Yet Another Bad Admissions Idea

The College Board’s “Landscape” tool is terrible news for admissions fairness.

Leigh made a 34 on the ACT. Bill made a 23. Which of the two do you want attending your academically selective college? According to a traditional or merit-based admissions standard, the answer is almost certainly Leigh, whose aptitude and prior learning mark her as the stronger candidate by far. Yet, following the logic of Landscape, the College Board’s quietly insidious “contextualization” resource, admissions officers may find themselves shunting Leigh aside in Bill’s favor.

Developed in 2018 and broadly available since 2020, Landscape is a free admissions dashboard that allows decisionmakers to “consider each student within the context of where they’ve learned and lived.” If Leigh’s high-school education took place at an Ivy League-feeding preparatory academy, Dashboard will convey as much, thus implicitly devaluing the young woman’s achievements. (After all, many of her classmates did just as well.) If Bill stood head and shoulders above his own peers, an academic giant by the standards of his community, Dashboard will know that, as well. All of a sudden, our hero’s 23 doesn’t look so bad.

The social engineering permitted by Landscape ought to be well beyond the remit of campus educrats.There is, admittedly, something in this way of thinking that appeals to American readers. Bill pulled himself up by his bootstraps and made the most of the opportunities that were given to him. A country that makes no provision for talented youngsters in obscure circumstances is going nowhere fast.

The problem is that Bill really is less prepared to succeed on an elite campus than is Leigh, irrespective of our ideological preferences. Moreover, to favor Bill over Leigh is to engage in a process that brings to mind China’s social-credit scoring in reverse. That kind of social engineering ought to be well beyond the remit of campus educrats, especially given the admissions jurisprudence that emerged last summer in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard.

The first of these points is so incontrovertible as to be hardly worth arguing about. As economist and law professor Richard Sander wrote for the Martin Center almost a decade ago, “dozens of careful, peer-reviewed studies” indicate that students who attend colleges for which they are not prepared suffer a learning penalty in the classroom. Unable to keep pace with their peers, they are far likelier than others to fail, drop out, or switch to an easier (and perhaps less remunerative) academic major. Taking this “Mismatch Theory” into account doesn’t mean that all university doors must be shut to clever students from unenviable high schools. It does mean that justice for Bill may not involve sending him to Yale.

Yet even if mismatches of this kind were not a factor, one would still be wise to doubt Landscape’s appropriateness. The reason is that the tool encourages thinking that should have no place at the admissions table. Baked into Landscape’s logic is the idea that Bill would have had Leigh’s ACT score if he had been given her advantages. But, of course, that proposition is unfalsifiable. We can neither observe nor test it. More than that: It takes for granted the demeaning notion that Leigh’s achievements are a mere function of her environment. Landscape doesn’t and can’t say anything about the hours she put in or the seriousness with which she approached her work over the course of many years.

And what of Leigh’s parents, who scrimped and saved to pay for private school in the first place (or who worked second jobs to afford the good school district, the effective tutor, etc.)? It is fashionable to hate such people and spit on their sacrifices. But must we encode that prejudice into our admissions processes?

Trustees mustn’t permit an admissions regime that prioritizes vague data from racially suggestive categories.Finally, there is the matter of Landscape’s strange impersonality, a necessary feature given data limitations and privacy concerns but a corrupting one nonetheless. Among the tool’s “indicators” are crime rates, free-and-reduced lunch usage, and household structures within neighborhoods. Missing altogether are applicant-specific data for any of these categories. Take “household structure” as an example. It is not difficult to believe, as the Annie E. Casey Foundation recently asserted, that “major changes in parental relationships … can disrupt a child’s routines [and] education.” But what do the community’s divorce statistics or fatherlessness rates have to do with Bill, who, for all we know, has a loving, demanding, flesh-and-blood dad at home? Why should admissions officers give Bill’s application a “household structure” bump merely because of the experience of his neighbors?

Is Landscape a mere racial-admissions workaround, developed in the lead-up to last year’s Students for Fair Admissions case and used now to sneak past the ruling? There is reason to suspect as much, particularly given the Biden administration’s determination to provide cover for universities that defy the Supreme Court. One imagines that future cases will slam shut this cracked door. Until then, it is the job of boards, elected officials, and alumni associations to keep administrators in line.

If colleges wish to admit high-achieving students from disadvantaged zip codes, let them do it—provided the measures of achievement are, like standardized-test scores, objective. What we mustn’t permit is an admissions regime that prioritizes vague data from racially suggestive categories. If I sat on a college’s board of trustees, I’d be asking whether Landscape falls on the right side of that line.

Graham Hillard is editor at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.