Why Harvard and other elite universities should avoid a Tinder approach to student admissions

OiYan Poon says universities select students based on a range of criteria that takes into account their intended major, career interests and personal contexts, rather than just their test scores

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 October, 2018, 2:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 October, 2018, 2:43am

Impulsively swiping left or right on a dating app is just as limited in information and depth as only using test scores and high school grade point averages (GPAs) when selecting new students from a massive pool of super-talented applicants for admission at an elite university.

Edward Blum’s current lawsuits against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are seeking to force colleges to use just such a superficial approach to evaluate and admit college students who each individually bring diverse interests, talents and qualities to educational environments.

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The United States is filled with people who have different perspectives, values and experiences and who come from many unique places. The white immigrant and working-class Massachusetts suburb where I grew up is not the same as the predominantly white, rural Southern Illinois sundown town where my husband is from.

I am loud and quick to fight; he is strongly diplomatic. We’re both Asian-American, but our family contexts are different. My in-laws’ economic situation allowed them to send all three children to boarding schools. I attended my community’s under-resourced public high school.

Both sets of Asian immigrant parents, like other minority parents, cared deeply about education, but financial and social capital positioned us differently for elite college access. Nature and nurture shaped our interests, values and talents differently.

To be sure, people are unlikely to enter long-term relationships immediately after swiping left. They are probably getting to know each other after they match up for potential romance, learn more about each other and see whether a long-term and mutually beneficial relationship is on the cards. This is exactly how elite college admissions work. Colleges should not impulsively reject applicants based only on partial information.

Harvard accounts for varied personal contexts in understanding each student’s achievements through a “personal” rating, which does not include race. It encompasses, among other factors, intended major and career interests, hometown, school, family and community contexts of achievement. While some have raised concerns about a “personality test”, such a metric does not exist.

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Fighting the ability of educational institutions to understand each applicant, Blum wants us to pretend that all college applicants are the same and that students’ varied personal, childhood and educational contexts do not matter in shaping their talents, gifts and perspectives. He would have us believe that race and racism bear no significance in understanding young people’s life experiences, achievements, values and dispositions.

As a former admissions reader at the University of California, Davis, I once reviewed the application of the daughter of South Asian immigrants, who had lived in numerous foster homes, worked 35 hours a week, participated in an Upward Bound programme (a federally funded scheme to help students prepare for university entrance), took all four advanced placement classes available in her high school and wrote about a cross-cultural leadership project she coordinated in her school.

Her GPA and SAT score was almost the same as the next application file I read from a white student who completed five of the 15 advanced placement classes available in her high school, was captain of her tennis team and travelled around the world with her family every summer.

Each demonstrated their talents and potential for future achievement in different ways, given their unique personal circumstances, yet their SATs and GPAs were nearly the same. Race still mattered in shaping these two students’ educational contexts.

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Depending on personal backgrounds – the schools they attended, their activities and other life circumstances – the contexts of their life and learning experiences can offer fertile grounds for divergent forms of student achievement and demonstrate qualities that can contribute in important ways to educational environments.

Forcing colleges to pretend that tens of thousands of academically talented applicants’ are all the same and can be adequately and simply understood through a test score and high school GPA is as foolhardy as believing that swiping left or right on a dating app can immediately and reliably lead to a relationship that can enhance each partner’s life.

OiYan Poon, PhD, is assistant professor of higher education and director of the Centre for Racial Justice in Education and Research at Colorado State University. She is a co-author of an amicus brief filed in the SFFA v. Harvard case on behalf of 531 research experts on college access, race, and Asian Americans, supporting race-conscious college admissions