Inside Higher Ed reports this morning (April 9) about a new study of "holistic" admissions at selective institutions by Rachel Rubin, a doctoral student at the Harvard School of Education, that will be presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association later this week. Her study confirms, albeit reluctantly, what you already suspected: that "holistic review," at least where race is concerned, is mainly hokum.
In a survey of the 75 most competitive institutions (63 responded) and follow-up interviews Rubin found that most look first at academic qualifications but a minority -- mainly liberal arts colleges and the most selective universities -- put a higher priority "on issues of 'fit,'" an approach that favors "those who are members of minority groups" and those who can pay their own way. Of those institutions that emphasize "institutional fit" (21%), "Underrepresented race/ethnicity" and "Exceptional talent" were tied as the most important factors (42%, compared to 7% for athletic status, the next most important).
It will come as no surprise to anyone with even a passing acquaintance with college admissions practices that "holistic review" is little more than rhetorical camouflage to cover racial preferences. Just as early in the 20th century the Ivy League turned to "character" and "fit" as fuzzy admissions concepts to limit the number of Jews, today's selective institutions adopt "holistic review" as a way to limit the number of Asians and increase the number of blacks and Hispanics, a process that is all but universally celebrated in the mainstream press (see, for example, Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker, discussed here, and David Leonhardt in the New York Times Magazine, discussed here).
Simply Disguising Preferences
Evidence -- such as Prof. Tim Groseclose's devastating 89 page report on the illicit use of race at UCLA, discussed here -- has long been available demonstrating that "holistic review" allows institutions to disguise the preference (illegal in California and several other states) they award based on race and ethnicity. Rubin's recent study, however, does more than confirm that knowledge; it also highlights a common practice that is illegal everywhere, not just in states like California and Michigan that have banned racial preference -- a practice, Inside Higher Ed notes, that might be of interest to the Supreme Court when it considers affirmative action in the Fisher case next fall.
"When an applicant ... is part of a severely underrepresented group at the institution," Rubin writes,
the applicant may not compete for admission against the larger applicant pool. Instead, he/she may compete only among those with the same talent or within the same group. In these circumstances, sets of applications are considered separately based on a university's institutional needs. As a result, disparities may arise between the levels of academic merit of certain subgroups of students.
This practice was specifically outlawed in 1991, at least in employment, when Title VII of the Civil Rights Act was amended to prohibit "race norming." As explained by the EEOC in its compliance manual, "race norming occurs where an employer uses different 'passing' scores or adjusts scores for a particular protected class."
Indeed, race norming is so far beyond the pale that even Justice O'Connor couldn't stomach it, writing in her majority opinion in Grutter (quoting Justice Powell in Bakke) that it amounted to a quota. "To be narrowly tailored," she held, "a race-conscious admissions program cannot use a quota system -- it cannot "insulat[e] each category of applicants with certain desired qualifications from competition with all other applicants."
Despite the fact that race norming results in a presumptively illegal de facto quota system, many supporters of "diversity"-justified racial preference continue to call for it. In fact, it's hard to see any practical difference between "diversity" in practice -- admitting blacks and Hispanics with lower academic qualifications than Asians and whites -- and race norming -- putting minorities in a separate pool and judging them only against other members of the pool, accepting a certain number of the most qualified.
William Raspberry, for example, who was a usually thoughtful columnist for the Washington Post, argued that "the best of the black applicants ought to be admitted to the top places of learning -- provided they demonstrate the ability to perform the work." The New Republic's Jeffrey Rosen, as I argued here, "believes that a racial double standard, requiring less from blacks and Hispanics than from whites and Asians, will do less damage overall to high standards than holding everyone to the same standard." Similarly, Douglas Laycock, a prominent law professor now at the University of Virginia, wrote in a 2003 article suggesting how Gratz and Grutter should be implemented in Texas (where he then taught) that "Affirmative action has been a program to maximize the dual goals of diversity and academic excellence, by enabling selective programs to admit the very best students of each ethnicity."
I once described Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed and author of the current article about Rubin's research, as someone who often sounds like "a shrill shill for 'diversity," but he's shrewd enough to recognize that Rubin's finding of the prevalence of race-norming by elite institutions "is potentially significant because it appears to contradict (when it involves racial/ethnic status) the Supreme Court's directives on how minority status may be considered."
Asked if she thinks her research suggests a legal vulnerability for some colleges on how they admit some minority students, Rubin said, "I think there is...."
The system she found in use was that "if we see that we have only 3 percent black students" (using regular reviews), the officials say "let's look at all the black students again and see what we can come up with, where can we find merit in these applications."
True to form, Jaschik then adds: "While this practice may raise legal questions when used to consider minority students' race and ethnicity, it is identical to the approach used for many other groups, Rubin said."
Jaschik didn't add that using that approach on groups whose members are not determined by race, ethnicity, or sex does not violate any civil rights laws.
John S. Rosenberg blogs at Discriminations.