The way the nation’s most selective colleges and universities pick their students has reshaped American society, according to Mitchell Stevens, an associate sociology professor at New York University.
In a lecture at the School of Education on Friday, Stevens discussed how privileged parents prepare their children for the college admissions process from an early age, giving those children an advantage when they apply to school.
“The rules of selective college admissions have become essentially sets of instructions for how relatively affluent parents are raising their children,” Stevens said in an interview after the lecture.
Stevens’s book on the admissions process, “Creating a Class: College Admission and the Education of Elites,” details the year and a half he spent working in the admissions office of an unnamed New England liberal arts college. He’s also done other research in the field.
“Admissions decisions have increasingly been made on the basis of measurable academic and extracurricular accomplishment,” Stevens said. “Relatively privileged families have organized their children’s lives to produce measurable accomplishment, and that has profound consequences for the nature of inequality in American society.”
Stevens highlighted the academic community’s contradictory demand for both universalism and individualism. This paradox centers on the notion that everyone should have the same opportunities but that everyone should be treated as a unique person, too.
Stevens said the accepted solution to this tension in admissions is called individualized consideration, which first uses a standard set of criteria for each applicant before using subtle “discernment” among cases that are identical according to those initial criteria.
Stevens described how harder admissions decisions demand more discussion on the part of admissions officers.
In order to make decisions on “tough calls,” the applicant whose “story” was most convincing when retold by the admissions officers often got admitted. Stevens called this a “clear and systematic disadvantage” for less-affluent applicants, because wealthier students have more stories to tell and tell them better.
“Those who have the resources to deliver more information to evaluators are more systematically favored,” Stevens said.
But Stevens was quick to point out that equality in educational opportunities is not necessarily an attainable goal in the field of college admissions.
“Prestige is by definition exclusionary,” Stevens said. “It says that some thing, some people, some knowledge and some places are better than others which runs directly counter to a commitment that many Americans have to educational equity.”
Stevens was quick to applaud schools for making their admissions processes more transparent and merit-driven, but he also mentioned that regardless of how the process is constructed, not everyone can win.
“However we write the rules of admissions there’s never going to be enough for everybody, there’s never going to be enough excellence for everybody,” Stevens said.