Universities Becoming More Aware of Application Inequality, According to New Study

Posted By Eliana Osborn on December 10, 2015 at 3:41 pm
Universities Becoming More Aware of Application Inequality, According to New Study

Two students apply to a university.  One writes her essay, fills out her paperwork, and applies all on her own—she’s the first in her family to attend college and is figuring it out with the help of the internet and her school counselor.  The second student has an editor for his personal statement so it is nicely polished by the time anyone reads it.  His parents have helped him choose extracurricular activities all four years of high school, after carefully researching what clubs look best on college applications.

The reality is, some students have a lot of help putting together their application package.  And colleges and universities are becoming more aware of this trend and are figuring out ways to make it a more level playing field.

New research published in the journal Research in Higher Education finds that elite universities, in particular, are aware of what they call ‘application-boosting activities.’  This non-student assistance is primarily seen in high-income families, which creates an application inequality that schools are trying to remedy.

Researchers from New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, looked at how effective these boosting strategies are at getting students into top-tier universities.  They found that no one strategy guaranteed college acceptance, but that they did make a difference—and more now than in the 1990’s.  Application enhancement activities like “extracurricular leadership activities and AP exams predicted enrollment in the 2000s. Surprisingly, volunteering failed to predict college enrollment,” according to a press release.

Making AP courses available to all students, not just those from higher socioeconomic levels, is one attempt to make applications fairer.  Nevertheless, research has shown that this alone is not a guarantee for college success among students of lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

“No single enhancement strategy predicted enrollment in selective colleges, but overall high use of enhancement strategies proved to be an important factor, suggesting these strategies may be working in combination when it comes to selective college admissions,” write the researchers.

By simply being aware that some students are using enhancement, admissions officers can decide what factors they want to focus on in enrollment. For students worried about the competitive application process, strong academics are still one of the most important factors. As schools recognize boosting strategies, certain behaviors will look less impressive and gaming the system may reap fewer rewards.  Instead, a well-rounded applicant with interests in and out of school, combined with a record of scholastic success, continues to be the surest way to get into the school of your dreams.

Eliana Osborn
Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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