April 07, 2016

If you’ve crammed for the SATs, agonized over creative essay topics, or pestered teachers for recommendations, then you know something about our college admissions process. 

Namely, that it is very stressful and very complicated. 

But there are critics who say it’s more than just stressful. It’s totally wrong, and it’s hurting America. 

Lani Guinier is one of those critics - and she wants a complete redesign: 

“It has its benefits, but it also has stakes that eliminate the option, or the opportunity, for many working class whites, low-income blacks, to even consider going to these higher education schools.” 

Guinier is the author of The Tyranny of the Meritocracy and a professor at Harvard Law School

She says we are seeing more and more colleges starting to buck tradition. Dozens of elite schools don’t require the SAT any more (and the SAT itself just got revamped, in hopes becoming more equitable). The state of Texas admits anyone who graduate in the top 10% of their high school into any of their public universities. 

Guinier says she’s a fan of that sort of experimentation, and offers up another example of an alternative admissions process, which has benefited kids whose parents didn’t go to college:

“[It’s called] The Posse Foundation, where Debbie Bial has constructed a process in which groups of students are admitted to a school, and they’re admitted as a group because members of the group all have distinct things to offer, and as a result, all of the members of the group benefit.” 

Yep, group admissions. 

The way Posse picks kids – and last year they had 17,000 kids nominated for 700 slots – is probably like nothing you’ve ever heard of. According to Posse President Deborah Bial:

“They participate in three months of interviews, so we have large group interviews with a hundred students in a room where they’re participating in group activities small and large. We have individual interviews. We also have finalist meetings that are also group meetings and interviews with the universities who are our partners. And then the university picks a group of twenty finalists, and ten students who become their posse.” 

Vanderbilt was the first school to accept a “posse” of students. Since then, that circle has expanded out to include dozens of schools, including Bryn Mawr, Cornell, Oberlin, and Pomona

For most colleges and universities, though - especially ones with tens of thousands of students - admitting kids as a group or doing tons of interviews is going to be tough. 

There’s a reason that GPA, SAT, and ACT scores are popular. They’re easy to scan quickly.

But Guinier and Bial both say we’re at a critical moment and there’s not much time to lose in redesigning college admissions. 

“If we don’t change in the next few years,” says Bial, “We’re going to be in a really bad situation where especially the most elite colleges and universities are giving degrees to a way too homogeneous student body. And that means that those kids who graduate from those institutions will have the golden ticket to get the best jobs. That means that the leaders of the country will represent a very narrow slice of the American public. Mostly white, mostly privileged. And we don’t want that to happen, I don’t think anyone wants that to happen. That’s very dangerous for a democracy like America.”

Deborah Bial, Education, higher ed, Lani Guinier

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