Equity & Diversity

What Makes Admissions Officers More Likely to Admit Low-Income Students?

By Catherine Gewertz — March 22, 2017 3 min read
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A newly published study shows that admission officers at selective colleges are more likely to offer spots to low-income students if they have a better understanding of the high schools those students attend.

The study suggests that a relatively simple intervention—providing additional details about the context from which a student comes—could increase representation of low-income students on college campuses. It found that when admission officers have more detailed information about low-income students’ schools, they’re 26 percent to 28 percent more likely to admit them.

Michael N. Bastedo, the director of the University of Michigan’s Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education, and Nicholas A. Bowman, the director of the University of Iowa’s Center for Research on Undergraduate Education, published their findings this month in the latest edition of the journal Educational Researcher. (An abstract is freely available, but the full report requires a subscription.)

The researchers hypothesized that “correspondence bias,” which they define as “the human tendency to attribute decisions to a person’s disposition or personality rather than to the situation in which the decision occurs,” could influence college admissions, and wanted to see if more information about students’ contexts—their schools—could offset that bias.

“Correspondence bias in college admissions could be reduced if admissions officers had easy access to relevant information about situational factors that are pertinent to applicants’ academic achievements,” the paper says.

In the study, 311 admission officers at 174 competitive higher education institutions were asked to review three applications, all from fictional white male students who planned to major in engineering. One such student was from a lower-income school, and the other two came from upper-middle-class schools, factors the admissions officers could deduce from two details included in their files: the graduation rate of their high schools and the educational attainment of their parents.

But half of the admission officers got a version of the files that had richer detail about the students’ high schools. They included details such as their college-enrollment rates, average SAT or ACT scores, the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals, whether Advanced Placement courses were available, and what proportion of students who took AP classes earn scores of 3 or higher.

The study sparked some lively conversation this week on a listserv that serves high school counselors and college admission officers. Peter Osgood, the director of admission at Harvey Mudd College, in Claremont, Calif., wrote that when he heard Bastedo make a presentation on the study recently, it struck a chord with him.

“The application can give us admission-application readers quite a lot of information, but it is what we don’t know that makes the selection process so subject to human foibles,” he wrote on the listserv.

The high schools with the lowest levels of resources are the ones that are least likely to create in-depth, detailed “school profiles” which accompany students’ college applications, he wrote. And the high student-to-counselor ratios at many high schools also make it unlikely that counselors can offer admission officers much insight or detail about “the family or personal challenges that individual students may have faced, or the context of the curricular offerings in the face of budget cuts, or any number of other helpful pieces of information.”

Jon Boeckenstedt, the associate vice president for enrollment management at DePaul University in Chicago, wrote in his listserv posting that the Bastedo/Bowman paper offers a timely warning to guard against the bias that too often puts low-income students at a disadvantage in the college-admission process. To illustrate his point, he told a story about comments he heard during a public presentation by a dean of admissions from a high-profile institution.

The dean—who Boeckenstedt didn’t name—said that his institution’s admissions office spent a lot of time looking for qualified low-income students, but that “at our institution, you have to be able to work independently on a project and write a substantial senior project, and there just aren’t enough low-income students who can do that type of work.”

Boeckenstedt was so shocked that he checked what he heard with several colleagues in the audience. They confirmed it. “What shocked me, beyond the preposterous lack of awareness, was the fact that this dean clearly felt so comfortable passing this tidbit on, as though it was not even subject to scrutiny,” he said in his listserv posting.

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.