On the American myth of affirmative action in college admissions

  I’m pretty popular at parties. Sometimes it’s because I’m fun, but usually it’s because I worked in college admissions for a decade. It is a secretive world with much to hide. Schools benefit from being opaque.

Everyone knows a kid conducting the college search. “What’s the secret to getting in?” they ask. I sensibly advise ways a student can figure out who she is, what she wants out of college, how to search for schools that will grow her, blah blah blah. Not sexy. People want a series of concise steps that will give them an edge. I can’t give them those steps because those steps do not exist.

Disappointed, they enlighten me, “It’s easy to get in if you’re black. Everyone knows it.” There’s a dismissive hand wave as they add, “affirmative action.” They tell me this because they are certain of it. They tell me this because I am white and they are always white.

In my early 20’s, I answered, “that’s not really what I’ve seen.” They never believed me. They’d educate me, because goddamnit they knew a kid who didn’t make it into the college of their dreams while some black kid at the same high school got to go there. “It just wasn’t fair. It’s not right.”

The 18-month-long college recruitment process is unwieldy and nuanced. It’s not the stuff for drunken bar-b-que conversations. A few times (i.e. when I was drunk) I tried out my comedic skills. “The biggest affirmative action program I’ve seen is for dumb white boys and it’s called the football team.” This never amused anyone but me.


The white American myth of meritocracy drives the narrative of our public and political discourse. We earn what we have. If you have nothing, the fault is all yours. College admissions benefits from this myth. Visit any university’s website and you’ll be regaled with fantastic stories of rich alumni, lists of choice employers where the college “places” graduates, and selective stats on alumni salaries.

If we actually believe America is a meritocracy, then why are we so panicked about attending the right college?

We’ve decided a small number of schools are the best, and we apply to them in droves. While some of these schools are the oldest in the country, pioneers of the American system of higher education, most of them were picked for us by for-profit magazines with a business model built on exploiting our anxiety about success in an unequal system.

Our education system often replictes the economic and social inequalities as they already exist. We know this because George W. Bush attended Yale and Harvard. Because we’ve probably all seen The Skulls and hopefully at least some of us watched The Good Shephard. Because one of the few bragging rights the USA has left is that people come from all around the world to attend our universities.

There are exceptions to every rule, but at least we’re all honest enough with ourselves to understand it was more than hard work that made Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. We know only the extraordinary can drop out or skip college and have a decent chance of being successful. So we look to an inheritently unfair system and expect it to judge and reward us based solely on merit?

When we don’t make it into that college of our dreams, we fear we’re destined to failure no matter how hard we work. We lash out, looking for someone to blame although the myth of meritocracy says we should blame ourselves.

Plenty of white people absolve themselves of blame by citing an unfairness they call “affirmative action.” They do not use these words to describe an actual policy, but rather to codify the following assumptions:
–   admissions to college is based purely on academic merit;
–   academic merit is a quality measurable with absolute certainty;
–   students can be ranked from best to worst and only the best should be allowed in, starting from spot #1 and moving down in order;
–   people of color can not be as qualified as white students;
–   and while any college admits thousands of students, it had to have been just the students of color who took the spot they, the white student, deserved.

When a white person complains they didn’t make it into their choice college because of affirmative action, they are making the issue one of race, not merit. It is a sick and irresponsible attempt to avoid facing their own failure.

Scholar David F. Labaree points out that failure is built into our education system. We ask for it. Not the plural “we” of society which asks our education system to produce competent citizens prepared to be active in the economy, but “we” as in individuals who use the system to get ahead of our peers, earn more, and own more. In this set-up, somebody has to fail in order for others to succeed.


Want to know how you get into college? Apply.

I’m serious.

Most schools are not statistically competitive for admissions. There are thousands of institutions of higher education, and the vast majority work hard to fill their seats.

A school’s selectiveness is not defined by the percentage of applicants they choose to admit as you might assume. It is judged by the academic “profile” of admitted students, meaning the average GPA and SAT or ACT scores.

GPAs are calculated on scales that seem to differ at every high school. 3.0, 4.0, even 5.0 scales exist, along with schools who still hands out grades based on one’s earned percentage from 1-100. Most universities employ a chart that allows them to translate a student’s GPA to a 4.0 scale. If you’re from one of those obnoxious schools that gives extra GPA points and graduates kids with a 4.5 on a 4.0 scale, we know you’re playing us. You don’t get extra points on the conversion chart. Not to worry though, because we know you received those extra points for taking an above-average curriculum. We have a way to credit you for that too. We just won’t tell you what it is.

Test scores provide a more even bar by which to judge students, although the flaws inherent in them have long been proven by better minds then mine. Test scores reported in the profile are the 50% range, meaning 25% of admitted students score above and below those numbers. You don’t have to have that exact score to be admitted, but being above or below helps you gauge your chances.

Once you’ve squeezed the entirity of your personhood into a few numbers, you can judge yourself according to the average GPA and test scores across the country. College guidebooks gladly help with this. They look at a school’s profile and label its selectivity based on how it stacks up to the averages. But of those thousands of colleges in our country, less than 80 have a selectivity rate below 30%. Less than 80. Out of thousands. It is those schools where we tend to focus our energies and attention. They rank at the top of every list and see their applicant pool grow year after year despite the astronimical odds that any applicant will gain admission.
“A 40 or 50 percent accept rate is the sweet spot,” a Dean of Admissions from one of the country’s most selective schools told me over drinks as a conference. “You can accept everyone who deserves to get in and maintain the ability to say no to the ones who probably shouldn’t be there. I had that at my previous institution. I really miss it.” We were talking about my move from one of those top, most selective schools to one that appears selective but is not.

Prestige trickles down from the top; many schools benefit by association. The school I had just moved to presented all the trappings of the most selective; small, private, liberal arts, gorgeous campus, large sticker price, academic profile higher than the national averages. But the students who apply there are a self-selective bunch. While the “merits” of attendees look good, the admissions office was accepting 80% of its applicants. What’s more, only 82% of applications were ever complete and able to be reviewed. So a 2nd tier, nationally-ranked college deemed very selective was still admitting almost everyone who applied.

That brings us back to the most selective, that small set where not everyone gets in. It’s called “shaping” a class. With an overabundance of qualified applicants, the administration gets to hand-pick their population. Everyone who gets in deserves to be there, but not everyone who deserves to be there will get in.

The first school I worked for only admitted 26% of their applicants. Let me tell you how that worked.

Short version: you get admitted for many reasons, never just one.

It’s easiest to take what I saw and show it through an imagined school, Confluence College.

Confluence needs 600 freshmen. 585 won’t bring in enough tuition dollars. There aren’t enough beds for 615. All projections for budgets, class schedules, room accomodations, staffing needs, etc… are calculated on an entering class of 600.

Recruitment of those 600 is a process known as the funnel. The funnel starts with 125,000 names. These names are purchased for $0.35 a piece (the going price when I left the professon in 2013) from the College Board, a nonprofit organization that charges students over $100 to take the SAT. Criteria used in the name buy varies from school to school. Confluence focuses on geographic regions where they are traditionally strong competitiors as well as new markets they hope to open up. They narrow the search according to a student’s intended area of study. They cannot search directly for certain demographic traits, like family income, but private consultants are available for hire who claim they can do just that, despite rules in place at the College Board.

Traditionally names are purchased in January of a students’ junior year, after they’ve taken the SAT for the first time in the fall. Confluence makes contact with these names via a direct mail campaign with an accompanying email component; it is knows as “the search.” If a student responds to the search, they stay in the funnel.

All colleges want you to respond. They want more information about you than the College Board collects. Armed with this infomation, they can market themselves to you more effectively. The level of sophisticaion to this marketing corresponds to how much sales experience the admissions director had prior to joining the field, what the marketing consultants are suggesting, or how big the admissions office budget is that year. It does not, and should not, be equated to the academic quality of a school.

Students can inject themselves into a school’s funnel by filling out an online inquiry form, meeting with a representative at a college fair, or visiting campus for a tour. But mostly names are shed from the funnel until it narrows into an applicant pool.

Producing an applicant pool is costly. The process is often kept secret, especially from faculty, who would be livid at the excess of money spent. But college admissions is a business, and the people in charge have bosses to answer to.

Confluence receives 9,000 applications. While they only need 600 of those applications to convert to freshman, not everyone offered admission will choose to attend. The students who accept the offer of admission are know as the “yield.” Confluence historically yields at 30%, so they will need to admit 2,000 of the 9,000 applicants. They’re acceptance rate will be 22%, but 80% of the applicant pool falls within the academic profile. Deciding which qualified students to offer admission is achieved through predictive modeling. Confluence will use the history of previous years’ applicants to gauge the actions of the current pool.
Remember, we’re talking about American teenagers, notorious for their predictability.

Before an application is reviewed, its “hooks” are identified. Confluence has the right and luxury to shape a class to advance the institution’s goals. If Confluence wants to expand their population of students from the Left Coast, or the number of students who will not need financial aid, or they really need some more brass players in the orchestra, then students who can provide those things have a hook in the admissions process. The hook is noted in the database in a “special interest” column, or on a physical application as the color-coded swish of a highlighter or a sticker placed in a designated area.

Applicants are reviewed by major. At Confluence, already considered among the best colleges in the country, some majors are pereceived as stronger than others and therefore yield at a much higher rate. Students who apply to the business major or the pre-med program have steeper competition than applicants to journalism. The engineering school is the most competitive for admissions, and it offers several emphases, all of which yield at different rates. Mechanical engineers are more likely to accept their admission then chemical engineers who were more likely to accept their admission then civil engineers. Also, did I mention that engineering is a male dominated field? Educators know that homogenous groups are less productive then diverse groups, plus Confluence boasts about their high rate of female engineers in all its marketing, so they have to ensure at least a third of the freshman engineers are women. Plus women engineers yield at higher rates than the average admitted engineer because women don’t want to be all alone in a program. Don’t forget these engineers are part of the entire incoming class in which there are goals for having 18% identify as a race other than Caucasian, 10% as a nationality or country of origin other than the good ‘ol USA, and 20% from a state of residence west of the Mississippi River. There are sports teams to fill or else coaches get mad. When coaches get mad they tell their alumni they can’t win because admissions won’t get them the players they need. And there’s an alumnus who is VP for the East Asian division of his company and always provides internships in China for Confluence students and his daughter wants to come to Confluence. And by the way, a member of the Board of Trustees who has donated millions of dollars has an orthopedic surgeon with a kid who wants to major in business and he kind of has the grades and moderately okay test scores but his dad did replace the trustee’s knee so there’s that.

Every student at the most selective schools has hooks and very few are visible.

Once a mother called me and she was pissed as hell. Her daughter had been wait-listed, that pergatory of admissions decisions where we keep you on hold in case we over-predicted our yield. “I can’t believe you won’t accept my daughter but you accepted that chink who goes to her school.”
Before the secretary transferred Angry White Mom to me, she gave me the daughter’s name. A summary of her high school’s applicant history was on my laptop screen by the time I said “hello.” Dear daughter was one of five students who applied from her school. Three of those students had been admitted! Hooray for them! They all had better test scores than her daughter, and a higher GPA in a curriculum judged to be more demanding. They also applied to less competitive majors then she did. And yes, one of those kids identified as Asian-American, but a coach had also designated him as one of his top three recruits for the year. He had also applied Early Decision which put him on a silver platter because his yield was guaranteed.

Mom didn’t know any of this. I couldn’t tell her any of this. But oh by God did I want to. I let her talk for a while, staying silent while she ran her train of thought to the end of the tracks. When she paused, asking if I was still there, I said “Ma’am, all I can say is that your daughter is an excellent student and will do very well at whatever college she chooses to attend.” While I truly believed that, there was so much more I wanted to say.


We’re pretty obnoxious, us white people. We have a long history of asking brown and black people to bear the weight of burdens that have nothing to do with them. Burdens we create in a system meant to keep us as far from them as possible.

We see slavery and segregation and opposition to the Civil Rights movement as sins of a past now absolved by the baptismal waters of color-blindeness and tolerance and Obama’s election. White people ask “why bring up the past?” while keeping this oppressive past alive and relevent when it serves our bruised egos.

We must stop this. The damage is obvious. It’s in the tears of students told they are nothing but an affirmative action admit. It’s in the fear of students who feel they will never be seen as capable by white peers, a feeling that will follow them for the whole of their lives. It’s in the hearts turned hard in white students who find it necessary to think and say such a things.

The long struggle for freedom and opportunity—literal freedom and often elusive opportunity—is very real for people who do not look like me. My fellow white people, we can respect this by not undermining that struggle just because we didn’t get something we wanted. 50 years ago most colleges wouldn’t admit students of color. 50 years ago most colleges didn’t admit white women. What a privelege it is for us to so easily forget. What brats we are for using hard-won advancements as our punching bags.

Here’s what I want you, dear white reader, to do when you don’t get into that school you most want to attend;
–  Accept that everyone who was admitted to your dream school deserves to be there.
–  Congratulate the students you know who did get in. They deserve it!
–  Shut up about it already and move on. No one wants to hear your sour– pants complaints about where you didn’t get in.
–  If you hear someone else complain, redirect their focus to schools that did accept them.
–  If someone says they know for certain they were more qualified than another kid, don’t believe them. They don’t know what another student’s application looks like, and they’re probably exaggerating their own credentials anyway.
–  Celebrate where you did get in!
–  Attend a school that wants you!
–  Work hard because you’ll find the success you earn, right?

One thought on “On the American myth of affirmative action in college admissions

  1. Fantastic, illuminating read. Sounds like a piece Jacobin would publish on their site. I’m not saying, I’m just saying…

    I am a bit confused about the status of meritocracy in this account. On the one hand, it looks like a myth, and you demonstrate all of the factors (trustee-friends, various hooks) that go into selection, but at the end you advise the white applicant that students who did get in deserve it.

    So the game (and you nicely demonstrate how it is that) is in some-measure rigged and certainly strategically opaque, but you also suggest that the white complainer should accept that the outcome is based on merit–“they deserve it.”. I agree with both the premise and conclusion (it’s a game, please shut up whitey) but have a hard time seeing why privileged-pants should see that “they deserve it” based on your account.

    If the system is not arbitrary exactly, but given to various quotas (we need more tubas, for example) then what our whiner needs to learn and what i think you show is that there are a number of factors that make them no less or more deserving, but which meet a set of criteria to which they have no access, so they should please shut up.

    What we all deserve, methinks, is a less invidious culture. Less ranking and sorting, More loving our brothers and sisters. Figuring out a way that everyone gets what they need. I suppose that’s part of the job for those of us who teach on the other side of the application process, at least to pose it as a problem. Toward that end, the demystification in this piece is a helpful contribution.

    Thanks for sharing this. Be good for lots of folks to see it.


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