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Opinion: How to Fix College Admissions Now

Opinion: How to Fix College Admissions Now

The New York Times

Roland G. Fryer Jr.
July 5, 2023
IN THE MONTHS leading up to last week’s Supreme Court rulings, multiple news reports have given us a sense of how selective schools are planning to respond to its widely anticipated decision to end affirmative action: in part, by watering down their admissions standards, through policies like reducing or eliminating the role of standardized tests. If there aren’t enough Black and Hispanic applicants who can perform at the level a college would normally require, the thinking goes, then schools should drop some key measures of performance in order to admit those students anyway.
But this is precisely backward. Instead of making the admissions process shallow, elite colleges should deepen the applicant pool. The simplest, most direct way to do that is for these schools to found and fund schools that educate disadvantaged students.
Right now, colleges take the supply of qualified minority students as fixed. They might run a summer enrichment program for local kids, but they don’t intervene in students’ education in systemic ways. They don’t teach the higher-order skills that students need to get into college. They don’t cultivate the grit and resilience that kids need to navigate a challenging curriculum after they are admitted. They rely on existing schools to do that — and if those schools routinely fail minority students, well, that’s a problem with the precollege pipeline.
This argument has allowed elite colleges to sidestep responsibility for far too long. They could fix the problem if they truly wanted to. Elite colleges could operate a network of, say, 100 feeder middle and high schools — academies that are open to promising students who otherwise lack access to a high-quality secondary education, in cities where such children are common because of high poverty rates and underperforming public schools. These institutions would bring their students up to the sponsoring universities’ standards so that they are ready for elite schools when they graduate.
To undertake such a project, elite institutions would have to believe two things: that they can afford it and that there are enough Ivy League-caliber students trapped in poor-performing high schools to make it worthwhile. Do they believe that?
A back-of-the-envelope calculation demonstrates that affordability isn’t really a serious question. The eight Ivy League schools combined, to say nothing of other highly selective colleges, have endowments worth about $200 billion — a figure expected to exceed $1 trillion by 2048 — and enrollments of around 70,000 undergrads.
Say the new academies would have to educate 50,000 carefully selected students, through all four years of high school, to produce just 5,000 minority seniors ready for the Ivy League in a given year (more than a quarter of an entire pan-Ivy freshman class). Say they’d spend $20,000 per child per year — about the average annual tuition at the country’s K-12 private schools. That would be enough to provide high-quality after-school programming and other support that children from disadvantaged backgrounds may need, similar to the model developed by the Harlem Children’s Zone, which my research with Will Dobbie showed to be highly effective at raising academic achievement, increasing academic attainment, lowering teen pregnancy for girls and lowering incarceration for boys.
Under these assumptions, the cost would be about $4 billion — about 2 percent of the League’s total endowments. This cost could be offset by fundraising specifically for the academies. One could even add three years of middle school without getting close to the $10 billion mark, if we believe intervention must start sooner. And staffing these schools would not be a real challenge; their prestige would draw in talented teachers and leaders from inside and outside education.
To an extent, participating universities may worry that they would face what economists call a public good or free-rider problem — that many of the kids would end up attending colleges that didn’t chip in during their high school years. But if the entire Ivy League participated, those top-tier institutions could be confident that few students would turn down their admissions offers and head elsewhere.
The second thing elite schools would have to believe is that large numbers of talented minority students exist, are being failed by their current schools and, absent this lack of opportunity, would flood the halls of elite colleges. Those in charge certainly profess to believe this. If true, they can put a small percentage of their endowment money where their mouths are. It’s not enough to have a few minorities sprinkled on boards or to elect a president from a disadvantaged group. What is described here is systemic change.
I have no doubt that underrepresented minority students can achieve at the highest levels. In Daytona Beach, Fla., where I was born, I often witnessed gallons of talent wasted — brilliant minds rotting in boring classrooms and precocious lives cut short because of routine violence. In the types of private schools that my children attend, I often see teaspoons of talent perfectly nurtured. If we treated talent in Daytona Beach the way we treat talent in elite private schools, inner-city students could compete with any kids across the world.
Why did we wait on the courts to tell us what to do? If we truly believe that a lack of opportunity is what holds Black and Hispanic students back — if we actually believe that and don’t just say it to signal our virtue — we should be impatient about taking matters into our own hands. The time to act is now: A new class of students across America’s inner cities will be starting high school in the fall. Will any of them be matriculating at Harvard and Yale in four years? That’s up to Harvard and Yale.

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