What Do Selective Colleges Look for in an Applicant? Hooks (page 2)
In admissions parlance, a hook is a special characteristic a college deems desirable, over and above the qualities it is generally seeking in its students. Hooks are institutional priorities that don’t appear explicitly on any of the admissions forms but that can be powerful factors, tipping the outcome in favor of the applicant. A good understanding of the different kinds of hooks and their role in admissions decisions can help you appreciate the many considerations beyond the traditional academic and extracurricular record that can lead to an “admissions tip.”
Most applicants compete not with the whole applicant pool but within specific categories, where the applicant-to-available space ratio may be more, or less, favorable than in the pool at large. . . . Students in the selected categories, which vary from institution to institution, have a “hook” because they help meet institutional needs. - Paul Marthers, dean of admission at Reed College, reflecting on admissions practices at selective institutions
A legacy is a child of someone who received an undergraduate degree from the school (and the alum doesn’t even have to be famous). Some colleges, like MIT and the University of Pennsylvania, also count grandchildren of alumni as legacies, and a few, like Stanford University, consider children to be legacies if a parent received an undergraduate or graduate degree there. Colleges are usually eager to recruit legacy children, since they believe that legacies are likely to have a strong commitment to their parent’s college, accept an offer of admission, and become enthusiastic, contributing students. Parents, in turn, like the idea of having a child follow in their footsteps and are more likely to support their alma mater financially and in other ways if their child enrolls there.
Another reason for the legacy practice is the image of the college as a humane, caring community. Legacy status is sometimes regarded as akin to giving preference to a member of one’s own family. But the bottom line plays a major role as well. Giving special admissions preference to legacies can be a wise financial decision for colleges that depend heavily on contributions to support their programs. Colleges and universities throughout the country regularly solicit alumni for donations. Tuition pays only part of the cost of educating a student at private institutions, so fundraising and other forms of external support are critical for colleges to operate successfully. Many public research universities also receive considerably less than half of their funding from state sources and tuition. While legacy status may be a factor in admissions at some public institutions, it plays an important role in admissions at most private ones. Some private colleges, in fact, have special information sessions for legacy applicants, special legacy-only interviews, and staff assigned to deal specifically with legacy concerns.
How Big Is the Legacy Advantage?
At many selective private colleges, legacies tend to be admitted at up to twice the overall rate of admission or more. At Dartmouth College, for example, where about 30 percent of legacy applicants were offered admission to the class of 2012, less than 13 percent of applicants overall were admitted. At Middlebury College, about 48 percent of legacy applicants for the class of 2012 were accepted compared to the general acceptance rate of 18 percent. Admission rates differ partly because the legacy pool overall is usually somewhat stronger than the general applicant pool. Also, many legacies choose to apply early action or early decision, which, by itself, can boost the chances of admission. But clearly a separate, distinct boost comes with legacy status at many institutions. Being a legacy by no means ensures admission, however, since selective colleges have low admission rates to begin with.
The practice of legacy admissions comes under fire from time to time as inconsistent with the values of equal opportunity. Critics claim that because most alumni of selective colleges are well-off Caucasians, the use of legacy status as an admissions factor amounts to affirmative action for well-to-do white students. Colleges, however, claim that the legacy preference is small while the benefit to the institution is potentially great. They see alumni as a major source of donations, some of which support need-based financial aid programs that help diversify the student body. Alumni whose children are admitted, the colleges argue, are more likely to make the contributions that make institutionally based financial aid possible for those who need it, and it keeps the family of the college together for another generation. For now, legacy status continues to be a hook, and an important one, at most private colleges, selective by our definition or not.
If it weren’t for the generosity of alumni, we would not be able to provide the education we do. So yes, we do give preference. - Thomas Parker, dean of admissions and financial aid at Amherst College
Many selective colleges have a small number of so-called development admits each year—students who would be unlikely to be admitted were it not for their potential to bring significant donations to the college. Some alumni are major donors to a college. Their children get a double hook when they apply—as legacies as well as development cases. In addition, the nonlegacy children of wealthy donors who have contributed significant sums of money to a college (or are about to do so) are also hooked.
How big a donation does it have to be? This varies from college to college, and not surprisingly, colleges do not advertise what those amounts might be. Colleges justify development admits because of the institution’s need for additional funding to support the school in various ways. The development office is probably not actively involved in recruiting such students. But once they enter the applicant pool, development admits are usually flagged for special admissions consideration. In these cases, admissions staff determine whether such students can do the work that will allow them to graduate from the institution. The ability to graduate from the college, not an easy thing to define, is usually what is meant when an institution says that a student is “qualified” to attend.
There are typically ten or fewer major development cases each year. There is a rigorous standard to be treated as a development case. Significant donations over a period of years such as donating a building or something. Schools with big endowments don’t really give that much advantage because their applicant poolsare so large and well qualified and because they have so much money. - Karl Furstenberg, former dean of admissions and financial aid at Dartmouth Colleg
Development admits don’t significantly affect the admission of other students because there aren’t very many of them. Nevertheless, the practice is kept low profile to avoid publicity that would call attention to it. This changed, at least for a while, with the publication of The Price of Admission by Daniel Golden, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who threw new light on these often-controversial practices. The colleges were generally not pleased with the publicity, but none of them argued with his facts.
Being a member of a traditionally underrepresented group (African American, Native American, or Hispanic) can also be a hook at colleges eager to diversify their student bodies. Asian Americans are occasionally included in this group, especially at colleges in parts of the country with low Asian American populations, but most often are not. Most colleges believe that a diverse student body is an essential part of a high-quality educational experience for all students, and many applicants agree.
The diversity hook in college admissions is formally known as race-sensitive admissions or, more commonly, as affirmative action. Race-sensitive admissions policies were challenged on the constitutional level in a case heard by the Supreme Court in 2003. Gratz v. Bollinger involved a white student denied admission to the University of Michigan’s College of Literature and Science, although she had higher GPA and standardized test scores than some African American, Hispanic, and Native American applicants who were admitted. (Lee Bollinger, now president of Columbia University, was president of the University of Michigan when the lawsuit was first filed; hence the case bears his name.)
The Court ruled 6–3 against Michigan’s policy of awarding an additional twenty points, out of a possible 150, to students who fell into one of these three racial categories (100 points were sufficient to earn admission to the university). The majority of the Court believed that a system that automatically awarded a substantial bonus to those belonging to particular groups placed too much emphasis on race. At the same time, however, a majority of the Court upheld racial and ethnic diversity as a “compelling state interest” and reaffirmed the importance of giving colleges and universities some leeway in how they make decisions. Although a simple point system can no longer be used to achieve diversity, the Court’s ruling allows colleges to use race as a factor in the decision mix in more subtle ways.
Most colleges that practice race-sensitive admissions have been unaffected by the ruling, since they did not use a point system to begin with. They can continue to consider race in the admissions process as they have in the past to ensure a diverse student body. Campuses using a point system had to revise their processes, however, to continue to consider race in admissions. The ruling does not affect campuses that do not practice race-sensitive admissions. Gratz v. Bollinger does not apply to public universities in California and Florida, for example, since state laws there prohibit public universities from using race-sensitive admissions in any form. Ensuring diversity without directly considering race has been a major challenge for those campuses.
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