College Admissions Will Never Be Fair

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Some parents will do anything to get their kids into the college of their dreams. They think it’s totally normal to spend thousands of dollars on tutors, SAT prep and college-essay advisors, and to use whatever influence they have to get an edge. In some circles, not trying to game the system is even seen as parental failure.

Understandable as such behavior may be, it also works against one of the primary purposes of education and college in particular: to improve the lot of kids who aren’t lucky enough to have rich and influential parents. So how do we strike a better balance? How do we build a system that fosters social mobility while accepting the reality of parental gaming?

It’s an issue that has sparked some heated debates. In a recent lawsuit, an organization called Students for Fair Admissions excoriates Harvard for bias against Asian applicants. It claims that “an Asian-American applicant with 25% chance of admission, for example, would have a 35% chance if he were white, 75% if he were Hispanic, and 95% chance if he were African-American.”

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to reform the specialized high school system, where less than a tenth of slots went to the blacks and Latinos who comprise two-thirds of the city’s student population. He sees one culprit in the admissions exam, known as the SHSAT, which parents strive to game by subjecting their kids to months of expensive test prep courses.

(Full disclosure: Two of my three white sons are in specialized New York City high schools — and they attended an elite Columbia University primary school that helped them get there.)

Colleges are increasingly souring on standardized admissions tests: Some 180 no longer require an SAT score, for example. Once seen as an important leveler, scores on such tests actually correlate quite strongly with family income (and, of course, ability to pay for test prep). This renders them not particularly useful for schools hoping to diversify student bodies.

So how can schools assess applicants? There’s no general agreement about what makes one candidate more qualified than another. Supporters of the Harvard suit dismiss “personal ratings,” which are subjective and probably do enable anti-Asian prejudice. But let’s face it, no measures are truly objective. SATs, GPAs, extracurricular ratings — they’re all prone to bias.

I’d suggest thinking more systematically about the longer-term mission of education, and how to create incentives to fulfill it. Perhaps parents’ urge to game the system can even be turned to its advantage.

Consider the University of Texas at Austin, the state’s top public education institution. It automatically admits all Texas students who graduate in the top 6 percent of their high school class — irrespective of the school’s location or reputation. As a result, some poorly prepared kids inevitably take the places of “better qualified” students. But the system fulfills the broader goal of promoting social mobility, by providing a subsidized education for all students willing to make the effort.

This approach creates some interesting incentives. Given the stiff competition to make it into the 6 percent in the most privileged neighborhoods, gaming-inclined parents might move elsewhere. (Just imagine what would happen in New York City.) This, in turn, promotes economic and racial diversity — exactly the opposite of the tendency toward segregation that we’re seeing now. The average local middle school would likely be better off.

There are other ways to make good schools accessible to everyone — and we should try them. Education shouldn’t be a competition with only a few predetermined winners.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.