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The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Adjusting for disadvantage - college admissions

Andrew Gelman has a couple of thoughtful posts - here and here - on the tricky problem of levelling the playing field for college admissions. It's been quite a while since I  was involved in undergraduate admissions but when I  did it at another place I felt  the pressure to admit students that were, relatively speaking,  not academically well qualified,  because they possessed, from the point of view of administrative "targets", other  qualities. I also seem to remember that the institution on several occasions publicly denied that such targets existed which I found curious given the memos I would receive telling me that I had not admitted sufficient numbers of students from access courses or from certain postcode types. It was also striking that certain departments were singled out for the hard sell. Nobody would have dreamed of telling, for instance, the Economics department, who they should admit, but Sociology, Social Policy and other soft subjects were thought to be fair game. 
What I always struggled with was the seemingly vacuous idea of "potential". I was always being told that I should see beyond the mediocre academic performance to the potential that in some, usually unspecified, way could compensate for actual achievement. I genuinely wished I could,  but nobody ever took the time to explain to me how the trick worked. The more I looked at it the more "potential" seemed to me to be a softhearted and occasionally softbrained way of doing whatever you liked and feeling smug about it.
That's why I like the look of Andrew's suggestions much more than the shabby fudges I remember. What it amounts to is running a handicap race with weights for the sorts of things that give known advantages to those with deep pocket books. We do it in horse racing and golf so why not in college admissions? And nobody's freedom is infringed. You can still spend your money on private education, its just that your kids have to do even better in order to benefit. It's a neat reversal of the usual formula whereby kids from disadvantaged backgrounds typically have to show more merit than their advantaged peers in order to achieve equivalent results.

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