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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Reconfiguring Admissions to Serve the Mission of Selective Public Higher Education


On what bases should students be admitted to highly selective public colleges and universities? In Texas under Hopwood, and in California under Proposition 209, the answer is: "by the numbers." With lawsuits pending in Michigan and a state initiative underway in Washington, the same response may soon be heard more frequently. Given the uneven circumstances from which students’ grades and class rank arise, the most potent numbers in admissions are often those from high-stakes standardized, norm-referenced tests (HSSNRTs), such as the SAT, ACT, and LSAT. Proponents of this approach argue that consideration of candidates' race or ethnicity violate laws against discrimination on the basis of race. They also assert that when HSSNRT scores are emphasized, merit is placed at the center of admissions decisions (See e.g., Thernstrom & Thernstrom, 1997; D'Souza, 1991). This score-ranked conception of merit is readily conveyed and grasped: the higher the score, the more an applicant deserves to be admitted. Nevertheless this conception is erroneously narrow: HSSNRT scores reveal little about who will succeed in higher education; they say far less about who will succeed thereafter. Thus, this score-ranked conception does not clearly support selective higher education’s mission to achieve excellence in instruction, research, and service. Furthermore, when put into practice, this score-ranked conception yields devastating social consequences.

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