Applying to college can be an expensive and panic-inducing process, made worse by the efforts of select colleges to hide the details of how they decide who to admit. Earlier this year, however, corporate executives Michael Goldstein and William Gentner and statistician Gregory Frank, buoyed by revelations from the Harvard University affirmative action case currently before the Supreme Court, launched a new venture, Transparency in Admissions, designed to help solving this situation.
In court, Harvard’s admissions department was forced to reveal reams of data about how they evaluated applicants (as well as disturbing details about how the institution eagerly sells access to the rich and connected). This data dump and a statistical model built by expert witnesses allowed Transparency in Admissions to develop an algorithm that can provide new insights into the chances of admission to Harvard and, by extrapolation, to other highly selective private universities.
Of course, since colleges keep the details of their admissions process secret, translating Harvard’s algorithm to other colleges required some educated guesswork. For example, since the acceptance rate at Harvard differed by four percentage points from the acceptance rate at another institution, the model was adjusted accordingly.
To use the site, students submit their demographic and academic information—including ethnicity, socioeconomic status, test scores, and so on. Students also indicate whether they are applying for financial aid or fee waivers, are active athletes, or have legacy status. The algorithm then calculates their probability of acceptance to Ivy League colleges as well as Cal Tech, University of Chicago, Duke, Johns Hopkins, MIT, Northwestern and Stanford.
Co-founder Michael Goldstein notes that candidates get a big boost from being the children of a major donor or recruited athlete. Another is that legacy status and being black or Hispanic confer similar size bumps on the applicant. At the same time, he explains that the data clearly show that whole categories of candidates basically have no chance of admission to these universities.
In fact, Goldstein says, the only populations with unusual chances of admission to these colleges are athletes, legacies, children of professors or donors, certain racial minorities, first-generation college students, students at prestigious private schools and those whose academic records are among the top one percent of applicants. About half of all admitted students fall into one of these priority groups.
Most others (who have an acceptance rate of about 2%) may be better off saving their entry fees.
However, these selective colleges and many private college counseling organizations lead students and their families to believe that admission is attainable (primarily because the ranking is influenced by the “acceptance rate,” meaning colleges benefit greatly from attracting many candidates without a chance to apply). And counseling organizations have an incentive to keep hope alive by persuading families to shell out their hefty fees.
Goldstein explains that Transparency in Admissions was created to shed some light on deceptive admissions practices in order to mitigate some of the damage they can cause. He notes that many students and families are spending money, causing anxiety and being under tremendous pressure in pursuit of an often unrealistic outcome. This is in addition to the emotional deflation caused by a series of rejections, he says.
Goldstein says the goal is to make sure students and families have a realistic picture of the likelihood of admission, allowing them to make informed decisions. When asked about the cost of the service, he says it costs students $15, but schools can subscribe at a discounted rate for all students.
With a more accurate picture of selective admissions, families can better weigh the costs and benefits of enrolling students in many AP courses, long lists of extracurricular activities, SAT or ACT prep courses, college application instruction, or paying application fees for many elective courses. colleges and visiting campuses. Indeed, equipped with a true story, students might stop fetishizing colleges they have no intention of accepting and focus on more fulfilling or rewarding pursuits.
While it’s good that Transparency in Admissions has taken up this challenge, they really shouldn’t have to. Just imagine if colleges were free to share information about their admissions process, not just under duress. This could be a blow to the rankings of these coveted colleges and would certainly make the Ivy League admissions officer less fun, but it could only be a great thing for students who are victims of what has become an expensive, stressful and exhausting admissions control gauntlet.