College Admissions: Not by the Numbers


As universities opened another semester this fall, the usual complaints were heard regarding admission procedures that selected qualified black and Hispanic students on the basis of more than just grade point averages and test scores. At UW-Madison, ACT scores for blacks and Hispanics averaged 25 and 26 respectively, while 29 and 30 was the white and Asian norm.

Those who attack admissions procedures designed to accept a qualified but diverse student body, base their entire case on grades and test scores, and they argue university officials must remain blind to all other factors. The U.S. Supreme Court has however ruled it is not unconstitutional to consider more than just GPA and test scores. While the Court found unconstitutional in Gratz v Bollinger (2003), a Michigan undergraduate admissions process that gave blacks 20 extra points due to the color of their skin, as it violated Equal Protection, they simultaneously upheld a Michigan Law School approach in Grutter v Bollinger (2003), that allowed race to be taken into account, since the Constitution does not prohibit the consideration of the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.

The problem with the Numbers School, that is, those who worship test scores and GPAs to the exclusion of all else, is their approach is flawed. Half of their argument is premised on the tenuous assumption that standardized scores are necessarily valid, reliable, and infallible. Whatever these tests measure, they certainly do not mean persons whose ACT scores were 25 or 26 are unqualified. Even test administrators admit that. To suggest a 29 is necessarily better than a 26 goes too far, since the outcomes could easily be reversed, if both repeated the test. Standardized results are just not that reliable to allow a conclusion that a 26 will always be a 26, or a 29 will always yield a 29. They are just a snapshot in time. The differences between scores of 25 thru 30 are just distinctions without differences, since all applicants in that range are qualified.

The other half of the Numbers School argument, based on grades, is perhaps a better indicator of success, but also not fail safe. Since grading standards differ from school to school, teacher to teacher, and course to course, a cumulative GPA from one place cannot be reliably pitted against a GPA from another. Schools in different towns may have entirely different ethics when it comes to grading. Some may give out As like candy, while others may cling to old-fashioned notions of C meaning average. Everyone had a teacher who was known as tough, and heard of others who were soft. Some avoided hard courses for fear of a bad grade, while others took their lumps, and signed up for challenging, but difficult subjects. To suggest a 3.6 GPA from one school is necessarily better than a 3.5 GPA from another is absurd. Who can say a 3.8 student in Art Appreciation is necessarily more intelligent than a 3.2 in Nuclear Physics? While grades should be used, they should never be viewed as infallible.

The bottom line is the numbers game is loaded with flaws, and the Constitution does not mandate the use of only test scores and grade points. While colleges should reject unqualified persons, applicants with tests scores of 25 or better are clearly qualified, and universities should continue to consider a range of factors.

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