Holistic admissions undermine a meritocracy

July 19, 2014, 9:29 a.m.

Many American universities tout their subjective holistic admissions as providing opportunities to socioeconomically disadvantaged applicants. While this goal is laudable, there exist tried and tested wholly objective alternatives to accomplish the same goal, such as admitting the best students from socioeconomically disadvantaged schools independently of how these students compare with students from advantaged schools. While all methods have flaws, including the latter, not all methods are equally flawed.

America aspires to be a society in which anyone can transcend his or her socioeconomic class through merit, in contrast to societies of the “old world” that its immigrants left behind. Whereas transparent objective criteria would immediately make clear what exactly anyone could do toward being admitted to a college of one’s choice, opaque holistic criteria undermine a meritocracy.

Holistic criteria favor those who can afford private high schools and private college counselors to guide them through the nuances of a successful application. Such counselors can reveal biases of particular admission committees that often aren’t publicly known — what works and what doesn’t — and then lobby for their charges. On Wall Street, acting on any non-public information is termed “insider trading,” a crime, but in college admissions, doing so is routine. Surely, this ability to purchase subjective insider information is a distinct, undeniable and undesirable advantage available only to the very rich.

Holistic criteria also favor the powerful and well-connected, allowing them to bypass the same admission review that everyone else is subjected to. For instance, according to The Washington Post, President John F. Kennedy graduated from The Choate (High) School with an average score of 68 percent, when the school’s passing score was 65 percent, and yet he was admitted to Harvard.

Holistic admission criteria were invented by Harvard in the 1920s to limit the number of  intellectually accomplished Jewish students that were admitted, which they immediately did. Can a device borne of such malicious intent have transformed itself into a wholly noble instrument?

As Ron Unz notes in The American Conservative, quoting Pulitzer Prize-winner Daniel Golden, Asian-Americans are the “New Jews.” Unz reveals that from 1993 to 2011, the percentage of Asian-American Harvard undergraduates dropped from 20-plus percent to 17.2 percent and has remained steady since. Although it is possible for Harvard to have maintained this surprising consistency without explicit and provable bias, exactly as it did previously to limit Jewish admissions, is it fair?

Colleges argue that they seek racial and geographical diversity, but the former disfavors any race that might see larger numbers admitted on merit alone, and the latter disfavors any race  that is concentrated in a few geographical pockets, as is typical of new immigrants. Both introduce implicit, if not explicit, racial bias against Asian-Americans. Do you care whether a cure for your impending disease is discovered by an ethnically and geographically diverse team? There is value to diversity, but not at the expense of merit.

So, the second casualty of holistic admissions is race neutrality. It is laudable to help those with a continuing history of discrimination and socioeconomic disadvantage, but not to distinguish within the remaining population on a basis other than transparently objective merit.

You can be sure if there were a greater number of Asian-Americans in Congress, as there are now Jewish-Americans, perceived discrimination against the “New Jews” would also be a thing of the past. Why? Because no elite U.S. institution can afford to alienate Congress when federal funds are the lifeblood of every institution’s research and resultant prestige.

If not holistic admission criteria, then what? One alternative is to use performance on specific exams, such as the SAT or college-administered exams, as the main admission criterion.

The SAT might indeed be an imperfect gauge of a student’s potential, given that this exam can be mastered through diligence and coaching, as many colleges claim, and coaching can only be afforded by the well-heeled. But does that make the SAT inferior to holistic criteria? Does not the mastery of any skill, even those that are non-academic, benefit from diligence and coaching? And are the SAT’s deficiencies enough to dismiss all objective admission criteria?


As the SAT is transparent in its administration, anyone can go out and strive for a perfect score irrespective of his or her means. Coaching might help, but with the ubiquitousness of the Internet, coaching is neither necessary nor sufficient. In contrast, not anyone can go out and access a college counselor in the know, show an interest in a foreign culture by spending a summer abroad or pursue an expensive (and therefore uncommon) sport such as horse riding.

College entrance exams that suppress all personal information from examiners are routine the world over for good reason: They are accepted by the populace as fair. In many countries, such as India and China, doing well in such exams is the surest way to rise socioeconomically: What better testament could there be to the meritocratic nature of such exams? Whereas economically better-off students do have an advantage over others in preparing for such exams, the economically worse off are far more motivated. Furthermore, any advantage the former have in such exams pales in comparison to their insidious advantage in holistic admissions.

Why is there not a single empirical study that has tracked the careers of graduates of any college to compare those who would have been admitted to that college under one criterion and not another to determine how holistic criteria fare relative to their objective alternatives? Is it because the powerful have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo?

Consider that any child of a U.S. president would probably be welcomed at any college independent of the child’s merit. This is sad, but what is sadder is that we would accept this without a second thought. Is our claim to a meritocracy, then, simply an illusion?


Contact Gitika Nalwa at [email protected].

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