The Prescription for Admissions

The Supreme Court ruling makes it clear that process matters when it comes to striving for diversity. And Corporate America can help

By Jennifer Merritt

At first glance, it looks like quite a paradoxical ruling: How could the Supreme Court uphold using racial preferences in admissions to the University of Michigan Law School, yet reject them for use by the larger university in its undergraduate admissions process?

The answer isn't as confusing as it might appear: In essence, the high court is saying that there's a right way and a wrong way to promote diversity through affirmative action. And across American colleges and universities today, a wide disparity between the way undergraduate and graduate schools conduct their admissions procedures is apparent. While all may be searching for the same ideal mix of academic achievement, talent, and racial and ethnic diversity, the way they strive to achieve that goal has become markedly different.

Undergraduate admissions are often like a cattle roundup -- as many as 30,000 eager high school senior applicants are sloshed into a pool of hopefuls every year at some megasize state schools. Picking the best of the bunch is no small feat, since it involves a final admissions group that's still the size of a small town.

LOWER RATIO.

  Undergraduate applications are processed by admissions offices that often employ a dozen staffers to review tens of thousands of applicant files, whittling the herd to maybe 10,000 qualified individuals who will be offered a spot in the incoming class. The University of Michigan received 25,108 undergraduate applications for the fall 2002 freshman class, admitting 12,315, or about 50% of the pool.

Turn to the graduate-school world, and the selection process becomes much more focused and selective. Most of these institutions, especially law and business schools, enroll classes that number from 200 to 500 or so each year -- and, in many cases, employ nearly the same number of admissions staffers as an undergraduate admissions office at a state institution. So, the ratio of admissions reviewers to students is drastically lower, which has now been deemed a good thing, in the eyes of the Supreme Court.

A school like Stanford Graduate School of Business received 5,864 applications for last fall's entering MBA class, yet it offered a seat to just 8% of the pool, or 469 people. Even the University of Michigan's B-school received 4,048 applications for the Class of '04 -- of which some 19% were admitted, about 769. Many of those applications were individually scrutinized, and 100% of applicants who were admitted were interviewed by the admissions staff or an alum.

DEEP POCKETS.

  Imagine reading and handling 25,000 applications instead of 4,000 -- and then interviewing some 12,000 prospective students, instead of 800. The ratio of applicants to admissions staff at the undergraduate level puts institutions in a serious bind when it comes to keeping their student bodies diverse in the way that smaller, more agile grad schools do.

It's one thing for a graduate school of law or business to take a "whole person" approach to admissions -- they have the comparative luxury of smaller applicant pools, ample time, and smaller staff-to-applicant ratios.

Then there's money. Grad schools, especially prestigious or well-ranked ones, often have healthy endowments separate from their parent university and rich resources to hire as many admission staffers as needed to pore through applications on a case-by-case basis. Often, grad schools hire their own alums to read and assess applications.

Grad students sit on admissions committees to help decide who makes the cut. What's more, many wannabe law and business-school students can automatically be shucked from the pile because of low GPAs, test scores, or in the case of MBA programs, too little work experience. By Jennifer Merritt

SKIMMING THE TOP.

  Viewed in this context, it's easier to see why the individualistic, hands-on style of admissions for a prestigious grad school won't work for the freshman class of a public university in one of the largest states in the union -- at least not without sizable investments in admissions staffs. And in these hard times, most states can't afford such aggressive personnel moves.

Nonetheless, some schools, such as Michigan, have used a point system of admissions -- including points for GPA, extracurricular activities, and yes, race -- to help cut through the mountain of applicants begging to be admitted. Other state universities have opted for the "10% rule" -- where the top 10% of students at each high school in a state is automatically eligible for acceptance.

Still, even that plan has its imperfections. Bernard Milano, president of the KPMG Foundation and a member of the President's Board of Advisors on Historically Black Colleges & Universities, sees a growing trend of talented students leaving magnet and private schools to return to underperforming schools, where they'll be guaranteed a top 10% spot.

DESIRED OUTCOME.

  Instead of allowing for this kind of school-shopping, Milano says educators should embrace the critical part of the Supreme Court's decision -- racial diversity in the classroom is a desired outcome and shouldn't be disallowed. "It's the tools for achieving diversity that are being criticized," says Milano. "Since it's permissible to look at the whole person, we have to come up with some mechanism and process that allows us to achieve that."

That means corporations may have to pick up the slack in assisting universities, whether with grants to beef up admissions staffs or a compendium of best practices that can be used across the university universe.

The decision "will make admissions more cumbersome and more challenging, especially when many institutions are facing budget cuts," says Karen Johns, director of the Diversity Pipeline Alliance, an umbrella group that pulls together more than a dozen nonprofit organizations that support education programs for minorities from junior high school through MBA programs. "Companies should be convening some of the best minds...to help schools figure out best practices."

"CALL TO ARMS."

  Johns and others say it'll be up to companies to put their money and time where their amicus briefs were in the University of Michigan case -- behind properly administered preferences that foster a greater good. Says Johns: "This is really a call to arms for Corporate America to redouble their efforts and do even more."

That support could come in the form of a think tank for best practices, moving the financial burden of coming up with new ideas for implementing whole-person admissions away from cash-strapped universities. Or it could be an even simpler solution -- endowing funds to undergraduate admissions offices so they can take the same care and time with each application as graduate schools do already.

If grad schools such as Michigan's Law School have a formula that works -- and that's now Supreme Court-approved -- why not help make it easier for undergraduate institutions to do the same?

Merritt covers business and graduate education for BusinessWeek in New York

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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