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The College Admissions ‘Match’ Game: Should Preference Play Role in the Process?

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EWA held its annual Higher Education Seminar recently at Boston’s Northeastern University. We invited some of the education journalists in attendance to contribute posts from the sessions. Today’s guest blogger is Brian McVicar of the Grand Rapids Press. For more content from the seminar, including stories, podcasts, video, check out EdMedia Commons

Listen to the podcast of this session.

As demographic shifts change the size – and racial profile – of high school graduation classes, one debate in higher education will continue to swirl: Do the admission processes at colleges and universities promote diversity?

It was a question tackled during “Getting In: The Debate Continues,” one of several panels at EWA’s 2013 Higher Education Seminar last month at Northeastern University which examined what demographic changes mean for colleges and universities.

The panelists said a variety of factors affect whether minority and low-income students apply and are admitted to college, including whether help is available for filling out the Free Application for Student Aid and whether high-achieving minority students are even being encouraged to apply to selective colleges.

Richard Perez-Pena, a reporter at the New York Times who served as moderator of the panel, recalled a group of students in California, who, without the assistance of professionals, wouldn’t have been able to fill out the FASA, a prerequisite for student aid. “If there weren’t professionals there doing the FASFA with them, that’s it, they’re done,” he said. “It wasn’t just a hurdle, it was a mountain.”

Other admissions issues reporters should be aware of are the legal challenges to race-based admissions policies. As these cases make their way through the courts, reporters should investigate how the colleges and universities they cover are approaching race-based admissions.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 7-1 to send Fisher v. University of Texas back down to a federal appeals court. The case focused on the University of Texas’ practice of using race as one of many factors in its admissions policy, in addition to a policy that already offers admission to students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school class. In their decision, justices stopped short of weighing-in on affirmative action, instead saying the lower court hadn’t subjected the university’s justification for the use of race to enough scrutiny.

One idea that has gained popularity in recent years is using class instead of race in admissions. But Jeff Strohl, director of research at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, said reporters should be skeptical of such an approach, arguing that income is not a proxy for race. “By all of our key factors of predicting educational attainment and outcomes, race matters,” Strohl said.

He also told reporters to be aware of how “undermatching” affects students in their communities. Undermatching occurs when high-achieving minority students fail to apply to selective college and universities, and it matters because minority students are more likely to graduate in a timely manner at a prestigious school, Strohl said. “This matters, and it matters in every one of your local communities,” he said.

Matt Gaertner, a research scientist at the Center for College and Career Success at Pearson, encouraged reporters to look at whether a school’s admission policies actually support its stated mission. “What are your intended outcomes, what are you trying to achieve,” he said. “Some schools are going to be trying to boost socioeconomic diversity. Other schools are going to be trying to maintain racial diversity in the event of a ban on affirmative action.”

Another panelist said context matters when analyzing admissions policies. Stella Flores, an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University Peabody College of Education and Human Development, said the impact of admissions policies will differ based upon states’ income and poverty levels. “How might that process look in Mississippi, how might that process look in Alabama, how might that process look in Massachusetts?” she asked. Good questions for reporters to ask.

Have a question, comment or concern for the Educated Reporter? Email EWA public editor Emily Richmond at Follow her on Twitter: @EWAEmily.