Thursday, June 27, 2013

A thought about admissions in institutions of higher educationn.

The affirmative action decision of the Supreme Court this week got me to thinking about admissions to institutions of higher learning. I dislike the idea of racial quotas because I dislike the idea that Americans can be easily divided into distinct groups by race. But I also think that admissions decisions are hard!

Clearly different institutions have different purposes and the admissions criteria should reflect the purpose of the admitting institution. I am a product of campuses of the University of California. It is a land grant university, and as such has an obligation to seek to achieve objectives of the federal government. It is also a state university, with an obligation to fulfill the objectives of the state government and population. It fits within a network that also includes private colleges and universities, state colleges, community colleges, and other institutions and thus must provide services complementary to those institutions.

The University of California seeks to achieve a balance among teaching, knowledge creation and organization, and service. As a research intensive set of campuses, it seeks to produce doctoral level graduates who will staff other institutions of higher education. Different campuses have different components of the UC system objectives: Davis focuses on agriculture, all have interest in providing services to the people in the portions of the state in which they are located.

The UC system charges different tuition for California students and students from other states, in part because the state government subsidizes tuition for students who will stay in state providing external benefits to the state in addition to the things for which they will be paid in their post college working lives. But, for that reason it seems to me that the university should seek to admit students who will produce needed services such as medical and nursing services and educational services. Moreover, it should seek students in such fields who will be choose to serve where they are most needed (rather than best paid). Class and ethnic origin may be useful in predicting which students will meet that criterion.

The system's teaching objective suggests that the student body should be balanced to provide a rich learning environment for its members. I think the enrollment of foreign students contributes to such an environment. I also buy the argument that a student body that is diverse in terms of ethnic and class origins; much of the educational experience in a university is achieved through discussions and the diversity often improves the discussion content.

I would note that kids who don't reach college with great secondary school preparation often benefit a great deal from university education and contribute more to society in their adult, post college working lives. The admission process should clearly seek to admit such students, giving them preference over students better prepared in high school who will benefit less from college and contribute less in the years following college. Sometimes this will look like giving preferences to ethnic minorities or the poor.

I also see a roll for a public university in seeking equity. Some kids are subject to prejudice through no fault of their own, and the state has a role in redressing the disadvantages to which they have been subjected. Indeed, the discrimination that kid's parents have suffered may affect the kids as well. Racial classifications are crude ways to measure such disadvantages, but may contribute some information for the admissions staff.

Of course a private university such as the Stanford or USC has a different calculus, as does a state college or a community college.

Clearly we want to hold admissions officials to a high standard of performance in balancing and implementing admissions criteria. It is hard to see how a single student who feels discriminated against can make a good judgement, and indeed there are few judges who have the background and experience in higher education administration to provide "strict scrutiny" of the admissions process. Perhaps peer review might work, in a process similar to the accreditation process.

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