Funny Numbers, Fuzzy Priorities?

by Evan Meyerson | 4/10/08 1:17am

There exist few decisive processes in our society that are more opaque and arbitrary than elite college admissions. With a record number of applicants inundating the inboxes of Ivy League schools, the capricious nature of admissions has been further exacerbated.

In a press release on Mar. 31, Dartmouth announced that it had accepted 2,190 students for the Class of 2012 during the College's most selective process yet. Reading through the highlighted statistics presented in the press release, this writer could not help but wonder what story Dartmouth is trying to tell with its simple, yet precisely fashioned, announcement. What is the significance and even the validity of the staggeringly impressive numbers of admitted students who were valedictorians, salutatorians or in the top 10 percent of their class? And, perhaps most importantly, what can such a press release say about the priorities of our admissions office?

It should be noted before any exploration of the closed-door, cutthroat culture of Ivy League admissions that those employed in Dartmouth's admissions office, namely Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Maria Laskaris '84, are without question among the hardest working individuals on this campus. From year-round recruiting efforts to the gargantuan duty and responsibility of combing through more than 16,000 applications, the job of our admissions and financial aid team is seemingly endless. The following analysis is in no way meant to disparage the laudable efforts of Dartmouth's admissions staff but merely to call for greater honesty and transparency regarding their institutional objectives.

Upon further review, it turns out the press release celebrating the newest members of the Dartmouth community was not entirely accurate in its proclamations of their academic achievements.

If there is one thing of which the reader can be certain, it is that there are no accidental misprints or omissions in documents released by our admissions office. Every announcement that is allowed to leave McNutt is carefully crafted with the purpose of presenting Dartmouth in the best possible light. This is the intensely political and competitive game of Ivy League admissions we're talking about, and there are no careless errors.

The press release unequivocally states that 93.4 percent of students admitted "were ranked in the top 10 percent of their secondary school's graduating class, including 38.5 percent who were valedictorians and 11.3 percent who were salutatorians." What the press release fails to mention is that these percentages, which are said to represent all admitted students, actually correspond to fewer than half of the applicants admitted. According to a lengthy conversation between this writer and Dean Laskaris, less than 50 percent of high schools rank their students or even disclose the decile in which the students place. Yet there is no asterisk or footnote given for these pseudo-exact figures.

As for the publicized data concerning incoming valedictorians and salutatorians, these numbers are again based on fewer than 50 percent of applicants. Moreover, the vast majority of students our admissions office calls valedictorians or salutatorians have not, in fact, achieved that distinction yet. These seniors still have a full term of high school ahead of them. Again, there was no qualification for these imprecise statistics.

Is it academic dishonesty to present misleading data? Perhaps. Indeed, it seems slightly hypocritical of the College to release a document that would get a Dartmouth student Parkhursted for at least a term.

Yet the goal of this article is not to expose a conscious fudging of admissions data. As Dean Laskaris explained, even if Dartmouth received rankings from all high schools, the percentage of students in the first decile of their class would decrease only minimally (although the percentage of valedictorians and salutatorians would change markedly). To be sure, the Class of 2012 will be equally, if not more, impressive as the classes which have preceded it. The culprit of this statistical manipulation is, in reality, the hypercompetitive environment that plagues all of the Ivy League admissions offices.

Listening to Dean Laskaris discuss this year's admissions process, it would seem that "diversity" is Dartmouth's number one priority. What Laskaris made clear was her genuine excitement for the increased number of admitted "students of color" (43 percent). And rightfully so! Our College, as the Dean explained, continues to be plagued by "many false images of Dartmouth that persist among prospective students from impressions that were made 30 years ago."

Nevertheless, despite the College's talking points on the primary importance of "diversity," the priority of the admissions office, first and foremost, is the number of applications received, our yield rate and our selectivity. While an increase in admitted students of color is mentioned in paragraph six of the press release, yield, selectivity and applications received make up the first three paragraphs. "People do rank and rate us as institutions, and we know that's one of the measures people rate us on," said Laskaris when asked about the importance of selectivity statistics. Of course, we are certainly not alone in our priorities. Harvard, Princeton, Cornell and Brown all released announcements with a nearly identical layout -- application and selectivity data first, "diversity" later.

The most fascinating statistic in Dartmouth's press release was that regarding students who will receive need-based financial aid -- 51 percent. The reverse of this figure, however, tells the real story about Dartmouth's quest for "diversity." If 51 percent of students will require need-based financial aid, that means nearly half of the Class of 2012 will come from families making above $150,000 per year. It seems that the College's definition of "diversity" is really one rooted in a diversity of color rather than a diversity of socioeconomic backgrounds. "We know that our class isn't fully representative of the full spectrum of socioeconomic diversity, and that's something we're working on," said Laskaris.

Is the priority of college admissions offices becoming only about what can most easily be turned into quantifiable data, like the number of applications received, selectivity and color of the student body? Where will diversity of ideas, beliefs and interests fit into to this increasingly cruel process? It is time for our College, as well as those with which it compares itself, to take a step back from the competitive, data-driven objectives of college admissions before numbers blur individuality.

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