadvantage,” argues Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and the author of Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions (2010). He found that 86 per cent of black students admitted to selective universities are from the middle or upper classes.
Nine out of 10 children whose parents are among the nation’s richest 25 per cent go to university, compared with six out of 10 from families that are among the poorest, the Century Foundation has reported. And at the US’ 146 most selective institutions, the foundation reports, 74 per cent of students come from the top income bracket, and only 3 per cent from the bottom, meaning that the wealthy are 25 times more likely than the poor to attend these places.
The gap between the proportion of rich and poor students who earned a degree at any US university has grown from 31 percentage points to 45 points in 30 years, an analysis by the Brookings Institution found last year.
Relatively small percentages of students at Ivy League and other elite universities receive Pell Grants, which go to students from low-income families and are generally used to track socio-economic diversity. According to 2011 figures published in the US media, just 12 per cent of students at Princeton receive Pell Grants, 13 per cent at the University of Pennsylvania, 14 per cent at Yale, 15 per cent at Columbia and at Brown, and about 17 per cent at Harvard.
These numbers have been rising slowly – Harvard says the number of its Pell recipients is up by 81 per cent since 2004, when it began a drive to increase it – but more because of public pressure than government mandate. With huge numbers of talented but poor students failing to go to university at all, and with growing concern about keeping up with the demand for university-educated workers, several US advocacy organisations are launching initiatives to increase the number who enrol.
This issue is now receiving so much attention that a study due to be published this summer in the Harvard Law & Policy Review suggests using socio-economic status instead of race to diversify enrolment. It cites a programme at the University of Colorado at Boulder that took more account of income in the admissions process by using a “disadvantage index” and an “overachievement index”. This expanded the economic diversity of the student body without sacrificing racial diversity.
“It’s about identifying promise as much as anything,” Toor says. “How do you identify promise? And how do you separate that from privilege?”
Other factors that elite university admissions officials reportedly consider are less altruistic. Early-admission programmes (which allow candidates to apply early for admission to an institution on the condition that they enrol if accepted) had been dropped by several Ivy League universities on the grounds of being unfair. However, they have been reinstated at some in response to competitive pressures. These benefit wealthy students by giving them access to sophisticated counselling. And the so-called test-prep sector in the US has grown into a $5 billion-a-year industry.
Based on who their parents are, would‑be students may be afforded a large degree of preferential treatment in the admissions process, Kahlenberg says. “That would be a terrible model to follow. It’s a deeply un-American notion and also, ironically, a uniquely American practice.”
But Cohen, the consultant, points out that top universities are not conducting “social engineering”. They are assembling classes of people who fit well together, with a good mix of skills and interests.
“Institutions have their own needs,” Cohen says. “They have to fill their sports teams.” They also have to cater to contributors and alumni. “They are going to do their best to fulfil these needs and assemble a diverse group of individuals who are going to have the potential of future success.”
Steinberg says it might not be possible to craft an admissions process that is completely impartial.
“Any dean of admissions who is being honest with you would never describe this process as fair,” he says. “These institutions are private and they set their own priorities.”
And for that reason, Reilly says: “If you’re trying to provide access to all and get rid of disparities, I don’t think the Ivy model is one I would choose. That’s not what its purpose is.”