Kyle, and What I Learned about College Admissions

In the fall of his senior year, Kyle Evans1, one of my top pre-calc students last spring, came to me for advice on his Questbridge scholarship application essay. I was scribbling edits, making comments, emphasizing a strong narrative, when I suddenly realized that the point of his essay was the struggles he’d faced freshman year as a homeless student. And now his family had just abruptly been left homeless again and was living in a single motel room.

Yeah, it was kind of a drag, he told me. Embarrassing. No privacy. Don’t tell anyone. He’d told the school counselor, but didn’t want the news getting about.

He maintained a 4.0 GPA that homeless freshman year, doing homework every night in the library. He ran cross country, although he would occasionally be benched for epileptic seizures. He transferred to our school his sophomore year, missing the first three weeks, which affected his grades and his progress on the math track.

His junior year, Kyle scored a 4 on the AP US History test; he couldn’t afford to take the AP English test and our school ran out of waivers. At this time, Kyle’s overall unweighted GPA is 3.7, weighted 4.2, putting him in the top 9% of the senior class. He took the AP Calculus test, but not the course, and I expect him to pass. He also took AP English Literature (the course and the test).

While his SAT scores were just above average, his ACT score composite was a 25 (super score 26), easily scaling the ACT Benchmarks for college readiness, even though he had no access to test prep courses. He achieved
a “Proficient” ranking in the rigorous California Early Assessment Program tests in both math and English. He received a 630 and 620 on the Chemistry and Math 2c Subject tests; while selection bias makes percentiles useless, any score over 600 denotes strong knowledge—and Kyle didn’t have a calculator for the Math 2c.

To put this in a broader perspective, only 26% of students met all four ACT benchmarks, and Kyle’s ACT scores are in the 85th percentile. Just 14% and 23% of all California juniors who took the EAP met the proficiency standard in math and English, respectively.

What percentage of those students had homes their entire high school careers, I wonder?

For much of his adolescence, Kyle has dreamed of attending an Ivy League university. Given his compelling story, his metrics, and the rhetoric on undermatching, I thought this a reasonable goal. His counselor, who has been incredibly supportive, anticipated that Kyle would have a strong run, with a good number of top 30 schools to choose from.

His results: All the Ivy League schools said no, except Brown. Stanford, Johns Hopkins, and UC San Diego rejected him. In addition to Brown, he was accepted at UCLA, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and UC Santa Barbara.

In no way do I think Kyle is being forced to “settle”; the four schools that accepted him are excellent.

I am, nonetheless, shocked and more than a little angry that so many top-ranked schools rejected him.

You’re thinking I’m overly optimistic, aren’t you? How to put this delicately: a kid can’t just be homeless and poor with high scores and good grades. He needs to be a great athlete in a desired sport, or a fantastic musician. On pure academics, “poor” doesn’t cut it unless the kid is black or Hispanic.

But Kyle is black.

So now consider his numbers again through the prism of race. On the Early Admissions test, 1080 disadvantaged African Americans met California’s EAP Proficiency standard in English; just 162 qualified in math. Five percent of African Americans, regardless of economic status, met the ACT benchmarks for college readiness; in California, just 600 blacks met that standard. Kyle’s composite superscore of 26 puts him in the top 3% of African Americans nationwide–again, of any income. In 2013, 2800 African Americans got a 4 on the AP US History test, while another 800 or so received a 5.

Academically and intellectually, Kyle has perhaps three thousand African American peers his age in the entire country. Culling that number down to economically disadvantaged blacks, he’s one of a few hundred.

I’m not convinced anymore that banning racial preferences solves anything, but the pretense gets tiresome. States can argue about whether to roll back bans, or Justice Scalia can convince his colleagues to declare such racial preferences unconstitutional. It won’t matter. Universities are going to continue to have different standards for blacks and Hispanics than they have for whites and Asians. They have to. There aren’t enough academically exceptional black and Hispanic students to use the same criteria by which Asians and whites are judged.

This year has seen several uplifting stories about exceptional African Americans gaining access to multiple elite colleges. But hundreds of whites and Asians with similar scores and achievements have no chance of getting into even one Ivy league school, or much of a shot at a top public university.

Besides, affirmative action bans only affect elite public universities. Private universities can use whatever standards they like, and they are clearly using different standards for blacks and Hispanics—as they are for legacies, athletes, and anyone whose parent writes them a check for a pile of money.

But the unstated reality always included, I thought, a passionate commitment to helping underprivileged blacks and Hispanics. And it turns out I’m wrong on that point.

Every year, each of the top twenty universities admit between 100 and 200 black students. This year, ten of those twenty schools couldn’t find any room for Kyle.

Some agree with Justice Clarence Thomas about “mismatched” students, that by accepting black or Hispanic students with lower qualifications, elite universities are actually causing academic harm to young men and women who would be better off in a college filled with lower ability students. While other research has called the mismatch theory into question, I think that all colleges are doing harm to many low-skilled students of all races, to say nothing of the value of a college degree, by refusing to demand that all their students demonstrate a baseline ability level.

But Kyle is, as I said, comfortably among the top 15-25% of all US students, regardless of race, and his academic profile demonstrates success in multiple subjects and metrics. I’ve spent a decade or more working with elite high school students who have been accepted to Stanford, Johns Hopkins, the top UC schools, and the occasional Ivy. I’m confident Kyle can perform.

Besides, Kyle’s abilities clearly weren’t a concern. Using the rejecting universities’ Common Data Sets2 , I’ve compiled the percentages of admitted students with section scores from the 60th to 90th percentiles, below 700 on the SAT or 30 on the ACT. Kyle would be in the middle or higher of a population that ranged from 20-60% of the admitted classes of schools that rejected him.

Achievement gap realities being what they are, most of the admitted black and Hispanic students would be in the lower half of that same population. So unless admissions change dramatically, every school that rejected Kyle accepted many black or Hispanic students (and, probably, a number of white athletes and legacies) with scores equivalent or much lower than his.

You could not have convinced me before this discovery that universities weren’t rigorously ensuring that they were accepting blacks and Hispanics by merit. Sure, they might start at a lower metric, but from that point, they took all the kids with the highest scores, right?

Well. Except for athletes.

Harvard has started to take basketball seriously. Stanford has three sports that disproportionately recruit African Americans (men’s basketball, women’s basketball, football). Elite schools would prefer that all their athletes be Richard Shermans and Dave Robinsons, but to field a competitive team, compromises must be made. Asian Americans believe, with a great deal of justification, that their candidates compete against Chinese nationals for a fixed percentage of “Asian” slots. Perhaps elite schools with athletic programs, conscious of how many “low scoring” slots they use up for black athletes, cut down the number of high-achieving non-athlete blacks they admit.

Moving from athletes to alumni, certainly wealthy black graduates should be allowed to buy their kids in just as white alumi have for generations. Then there’s the network connections. For KIPP, there’s scholarship and admissions pledges. Many media-savvy charter networks have extensive communication and development staffs, determined to reach out and forge relationships with top schools to ensure access for their students. Benjamin Banneker High, where Avery Coffey attends, is a selective school with a 99% black student body. Hard not to wonder if a candidate from a school that routinely produces highly motivated, low income African American students receives more consideration than an equally or even more qualified kid from a Title I school in a California suburb.

Not that these universities would ever admit to this sort of favoritism. They’d probably bring up Kyle’s extracurriculars. He only participates in one sport, which is probably more than he should, given his epilepsy. He’s a member of the National Honor Society, which meant he gave selflessly to volunteer his time to the community—Kyle’s efforts on his own behalf don’t count, which strikes me as unfair. Or perhaps they’d bring up his GPA or transcripts—our diverse high school has a much more competitive environment for grades and access to AP classes than a primarily black or Hispanic school. Maybe my recommendation letter was off in some way. Or maybe Kyle’s application essay wasn’t perfect—if I have one huge regret, it’s that I didn’t insist on reviewing his final draft.

None of that should have mattered. Four things about Kyle should have stood out in stark relief: he’s black, he has high test scores, he has excellent grades, and he’s not just economically disadvantaged, but sporadically homeless. In college admissions as outsiders understand it, these facts should have trumped all other considerations.

Universities turned to more subjective metrics as a means of creating an alternative access method for those blacks and Hispanics with lower test scores. They looked for “potential”. Did the candidate get good grades? Was he a good person who participated in the community? Did she take every challenging course she could, whether or not she succeeded, proving her desire to achieve? Now they are using these same “soft metrics” against blacks and Hispanics who actually have high test scores, actual ability.

College admissions is becoming ever more of a game, and universities seem more obsessed with a student’s impact on their endowments, their budgets, their reputations. We are assured that universities just use affirmative action to “level the playing field” but apparently leveling doesn’t entail merit-based admissions process with a different, if lower, objective standard. Instead, universities are using the same process they have for whites: placate the well-connected, find the students that will make the school look good—and then pick whatever smart ones fit in around the edges.

They can get away with this because the media supports their facade of access, acting as little more than cheerleaders. Rarely do I see a reporter acknowledge reality, as David Leonhardt comes close to doing here by describing access as a “patchwork of diversity”. Usually, they don’t look at the quilting too closely.

Instead, they push the narrative with inspirational stories. Any focus on hard-core metrics like test scores is considered….impolite. Acknowledging remedial abilities just interrupts the narrative, raises the politically strained issue of fairness and equal treatment. On that rare occasion when a black or Hispanic actually has competitive numbers, as is the case with Kwasi Enin or ‘Tunde Ahmad, we see several billion versions of the same story as the media leaps gratefully for the opportunity to provide hard metrics that are within range of those a white or Asian would need.

But more common are happy profiles like this LA Times piece on four African American girls from Alliance William & Carol Ouchi High School who are choosing between UCLA and UC San Diego, focusing on their concerns that these elite campuses might be racist. A more rigorously reported story would have revealed that the school’s EAP scores suggest that none of the girls are ready for college-level work, that readiness might be a bigger problem than racism. I’ve been trying to figure out why the Gates Millennium Scholars Program rejected Kyle, but the media is no help, providing only puff pieces short on specifics, often little more than press releases.

Also typical are the sad stories, portrayals of unprepared or struggling students of color who came to an elite university with high hopes only to struggle or completely fail, or stories sounding the alarm about the low rate of black and Hispanic college readiness. This kicks off the usual reproach cycle: Arne Duncan comes in with bromides about higher expectations, conservatives complain about affirmative action and mismatch theory, liberals push public school integration.

Yet no one wants to draw the obvious line from the vague praise of hardworking high-schoolers with no objective metrics to the sad profiles of the unprepared college students, much less the general concerns about readiness. So all of these stories exist in their own separate universes.

Rarely seen are profiles of economically disadvantaged blacks and Hispanics who meet the ACT benchmarks or score over 2000 on the SAT, or who score a 4 or a 5 on an AP test other than Spanish Language. In a much-discussed profile of an unprepared black student at Berkeley, just a paragraph was given over to his friend Spencer Simpson, who was clearly thriving. As I mentioned, I can find no rigorous reporting on the Gates Millennium Scholarship program, providing hard data on the winners, asking for SAT averages and perhaps a query or two about their demographic and geographic distribution, so that kids like Kyle can know if it’s worth their time to apply.

When Harvard brags that they’ve admitted more blacks than ever, reporters should be there asking what the average black SAT score was, or if their focus on basketball players has reduced opportunities for higher-achieving low income black students. When schools discuss their efforts to enroll more under-represented minorities, reporters should be there asking if high-scoring members of this population are being overlooked in favor of black or Hispanic legacies or athletes, or if their KIPP pledges led them to reject equally or higher qualified minority students lacking the charter’s promotion machine. When Kwasi Enin held a press conference to announce his selection of Yale, at least one reporter should ask Kwasi what schools accepted the 10 kids who were ranked ahead of him in high school.

I understand the reluctance to reveal just how few high academic achievers are found among students of color. But the media’s determination to focus on race first, objective metrics never, is allowing universities to do the same.

If there were more focus on high achieving students of color throughout their high school years, the ones with high test scores instead of just high GPAs, these young men and women would not only receive well-deserved publicity, but the universities would be served notice. The harsh truth is this: Kyle was rejected from all those schools because all those schools knew no one was watching.

Yes, I’m cynical. More than ever, I now know that the rhetoric we get from colleges, from the media, even from well-meaning high schools offering encouragement, is not much more than propaganda, unrelated to the gritty reality of building a media-approved freshman class that still keeps all the necessary connections well-oiled and satisfied.

But as the title says, this essay’s also about Kyle.

He’s a great kid–funny, quirky, chatty, upbeat. He was surprised and chagrined at his results, but not bitter. He committed to Brown, which had always been one of his top choices, and got a great financial package. His parents, who found an affordable apartment by the new year, have now sent all of their five sons to college, despite their financial struggles, and are relocating to Atlanta after driving Kyle to his future.

Kyle triumphed over economic insecurity to achieve academic success and acceptance to an Ivy League school, with the help of his loving family and a high school that gave him a good education and a supportive environment. But his success is due most of all to his development of great natural abilities and his determination in the face of considerable adversity—and no doubt, his positively chirpy good-spirited view of life.

So while I struggle with my own disillusionment about the college admissions process that seems not only opportunistic but very nearly corrupt, I still smile every time I remember that Kyle achieved his goal.

1 This is his real name.

2CDS Links: Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Penn, Cornell, Dartmouth, Stanford, UC San Diego, Johns Hopkins


One thought on “Kyle, and What I Learned about College Admissions

  1. Pingback: Kyle, and What I Learned about College Admissions (Michele Kerr) | Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice

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