The Case for College Transparency

Androniki, a Greek student, started college in Athens this year after performing well in last year’s university entrance exam.

Androniki, a Greek student, started college in Athens this year after performing well in last year’s university entrance exam. College admissions in Greece is highly competitive, so Androniki spent most of her senior year preparing for an exam that would determine her college placement.

Daniel, a student from rural Austria, will attend college next year but spends little time worrying about it now. Austrian students choose their colleges based on location alone since all colleges have more or less the same reputation.

While one student spent a full year preparing for a high-stakes test and the other spent most of his time at the gym, their experiences shared one common feature: transparency.

On the contrary, students applying to colleges in the U.S. have vastly different experiences. Shrouded in secrecy, the opaqueness of U.S. college admissions criteria only induces greater stress in its applicants, harms their ability to commit to genuine interests, and leaves them scrambling to fill their résumés with more activities. Illuminating the criteria of admissions would permit a more open debate about the fairness of the process.

When admissions officers of high-ranked colleges discuss their admissions criteria, they are deliberately vague and emphasize their “holistic approach,” assiduously avoiding any specific details, and Ggod forbid, anything that would be remotely informative. So, we are left guessing what the expectations are.

It is clear why some colleges may prefer the ambiguity: hidden criteria make it far more difficult to scrutinize questionable admissions decisions. Moreover, it is often easier to spot talent or passion if the applicant doesn’t know what the college is looking for. For example, if a college were seeking applicants passionate about jazz, and if the applicants are unaware of this fact, those who mention jazz are likely genuinely interested in it. If the university’s goal became known, applications feigning interest in jazz would pour in, leaving the admissions officers struggling to distinguish jazz enthusiasts from applicants who think Django Reinhardt is a Quentin Tarantino movie. Therefore, for the sake of authenticity, colleges may prefer keeping students in the dark.

While it may benefit colleges, for us applicants, the ambiguity of the criteria comes at a steep cost: We are left anxiously wondering what it will take to be admitted, and in some cases, falling victim to an army of consultants—former admissions officers or “insiders” trying to sell us advice, capitalizing on our anxiety. In turn, this makes the level of transparency a function of one’s income. However, even those of us who don’t fall for the consultants still spend enormous amounts of time and effort preparing ourselves for unknown requirements, hoping to meet at least some checkmarks. Androniki spent many hours preparing for her math and physics exams but at least her effort taught her math and physics. As I am writing the eighth draft of my tenth essay, hoping to make myself compelling enough to stand out amongst tens of thousands of applicants, I seriously doubt the experience will have any lasting benefit. Perhaps most importantly, the transparent criteria in Greece makes it much easier to accept rejection. Androniki’s cousin was not accepted at his top choice because his score was not high enough. He had to enroll at a lower-ranked school but knew exactly why he was rejected. By contrast, once the results of our applications roll in, though someone decided we were not good enough we will never know by what criteria.

What would a more “transparent” college admissions process look like? Unlike Androniki’s experience, a transparent process need not be one-dimensional and can retain features of the current holistic approach. In the widely publicized Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard case, in which Asian American students sued Harvard University for alleged discrimination based on race, the university had to disclose an admissions “rubric.” Previously unknown to the public, the rubric provided some semblance of the criteria used to “rank” each aspect of a student’s application, from students’ academic records to their personalities. Maintaining a holistic admissions process, Harvard codifies its criteria and in this case, made it public. Just like Harvard, other universities could similarly codify the standards they currently employ and make them public without abandoning their holistic approaches.

I believe it is time for colleges in the U.S. to make their admissions processes more transparent. While colleges may reap some benefits from ambiguous criteria, these come at a severe cost to applicants and to society as a whole, a cost which far outweighs those benefits.

How we allocate educational opportunities greatly affects who gains access to the most desirable career paths and, therefore, is one of society’s most consequential decisions. To even begin a discussion about how we could improve access to education and make it more fair, we need to lay bare the process by which this access is currently granted. Not only does secrecy breed suspicion and resentment, but it also shields universities from criticism and, therefore, stifles efforts for reform. Shining a bright light on the current admissions process is a necessary first step of any reform effort.