The biggest problem with the “holistic admissions” trend that so many colleges are advocating today is that no one knows precisely what goes on behind the scenes. This is because the principle behind the idea is so vague, and so varied from school to school, that it is nearly impossible to identify a concrete definition amidst the sea of fanciful language that is intended to disguise some ugly methodology.
We know that ‘holistic’ is defined as that which relates to “wholes or complete systems” rather than individual parts. We also know that the guiding principle behind holism in the academic admissions process involves looking at an applicant from a comprehensive vantage point instead of judging him or her based on a single criterion, such as GPA or SAT/ACT scores.
At first glance, this seems pretty reasonable— ideal, even. Some students do not test well, while others find that their talents lie decidedly outside the realm of crafting the Perfect Admissions Essay that, if written in the mid-19th century, would have made Emerson himself cry tears of literary ecstasy. Under holistic admissions, each student gets to showcase his or her greatest strengths regardless of where those strengths might lie.
The word “holistic” is explicitly mentioned on the admissions websites for almost all of the nation’s top tier universities, including Stanford, Amherst, Williams, and each of the Ivies. The following can be found on admission.princeton.edu:
“The University’s admission process involves a holistic review of each applicant’s entire file. No particular factor is assigned a fixed weight; rather, the process involves a highly individualized assessment of the applicant’s talents, achievements and his or her potential to contribute to learning at Princeton.”
Before jumping on the pro-holistic admissions bandwagon, it is necessary to consider the mal-effects that inevitably arise when the doors to the admissions office are sealed from the public. While the “highly individualized assessment” aspect of holistic admissions allows for a student’s background, personal triumphs, unique talents, and writing ability to be taken into account, it also gives universities the disturbing power to judge applicants based upon number of discriminatory factors, including race, money, and connections.
According to former University of Pennsylvania admissions officer Sara Haberson, it is not uncommon for a rejection letter to be completely unrelated to concrete measures of judgment like high school grades and standardized test scores. Rather, some applicants are rejected on the grounds that their application does not have a “tag,” or a form of identification that signals high priority.
In her LA Times Op-ed entitled, “The truth about ‘holistic’ college admissions,” Haberson writes, “Typically students with tags are recruited athletes, children of alumni, children of donors or potential donors, or students who are connected to the well connected.”
This means that some groups of students are more likely than others to be exposed to subjective bias in the admissions process. In Haberson’s experience, the applications of Asian Americans are, more often than not, untagged.
“Asian Americans are rarely children of alumni at the Ivies, for example. There aren’t as many recruited athletes coming from the Asian American applicant pool. Nor are they typically earmarked as ‘actual’ or ‘potential’ donors. They simply don’t have long-standing connections to these institutions.”
Contrary to the information that they release publicly, universities are often all too aware of racial and gender percentages when “sculpting” the makeup of their student body. While it is taboo to use the word “quota” these days, racial stereotyping remains a heavily-weighted factor under the guise of holistic admissions.
On May 15, a coalition of 64 organizations filed an official complaint against Harvard University, which accused the institution of bias against Asian Americans.
The coalition cited third party academic research in claiming that Asian Americans must have an SAT score that is approximately 140 points higher than white students, 270 points higher than Hispanic students, and 450 points higher than African American students in order to gain admission to Harvard.
This resonates with Haberson’s piece: “There’s an expectation that Asian Americans will be the highest scorers and at the top of their class; anything less can become an easy reason for denial.”
The coalition, which filed its complaint with the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, is hoping to spark a federal investigation. The complaint itself openly correlates Harvard’s alleged racial bias with the school’s holistic admissions system:
“Many studies have indicated that Harvard University has been engaged in systemic and continuous discrimination against Asian-Americans during its very subjective ‘holistic’ college admissions process.”
In a written response to the complaint, Robert W. Iuliano, Harvard’s Senior Vice President and General Counsel, says that Harvard stands by its holistic admissions policy, for in addition to being “fully compliant with the law,” the policy also fosters a “vibrant academic community that exposes students to a wide-range of differences: background, ideas, experiences, talents and aspirations.”
Now, if you take a look at the Admissions Statistics for the Harvard Class of 2018, 20% of admitted students are Asian, which is significantly larger than the Hispanic or Latino (13%), African American (12%), and Native American or Pacific Islander (2%) admission percentages. In 1992, 19.1% of Harvard’s acceptance offers went to Asian American students. Without any dramatic fluctuations within the last two decades to affirm the alleged bias, it is rather unreasonable to clamor for an increase in the Asian Americans acceptance rate.
A recent commentary by Jason L. Riley in The Wall Street Journal names Asian Americans as the “new Jews” of Harvard Admissions: “Asian Americans are rebelling over evidence that they are held to a much higher standard, but elite colleges deny using quotas.”
In likening one group of potentially discriminated students to another in years past, Riley implies that the heart of the issue transcends both Harvard and Asian Americans. In other words, the problem is greater than any specific university or demographic. If the concerns of Haberson and the coalition do in fact prove to be substantially true, the trouble lies not with Harvard, but with a system that leaves room for potential discrimination based on race, religion, and gender. Whether or not this sort of subjective bias is the norm under holistic admissions, the fact that it exists at all is enough evidence to re-open the national dialogue regarding affirmative action in higher education.