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4 Ways College Admissions Committees Stack the Deck in Favor of Already Privileged Applicants

It's time to stop stigmatizing affirmative action as an "unfair advantage" for historically unrepresented groups.

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Duke and many other research institutions have long since switched to a need-blind admissions process, but not by any legal mandate. And many colleges, especially small liberal arts schools, have started talking about ending need-blind admissions since their endowments have not fully recovered from the 2008 economic downturn. According to an October 30 Inside Higher Ed report, the colleges considering the change include “wealthy institutions like Grinnell College and not-so-wealthy institutions like Albright College, in Pennsylvania.” And the prestigious Wesleyan University has already abandoned its need-blind policy because according to University President Michael Roth, it was just too expensive.  

4. Criminal Background Check

During the mid-1990s, college applications commonly asked whether or not applicants had ever been convicted of a felony. Felony conviction was – and is – considered a legitimate reason for discrimination against an applicant. Most high school seniors applying for colleges are asked this routine question on their applications, but for some, actual criminal background checks have become much more commonplace.

In 2007, when a Virginia Tech student opened fire on students and professors on campus before killing himself, many in the public and the media asked why Virginia Tech hadn’t routinely subjected its applicants to criminal background checks. Since then, according to University Business, criminal background checks have been on the rise. That same year, the University of North Carolina system started ordering background checks on certain students, “because they had unexplained gaps in their applications or admitted involvement in a crime.” The practice has only been taken up slowly, however, as universities fear being accused of profiling potential students. Thus far, the checks have become more prevalent among students entering vocational fields like teaching, pharmacy, nursing or physical therapy, in which students must work with either minor students or vulnerable patients.

But the practice is so new that its legal implications have yet to be hashed out, and there is no current mechanism for distinguishing non-violent felonies like marijuana possession from more serious crimes like armed burglary or assault. It’s already difficult for students with minor adolescent drug convictions to attend college – under current federal law, they are not eligible for student loans. And because black youth are imprisoned at a rate nearly 10 times that of white youth for drug offenses, and black and Hispanic youth account for about 70 percent of all youth arrests, this policy disproportionately penalizes youth of color, many of them poor. Furthermore, this policy means that one mistake in early adolescence can permanently destroy a student’s chances of attending college if they don’t earn full scholarships or their parents can’t afford to pay for their education.

Clearly, there are many arbitrary factors that go into a college admissions decision -- some of which benefit already-privileged applicants, and others that attempt to correct for deep historical imbalances. It’s long past time to stop stigmatizing affirmative action, and look instead at the various ways the system still unfairly privileges well-off students, while continuing to perpetuate the inequalities affirmative action is supposed to help eradicate.

Kristin Rawls is a freelance writer whose work has also appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, GOOD Magazine, Religion Dispatches, Killing the Buddha, Global Comment and elsewhere online.