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Context and the College Admissions Process: How to Boost Inclusion

In a segment on National Public Radio’s Hidden Brain, Rachel Martin interviewed NPR’s social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam on research behind efforts to get more low-income students into college; more specifically, the most selective colleges.

This research is important for several reasons. From a socio-economic standpoint, encouraging low-income students’ access to the nation’s prestigious higher education institutions is an important step toward social mobility and limiting the growth of the wealth gap. But there’s also the lingering correlation between income and race. For example, according to the Pew Research Center, “blacks on average are at least twice as likely as whites to be poor or to be unemployed. Households headed by a black person earn on average little more than half of what the average white households earns.”

Vedantam explained the methodology behind a study conducted by Michael Bastedo, a professor of education at the University of Michigan, and Nicholas Bowman of the University of Iowa. “[T]hey recruited more than 300 college admissions officers from over 150 selective colleges and ran an experiment on them,” he says. “Some admissions officers were given the kind of information you typically see on a college application, including details of the applicant's high school. Other officers were given slightly different information.”

The information given to the second group was much more detailed, including the percentage of students on free and reduced lunch, the number of APs that are offered and the average score on an AP exam. The intent was to provide greater context to the second group when considering applicants.

Vedantam says, “Bastedo found that even when you provide exactly the same kind of information to the two groups of admissions officers but you provide one much more by way of context, this makes a huge difference.” Quantitatively, Bastedo and Bowman found that admissions officers who had more information were 25 percent more likely to admit a low-income student than those with the less detailed information.

The goal of the admissions officers in the study was to take into account the unique factors impacting applicants in order to boost the representation of low-income, underprivileged students. Intuitively, they knew that a student with certain demographic factors would have access to fewer AP courses or have a lower guidance-counselor-to-student ratio. However, when they were presented with that specific, detailed information, it was easier for them to get a more intimate picture of the difficulties students from schools in low-income settings would have competing with students from more affluent schools. So, as NPR points out, when an admissions officer saw that an applicant had only taken one AP class, what would seem like a negative on an application is mitigated by the additional context.

While the study in the Hidden Brain piece was focused on the college admissions process, it has some important parallels for the business world. Hiring managers hoping to recruit a diverse pool of employees should seek ways of adding additional context to the process. Be inclusive!

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