“Fair” Admission Practices: Opportunity Versus Outcome

Vol. 14 No. 10

admissions eletter Vol14 No10 equality

When it comes to correcting inequality in the United States—for education and beyond—there are two philosophies: Fairness of opportunity and fairness of outcome. Private school Admission Offices often adopt one or the other mindsets, if the school’s mission calls for increased diversity within the student community. While either strategy is “fair” to applicants in its way, both have hidden flaws that may undermine your efforts for developing a more diverse student pool.

Equal Opportunity

Admission practices that follow an “equal opportunity” sort of practice for all mission-appropriate students may have missions that emphasize teaching “all students of ability” or have philosophies that state “every child deserves an excellent education.” This type of mission would make most applying children who fulfill broad parameters of faith observance, gender, or socioeconomic status mission-appropriate for the school’s mission and learning community.

Therefore, private school Admission Offices practicing a “fair” admission process that emphasizes access would endeavor to create a program that appears as offering every (eligible) family a chance to enroll their student. This process may involve a “first come, first served” philosophy on a publicized enrollment day for new students, or a lottery system for new applicants as several charter schools employ.

However, these methods may still skew to the families with higher incomes, no matter how “fair” they initially appear.

Private and charter schools with “first come, first served” policies can experience miniature campouts on school grounds, with parents spending days and nights holding a place in line to guarantee their children a place at desired schools. These parents are often those who can afford to use vacation time, arrive late to work, or leave early to resume their spot in line—a privilege normally reserved for higher-wage positions. Child care still needs to be handled by the family, too, which is another added expense that could discourage lower income (but qualified) families to apply.

The other way that schools can implement an "equal opportunity" admission mindset is through lottery systems. However, these programs can also segregate an admitted population, particularly if a physical presence is required for the lottery, with lower income parents finding it difficult to find the time off to attend multiple schools’ lotteries.

Charter schools in Washington, D.C., for example, acknowledged the difficulty of individual school lotteries and established the My School D.C. Lottery to enable a fairer, easier selection process, which trusts an algorithm to account for a student’s stated school preference and abilities to match the student with an appropriate and available school.

Equal Outcome

In schools that support an admission process that follows an “equal outcome” philosophy, Admission Offices might focus their efforts on courting and recruiting specific demographics to ensure that an incoming class is “equally represented” and diverse. (This practice is known as “affirmative action” within higher education circles.)

However, this philosophy has prompted calls of “reverse discrimination” in schools with selective admission practices. Normally, this phenomenon occurs when students who are publicly considered as “better qualified” are (apparently) rejected in favor of students who possess weaker records on paper but bring other qualities into the student community in the name of diversity.

Racial quotas—slots of seats reserved for specific minority groups to the exclusion of others—have been deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court for any selective admission practices, due to anti-discrimination. That said, the federal government has identified “placement goals” for colleges to attain in their recruitment practices, and the Supreme Court reinforced that diversity as a component of a holistic admission process is still legally valid with its recent decision in Fisher vs. The University of Texas.

Still, accusations remain that schools will refuse to admit more than a certain amount in a given racial minority. This leads to a kind of “performance inflation” in the minority students accepted as compared to the general school population.

Therefore, “equal outcome” is often easier said than done, if you’ll excuse the cliche, especially if schools wish to appear fair to all its applicants, minority or not.

It’s important to remember that introducing “diversity” on campus means more than racial or economic diversity. If your mission calls for the school to admit those with different ideas, talents, or cultures, then those students are still diverse for your community—even if they don’t have the traditional “appearance” of diversity.

Additional ISM resources:
The Source for Admission Directors Vol. 14 No. 9 "Fair" Admission Practices: The School and the Applicant

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