Jacob Vigdor: College Admissions Quandries

Whether it be standardized testing, grades, extracurricular activities or personal essays, the question of how to level the playing field in education is quite a challenge. This week on Sea Change Radio, we take a deep dive into higher education admissions and inequities in this country with Jacob Vigdor, a Professor of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. We discuss the flawed measures we use to evaluate teenage pupils and ask what the goals should actually be for college admissions officers? Are we looking for students to get good grades and make a lot of money, or become leaders in their communities and help spark thoughtful debate among their peers? We examine the shortcomings of standardized testing and grades, explore admissions systems at most “elite” schools, and try to come up with some solutions to the problem.

Narrator | 00:02 – This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Jacob Vigdor (JV) | 00:23 – If you ask the question, could an elite college find the students who have the academic foundation to be successful at their institution without standardized test scores? The answer is an unambiguous resounding yes.

Narrator | 00:42 – Whether it be standardized testing grades, extracurricular activities, or personal essays, the question of how to level the playing field in education is quite a challenge. This week on Sea Change Radio, we take a deep dive into higher education, admissions and inequities in this country with Jacob Vigdor, a professor of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. We discussed the flawed measures we use to evaluate teenage pupils and ask what the goals should actually be for college admissions officers. Are we looking for students to get good grades and make a lot of money, or become leaders in their communities and help spark thoughtful debate among their peers? We examine the shortcomings of standardized testing and grades, explore admission systems at most, quote unquote elite schools, and try to come up with some solutions to the problem.

Alex Wise (AW) | 01:55 – I am joined now on Sea Change Radio by Jacob Vigdor. He is a professor of public policy and governance at the University of Washington. Jake, welcome to Sea Change Radio. 

Jacob Vigdor (JV) | 02:05 – Thanks for having me. Alex. Great to be here. 

Alex Wise (AW) | 02:08 – It’s a pleasure to talk to you. I read a Twitter thread of yours that addressed an article by New York Times columnist David Leonhardt, saying that colleges have been missing standardized testing, and that there’s strong evidence that it’s actually a, a very good predictor of grades and performance in college, and that colleges don’t know what to do now that universities have decided not to make it a requirement in the application process or at least many universities. I, I don’t know if that’s an accurate summary, but why don’t you expand on Leonhardt’s piece and then explain where he kind of cherry picked, if you will, the statistics to fit his narrative. 

Jacob Vigdor (JV) | 02:54 – Sure. Yeah. So the way I, I’d summarize the argument is, you know, the SAT is a predictor of how a student is going to do in college. And really the, the biggest concern is that there are certain students out there who maybe they’re going to a rural high school, maybe they don’t have access to the same kinds of resources. So, you know, they might be going to a high school that doesn’t offer a whole lot of AP courses. They might be going to a high school where the counselors don’t know how to write good recommendation letters for elite colleges. And so these are students that are at risk of falling off the radar screen of the admissions officers at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, wherever. But the SAT score is something that could, that could flag them as a student with real potential. So the idea being that maybe you’re looking at an application, it doesn’t have a test score on it, you can see that the student did pretty well, but didn’t take the same kind of rigorous courses that they offer at elite prep schools. Doesn’t have a very well written letter of recommendation from a teacher or a counselor, and you just wish you knew. Is this a person who got a perfect 1600 on their SAT? Is this a person who got maybe a, a 1200 or an 1100? And if you had that information and the information was good, you might admit the student, but you’re kind of nervous about that student, so you’re not going to admit them. And so the basic tenor of the article was, gee, wouldn’t it be great if these colleges had access to the SAT score? But they’re test optional, and so they don’t necessarily, 

AW | 04:31 – And keep in mind that there was years of research and data that went into making the SAT an optional feature of the admissions process that sure, we know it’s a proxy for inequity in many ways. 

JV | 04:44 – Well, the trouble with college admissions is that just about everything that colleges use is subject to concerns about equity. So take something like the essay that students write for admissions. So some students write the essay without a whole lot of help because their parents aren’t necessarily college educated because the resources they have in their community to help them aren’t that great. And at an elite high school, they’re going to start working out on that essay months and months before it’s due. It’s going to go through draft after draft, it’s going to be reviewed by professional editors. It’s going to be a well-polished thing. So you, if you have the resources, you can make every part of your application look better. The SAT is indeed another one of those elements of the application where if you’ve got the resources, you can do test prep, you can sign up for a course that will promise to raise your scores, um, you have access to a lot of test taking strategies that aren’t necessarily available in a lower income community that is a concern. So how do we level the playing field? So, so the, the argument in favor of the SAT is, yeah, you know, it’s not necessarily the fairest thing that if you have money, you know, you can get a better score, but in spite of that, it may be more fair than all these other things where money also gives you an advantage. So it may be one of those things where, you know, money gives you a little bit less of an advantage than say, your extracurricular activities, which is something else that colleges will consider, Hey, if you got money, you know, you can sign your kid up for, you know, polo, get them tennis lessons, all these things that, that give them this advantage, uh, that a child in a lower income family is just not gonna have.

AW | 06:30 – And we saw that in the, I’m calling it the USC cheating scandal, but it wasn’t just USC, but in Southern California, there were a lot of high profile parents and their kids who were fraudulently manipulating the system where they were a coxswain of a crew team or a fencing team, and they’d get athletic scholarships to these arcane, generally privileged sports that somebody in an inner city high school might not have access to.

JV | 07:00 – Yeah. Well, of course in that, in that particular scandal, sometimes the, the, the child in question wasn’t an athlete at all. They just took a picture of them, um, you know, with a tennis racket in their hand. And, and you, you, you come up with this false narrative about someone being a tennis player. 

AW | 07:16 – So you explained it on Twitter in a pretty technical, statistical analysis of where Leonhardt’s take is off kilter. If you can put that into layman’s terms for our listeners, that would be terrific.

JV | 07:28 – Sure. Yeah. So, so basically, um, let me start by, by talking about the way we want to think about this question. So the question is, how much of a difference does it make to have access to a student’s SAT score? Does it allow you to get a much better picture of how they’re going to perform as a college student than if you read their admissions file without it? Now, let’s think about what’s in that admissions file. At most elite colleges, an admissions file is going to include a high school transcript, which includes not just what your grades were, but what courses did you take? Did you take rigorous courses? Did you, did you, you know, take the hardest courses that your high school has to offer. It’s going to include an admissions essay that is going to give an, an image of, you know, what is it that makes this student tick? It’s going to include recommendation letters, um, you know, from, from teachers who might say things along the lines of, well, I’ve been teaching for 20 years and this is one of the top two or three students I’ve ever taught. Um, with access to all that information, how much more accurate would the picture be if you had the SAT score? And so that’s what we really want to know. And so what made this particular, uh, column by Leonhardt Misleading was, that’s not the evidence that was depicted. The evidence that was depicted was a graph showing that, hey, SAT scores by themselves are pretty good predictors of how a student is going to perform in college. Okay, great. Um, that’s, that’s good to know. However, the question isn’t, are SATs a good predictor all by themselves? The question is, do SATs add information that we couldn’t get through all this other stuff that we already know about the applicant, what courses they took in high school, how they did in those courses, what their teachers think about them, what they say about themselves and their essay, what do they do in their spare time? So the argument that I made on my thread was, well, if you think about it, the way that you should think about it, the SAT yeah, you know, it gives, it does improve the quality of the picture to some extent, but not dramatically. You can already come up with a pretty good idea of whether an applicant has what it takes to be successful at an elite college on the basis of all the other information in their file. The SAT only refines that picture a little bit.

(Music Break) | 10:20

AW | 11:11 – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Jacob Vigdor. He’s a professor of public policy and governance at the University of Washington. So Jake, we think about grades as being a better predictor, but I can’t help but think that those are also very prone to inequity issues, thinking of implicit bias from teachers when we know that suspension rates of African American boys are higher, for example. So they would have a bigger challenge to get a better grade when they’re getting suspended at higher rates, for instance. And each school and teacher tends to have its own little philosophy about grades. So are grades a better predictor than SATs?

JV | 11:53 – They are not. And so this is another point that Leonhardt was trying to make, is that, well, if you, if you just sort of have a horse race between SAT score and high school grades, the SAT is a better predictor of how a student is going to perform in college than their high school grades are. And that has to do with a lot of the reasons that you mentioned. Um, the high school GPA of a student doesn’t account for what types of classes they took. Did they take AP classes? Did they take more vocational classes? Doesn’t account for that. 

AW | 12:28 – Don’t they sometimes have weighted GPAs? 

JV | 12:30 – Some high schools might have weighted GPAs, you know, but that varies. And depending on what high school you go to, there might be some high schools where the teachers are pretty lax about grading. There might be other high schools where it’s really tough to get a 4.0. And so, you know, you, you might have gone to, um, a, a high, a public high school in Appalachia, and you might’ve gotten a 4.0. Uh, because in that rural high poverty community, you’re one of the best students that your teachers have ever seen. And the question is, well, I mean, you, you might’ve been, you might’ve been a star in your rural community, but how will you fare when we put you on an elite college campus? And the concern is that that student who did really well in their high school just doesn’t have the, the, the foundation that they need to perform well in college. Uh, that that’s the concern anyway. 

AW | 13:26 – And I guess at the root of the question is, are we trying to predict performance when we’re looking at accepting students into any kind of academic program? Uh, I know in graduate school, they take into account a lot more of what a person might be adding to group study and to classroom participation that that student’s background. Sure. That student could have worked for 10 years before they went back to school. That person may not have had a great GPA, but if they were at the top of their field in a certain area, they’re going to be contributing in deep meaningful ways into the education of their peers.

JV | 14:04 – Yeah. The dirty little secret in all of this is that the number of students who have what it takes to be academically successful at an elite college is actually pretty large. So if you look closely at the evidence that Leonhardt put together for, for his column, it noted that, okay, there’s a difference in what you predict for a student with a 1600 SAT score versus a 1200 SAT score. And, and, and the notion being that, well, if you’re a 1200 SAT score kind of student, I mean, you know, you may not be cut out for the Ivy League. Well, here’s the thing. Leonhardt’s data shows that if you admit a student to one of these elite colleges with a 1200 SAT, you predict that they’re going to have a GPA of about a little bit over three. So they’re going to have basically a B average. That’s not bad. I mean, to graduate from an elite college with a B average, I mean, who, who thinks of that as, as being a failure?

AW | 15:06 – And that person who gets a B could be, let’s say, a leader in their community. They could be the editor of the school, newspaper, whatever it might be, while that person who gets a 1600 on their SATs and gets all A’s is just living in their dorm room, cranking out good work. So does that mean that that 1600 SAT student has contributed to that school being more elite or not?

JV | 15:30 – Yeah. You know, so, so for most of these colleges, um, you need at least a c average or 2.0 to stay out of academic trouble. So, so basically we’re saying that all these students, whether they’re the 1600 or the 1200, they have what it takes to meet the academic standards of the institution. And so then when we think about what should the priorities be, this is where the value struggle is. So do these institutions want to just go with the kids with the highest test scores, even though those kids might all be sort of from affluent suburban families where, you know, they’re going to get their elite degree and they’re going to go to Wall Street and be investment bankers and, and make money off a, uh, trying to do better deals than the next investment banker down the hall? Or do we want to be reaching out to people whose ambition is not to go to Wall Street, but it’s to go back to their community and be a doctor there to go back to their community and provide legal services there? Who do we want to have access to this education? The notion that some of these students can’t really cut at these colleges at false, all the students that we’re talking about here have what it takes to be academically successful. And it is really, as you said, a question of what does this institution want to prioritize? What kind of people do you want to have access and the benefit of the resources that you have?

Music Break | 17:18

AW | 17:54 – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Jacob Vigdor. He is a professor of public policy and governance at the University of Washington. So Jake, you were just talking about reframing the college admission quandary. It’s not necessarily which student is going to be more successful in class. We don’t necessarily want to have a predictor of success in the classroom as much as who do we want to have access to these resources that these fabulous universities have created? You mentioned three bullet points in your Twitter thread that I think we’re dead on. You’re saying if you really want to change the fundamental landscape of education, uh, I’m just paraphrasing you, you want to eliminate the advantages that large donors have that legacy admissions have, which is being outlawed in the global North except for the US generally. I don’t know of any other countries that have legacy admissions and also athletic scholarships. I, I don’t know how you frame it, but the emphasis on sports in admissions is that there’s so much money in these college sports. It’s a, it’s a real question of whether or not this is good for a campus or not. Am I accurately paraphrasing your thoughts here? Why don’t you expand if you can? 

JV | 19:09 – Yeah, no, absolutely. You just name three things that give advantages to, to kids that come from wealthy families. If their parents went to an elite college, they get an advantage at admissions at most institutions. Um, if their parents have the capacity to potentially donate a large sum to a university, that gives them an advantage. And then, you know, when, when it comes to athletics, I, you know, I am actually the, the father of a couple of high school athletes, and I’ve, I’ve seen enough of, of high school athletics to see that if you have a kid and you want your kid to be competitive for, say, division one NCAA athletics, it helps if you have a lot of money to invest in your kid because your kid is going to need to go to the elite summer camps where they provide extra training and instruction so that, that your kid can be the elite soccer goalie or the elite golfer. So that is yet another thing where most of the time for most of the athletic scholarships that we see out there, uh, the advantage is to the families that have the money that they can use to invest in the progress of their child as an athlete. 

AW | 20:19 – Now, the conundrum with this piece of the discussion is there’s two types of equity. We’re talking about equity for wealthy families, getting a leg up by a student being a terrific golfer, let’s say. But then there’s also sport by sport equity. Many would argue that if a football team or a basketball team is bringing in lots of revenue to a university, then that’s good for the university. And also they’re giving lots of underprivileged athletes a chance to get in an elite education. So there’s inequity within the sports as well. And you’re saying that some of the less popular sports in terms of TV revenue throw off the balance of college admissions with fencing or golf or whatever it might be. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you want to do away with these sports, right? What would be the solution then? 

JV | 21:11 – Well, you know, you could have these sports, I mean, you could have the fencing and the golf and the tennis, but you could just sort of say, look, there’s no separate admission standard for athletes at a lot of universities. The idea is, okay, if you are a recruited athlete, this is, this is the, you know, the, the scandal that we were talking about a little while ago. This is all about the notion that, hey, if you’re a recruited athlete, there’s a separate door for you. There’s separate standards. Okay? You could have a situation where you continue to have the sports teams. Um, but the idea would be, all right, there’s an admissions process and, and the, the, the folks in the admissions office are not gonna have the information about whether you’re an athlete or not. Okay. What does that mean? Um, it, it means that, you know, the fencing team might not be as good, the tennis team might not be as good. Uh, but when you get right down to it, you know, this, this notion that, hey, the athletics program is something that brings in money to, to the university at most universities, athletics doesn’t make money. Athletics is in, in a lot of universities, athletics is a drain on the academic budget of the institution because it costs a lot of money and it doesn’t necessarily bring a lot of revenue in. There’s not necessarily a whole lot of people paying top dollar for tickets to go see Ivy League fencing matches. 

AW | 22:31 – And even in the really successful programs, a lot of that money gets separated. Sure. So Alabama has pro level equipment for its football team and its stadium and everything. Sure. But that trickle down effect into the academics is far from a guarantee. 

JV | 22:48 – And the, the thing you got to bear in mind is that the money in college football and basketball is TV revenue, and that’s where it comes from. So you got a lot of networks paying top dollar for Alabama football games. There are no networks paying top dollar for Princeton football games, Ivy League athletics, the athletics at the elite colleges that we’re talking about, with the possible exception to Stanford, right. Which is part of a major conference. Ivy League athletics, no, they’re not going to get top dollar money deals. There’s not a whole lot of revenue for the institutions with a lot of these sports. 

AW | 23:28 – But the Ivy League students don’t get athletic scholarships. They get preference. And so that’s not necessarily working either. 

JV | 23:34 – Yeah. That’s the thing is that there, there is a separate admission standard effectively for a lot of these recruited athletes. And that’s, that’s what in introduces the equity problems in legacy admissions. 

AW | 23:45 – I had a discussion with a friend who we were talking about, Jared Kushner, he wasn’t really qualified to get into Harvard, but I think Charles Kushner’s father had given lots of money, and so they let him in. And that’s kind of a combination of both the donor privilege element that you were discussing as well as the legacy preference. And my friend said, you know, that money that Harvard received from Charles Kushner was able to do a lot more good than if they had just let some high achieving student from Appalachia get in. I thought that was wrong on many levels, but I wish I could have had you there to argue my case for me at the time. What would you have said to my friend when he made that case? Where is the specious logic there? 

JV | 24:32 – So the thing is, is that if, if you had these big donors that were making big gifts for financial aid, that would be one thing. Uh, but in most cases, so, so the, the average big dollar donor is not giving an institution money and saying, Hey, do whatever you want with this. Actually use it specifically for financial aid. Typically, your donors are coming in and saying, I want my name on your brand new state-of-the-Art Top Line Recreation Center. I want my name on your brand new state-of-the-art Chemistry Lab. I want to help you build facilities. I want something with my name on it. Occasionally you’ll get a donor that says, Hey, I want to fund a scholarship, and I want that scholarship to be specifically for someone from a high poverty community. But a lot of the time when you were talking about these big dollar donations to elite institutions, they come with strings attached. And the strings say, you have to use this money for what I want you to spend it on, and I want you to spend it on facilities. I want you to spend it on hiring elite academics to be on your faculty. I don’t necessarily want you to take my money and, and turn around and give it to some poor family.

AW | 25:50 – So, summing things up, let’s get back to the SAT predicament for a moment. What do you think should be done about standardized testing? Should it be included across the board, or do you think this hybrid system that we have right now, where some schools use it, some schools don’t, students don’t know whether they should be studying for it in preparation for the SAT, they, they don’t know what school they might be looking at. They don’t know if the school is going to be looking for SATs, et cetera. It’s kind of the wild west right now. 

JV | 26:20 – If you ask the question, could an elite college find the students who have the academic foundation to be successful at their institution without standardized test scores? The answer is an unambiguous resounding yes. They, when you think about the information that is in a college application, without the SAT scores, you have what you need. Because when you get right down to it, it’s much harder to get into these institutions than than to get good grades at the, in, at these institutions. I mean, we’ve had grade inflation, et cetera. So basically you take one of these students where the test scores look kind of low, you know, maybe it’s just a 1200 SAT, and yeah, that student is still gonna be fine. They’re going to be at virtually no risk of running into academic problems at the institution. So the SAT is really not necessary. The, it’s, it is something that causes a lot of stress for students. It’s something that students have to pay for. You know, the, the, the, the entity that would really profit from the reintroduction of standardized testing requirements is the organizations that write the tests and the organizations that the collect the money from applicants who are paying for the tests. So there’s some, uh, money to be made off of standardized testing, but it doesn’t really help students and it doesn’t really help institutions. 

AW | 27:52 – Jacob Vigdor is a professor of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. Jake, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio. 

JV | 28:01 – You bet, Alex. Thanks for having me. 

AW | 28:17 – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis, and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Tower of Power, Sam Cooke and Jamiroquai. To read a transcript of this show, go to SeaChangeRadio.com to stream, or download the show, or subscribe to our podcast on our site, or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand, and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.