Behind The Curtain Of College Admissions, Fairness May Not Be Priority No. 1 : NPR Ed A discrimination complaint against Harvard has renewed focus on the fairness of admissions decisions. The process must be rational, says counselor and blogger Jim Jump, but it's not often fair.
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Behind The Curtain Of College Admissions, Fairness May Not Be Priority No. 1

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Behind The Curtain Of College Admissions, Fairness May Not Be Priority No. 1

Behind The Curtain Of College Admissions, Fairness May Not Be Priority No. 1

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

Asian-American students say they have to work harder than other groups to gain admission to Harvard, so they filed a complaint with the federal government. Colleges have been struggling for decades to find a way to maintain a diverse student body without discriminating against particular groups. Jim Jump is a former president of the National Association of College Admissions Counseling. He also writes about ethical college admissions. I put the question to him. Do Asian-American applicants face an unlevel playing field?

JIM JUMP: I haven't necessarily seen that. I think, in general, what I see is that with any talent or quality, the more that there is, the less valuable it becomes in the admissions process where the rarer something is, the more valuable it is. So, you know, if - a student who looks like lots of other students - that probably works against you in a selective admissions process where uniqueness is one of the things that makes you stand out. That's what I see, is that uniqueness is kind of the hidden currency of college admissions.

RATH: The Supreme Court ruled that while racial diversity - it's a valuable goal, a noble goal for colleges and universities - admissions should try to be race-neutral. Can you talk about how that has changed how colleges look at who they admit?

JUMP: I think colleges are trying to be more holistic in how they admit students, not looking at any particular factor. And that, actually, can be frustrating for families and students who want to know what does it take to get in. And in a highly selective environment, there are lots of really qualified people who aren't going to get in. I think racial diversity and other kinds of diversity are part of what colleges look for as they put together a class. So the admissions process is really, at most institutions, about building a class full of differences rather than admitting a bunch of individuals.

RATH: And can you talk about how much emphasis there is right now on - there are these factors that are harder to quantify - things like leadership or perseverance, you know, as opposed to something like test scores where it's clear what you're talking about. How do things like that work in?

JUMP: I think that is actually one of the things that is changing right now about the process. I think everyone recognizes that some of the predictors of success for students are non-cognitive. You know, grit is the word that is commonly used that has to do with motivation and persistence and some of those other personal qualities. I think everybody knows those things are important. I think what we're trying to figure out is how do you measure those things successfully?

RATH: Well - and to that point, you know, since these things are subjective and diversity is subjective, is there a way to get this right without discriminating against someone?

JUMP: Well, whether discriminating's the right word, I think the longtime dean of admissions at Harvard, Bill Fitzsimmons - I heard him speak once here in Richmond, and he said, you know, the admissions process is eminently rational. It's just not fair. And what he meant by that is, you know, institutions choose based on what their institutional needs are, and they're not necessarily going to be fair to every individual because they can't pick every individual.

RATH: Based on your past with the National Association of College Admissions Counseling - it just seems like for the longest time, people have been making, you know, at least a good-faith effort to get diversity right in colleges. When you're on the ground there, does it feel like you can ever figure this out in a way that seems, again, fair to everybody?

JUMP: I think that's going to be an ongoing challenge because as you - when it comes to the admissions process, you are trying to weigh a number of factors, some of which are - for a lot of applicants, is that the college admissions process tends to reward privilege. You know, if you look at things like SAT scores, they correlate very highly with socioeconomic advantage. So you're dealing with trying to equate people who've grown up in different backgrounds who bring different strengths to the table. I'm not sure we'll ever get it right perfectly. It is more an art than a science.

RATH: Jim Jump is currently the academic dean and director of guidance at the St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Va. Jim, thanks very much.

JUMP: Thanks for having me.

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