Long before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the consideration of race in admissions for colleges and universities, the admission process for highly selective schools was inequitable.
Over the last 10 years, more institutions have relied on what admission experts call a “holistic review” whereby selective schools could use personal essays, letters of recommendation, and lists of extracurricular activities to choose among applicants with near identical GPAs or test scores. Up until now, race was another factor these schools could look at, especially when deciding on how to build a diverse incoming freshman class.
Yet these various application components aren’t equally accessible in K-12 schools nationwide. Not all schools, for instance, offer all Advanced Placement courses, and not all students are tracked toward those courses, experts said. And some schools have high teacher turnover, which makes getting a high-quality letter of recommendation difficult.
“The current admissions system is not optimally designed for equity,” said David Hawkins, the chief education and policy officer for the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
With race-conscious admission strategies now legally off the table, college admission experts shared their thoughts with Education Week on what it takes to get into highly selective schools—especially for students from underrepresented groups—and what K-12 educators can do as they prepare the next generation for college.
The college admissions process as it stands
When discussing college admission processes, schools tend to fall into two camps.
The majority of schools, which include two-year community colleges and most four-year colleges, are very open in their admissions.
In the fall of 2021, four-year, not-for-profit colleges accepted 73 percent of applications from first-year students, on average, according to NACAC. For the past 20 years, the average acceptance rate for four-year colleges has not dropped below 63 percent.
How students performed in high school is the single most important factor that these colleges evaluate, said Hawkins.
“They just want to see a student who has done reasonably well in high school—perhaps, if they struggled at first, that their trajectory has started to trend upward,” he said.
Then there are the more selective colleges and universities, which include schools such as Harvard University and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, both of which were named defendants in the Supreme Court cases decided on in June that overturned their respective race-conscious admission policies.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill admitted about 16.8 percent of its applicants for the class of 2026. Harvard admitted about 3.2 percent.
Nat Smitobol, an admissions counselor with IvyWise, a for-profit college admission consulting firm, says Harvard’s selectivity is a conscious business decision.
Over the years, colleges have become more and more like businesses that must maintain a market position by being more selective. The holistic review has been a major marketing tool to encourage as many students as possible to apply, knowing that a large percentage of students have no chance of being admitted, Smitobol said.
It’s not that a lot of students are incapable of succeeding at selective schools, and therefore are rejected. It’s that the business model requires only selecting a few students from large pools to maintain a selective standing, Smitobol said. Part of the business model also includes admitting both legacy students and students from affluent families that can pay full tuition and even donate to the school.
What holistic review entails
When selective schools must narrow down whom they admit, they typically follow a two-step plan.
First, a college looks at what it needs. That could be students to fill the chemistry department, perform in the symphony orchestra, play on the football team, and more, Hawkins said.
Then the college starts evaluating applicants against each other or against their objectives. For instance, two students may have identical GPAs and perhaps even similar test scores from the same Advanced Placement courses. That’s when an admission officer would look at their personal essays and counselor recommendations, and even demographic information including race and ethnicity, gender, and geographic location.
Over the last decade, more selective institutions have used the Common Application, through which individual schools can customize what information they seek from students that goes beyond their academic transcripts, said Brian Kim, a senior data scientist for the Common Application, a not-for-profit member organization.
Common App member institutions can select whether to request a standard personal essay. They typically require counselor recommendations in which school counselors fill out information about the student, give information about the school, provide information about the student’s academic standing, as well as offer their insights on characteristics such as a student’s intellectual promise and the quality of their writing, Kim said.
Members can also ask additional short answer essay questions to get even more nuanced information from students.
Colleges that are more selective tend to place more emphasis on these variables in the application than larger, public, less selective colleges, Hawkins said.
While these requirements do allow for a fuller picture of what a student could offer a school, they can also create additional barriers that prevent some underrepresented students from applying.
How inequities in K-12 play out when applying to college
Admission officers have been aware of inequities in K-12 education for some time.
Individual officers, for instance, may not hold it against a student if they only took two AP courses whereas another applicant took five, if a given school only offered two courses, Hawkins said. They are also aware of growing research pointing out how students of color more often attend schools with high teacher turnover and more early career teachers, which could all impact their ability to procure deeply researched letters of recommendation.
Letters of recommendation in particular have become more important to selective schools following the coronavirus pandemic when there was a tremendous amount of grade inflation, Smitobol said. Schools where only 5 percent of a graduating class had a 4.0 GPA or above pre-pandemic suddenly had 35 percent of students graduating with such high GPAs. Letters of recommendation helped contextualize this.
But not all letters of recommendation are created equal.
At a private school, a given college counselor may need to write 23 letters of recommendation, while at a public school that can be closer to 500, Smitobol said.
Teachers from private schools may also have more insight into what admission officers from competitive colleges are looking for in letters of recommendation, down to specific language and phrasing, Kim said.
And therein lies the problem, he said.
Students from private schools and wealthier public schools have access to more opportunities—whether through advanced coursework, a greater array of extracurricular activities, or greater access to experienced educators—that help them meet the expectations of selective institutions using holistic reviews.
“When you look at admissions, from a systemic point of view, it’s clear that students who are in advantaged high schools or privileged high schools present a lot differently to admissions officers,” Hawkins said.
The future of college admissions after affirmative action
For economic researchers, such as Anthony Carnevale, the question of equitable college admissions matters in that the majority of well paying jobs now go to individuals who pursue post-secondary education and obtain a bachelor’s degree or higher.
In the 1970s, most of the good jobs in the economy went to high school graduates, said Carnevale, director and research professor at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Following the 1981-82 recession, access to post-secondary education became the most well traveled pathway to the American middle class.
Job projections for 2031 say that 40 percent of jobs will go to people with at least a bachelor’s degree; 30 percent will go to people with middle skills, such as a two-year degree or some kind of certificate; and about 30 percent will go to high school graduates, Carnevale said.
But 75 percent of jobs available for those with bachelor’s degrees or higher will be well paying jobs, compared with 10 percent of the jobs available to high school graduates.
Prior to the June Supreme Court ruling on race in college admissions, various organizations including NACAC were already looking into how to tweak or even reinvent the selective admission process to make it more equitable.
That includes perhaps putting more weight on performance assessments to demonstrate a student’s academic progress rather than a set letter grade on a transcript, Hawkins said.
Experts say it’s too early to tell exactly how the Supreme Court ruling will impact the admission process in the long run. One possibility is that college admission offices will consult with students, particularly low-income students, to understand how colleges need to design outreach, communications, and processes to better serve them, Hawkins said.
For now, beginning on August 1, Common App members can choose whether to receive applicants’ race and ethnicity data, according to the company.
Even with the uncertainty for applications this coming school year, experts said there are some things K-12 educators can explore to support their students.
Teachers should be preparing students to be outside of their comfort zone, and strengthen their social-emotional and executive function skills which colleges are increasingly looking for, Smitobol with IvyWise said.
More K-12 educators, particularly those working in secondary schools, should also build connections with college admission officers to both be better informed of what applications require, but also to inform admission officers about their school’s context, Hawkins said.
“K-12 is doing a lot of really interesting things that admissions officers need to know about,” he said.
And those who are advising students on post-secondary pathways should fight against the forces discouraging students from applying for colleges and universities in the wake of the court ruling, as higher education institutions remain committed to equity, diversity, and inclusion, Hawkins said.
Coverage of strategies for advancing the opportunities for students most in need, including those from low-income families and communities, is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonk12.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the August 16, 2023 edition of Education Week as College Admission Post-Affirmative Action: What Educators Need to Know