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Mysterious admissions standards

Andrew Nesi | Thursday, November 29, 2007

In a few months, we will ruin thousands of kids’ lives.

And most people around here will hope that next time, we get to ruin more lives than we do this time around.

Last year, 14,500 high school seniors applied to Notre Dame – and only 3,300 were admitted. So, yes, we told more than 10,000 kids, “No, we prefer someone else.” And this year, if projections are right, we’ll deny even more. (Full disclosure: I work in the admissions office as a student e-mail responder. I have no influence, though, in making admissions decisions or on the decisions I discuss below.)

No doubt, some of these 10,000-plus kids had no place at Notre Dame. But the overwhelming majority of denied applicants, Admissions Director Dan Saracino told The Observer last year, “could do the work at Notre Dame.” So why weren’t they admitted?

Because some other applicant – well, more than 3,000 other applicants – had stronger profiles. Something tipped the admissions scales in their favor: their SAT scores and grades were higher, they were football stars, they seemed particularly involved in high school, etc. Some fit the class better – bringing a unique talent that other applicants simply could not. And then there are what I’d call “dirty strengths” – “dirty” not because their strengths are actually less valuable, but because nobody seems to like to talk about them too frankly: their parents went to Notre Dame, they are an ethnic minority, there is a building on-campus named after their great-uncle, their mom or dad is a well-respected scholar in Science, or Engineering, or Arts and Crafts.

And when we reject kids, I’m willing to guess that at least some of them don’t immediately think, “You know what, I bet I just wasn’t as smart or involved as those other kids.”

They blame the Black Bogeyman – the amorphous “affirmative action-admit” who, no doubt, took their spot in the class.

They are convinced that if it weren’t for the “dirty strength” admitted students, they’d get to go to Notre Dame. And at a certain point, some of them are right: There are kids, each year, who would have gotten in had we not granted substantial preference to ethnic minorities.

But this isn’t a column about affirmative action based on race – in fact, I happen to believe that it is justified. It is a column about the way we “sell” these preferences and how we engage those who feel slighted by these preferences.

If we truly want to advance the cause of diversity, we need to confront those who blame affirmative action for their rejections. We need to demystify the Black Bogeyman.

How? Much the same way that we share general profiles of admitted students each year, we should share profiles of different types of admitted students in our pool: We should offer a general profile of our admitted students who are legacies, a general profile of our admitted students who are ethnic minorities, and a general profile of our other admitted students.

Why? For one, sharing these numbers means that rejected students will no longer be able to blame an amorphous concept. We won’t look like we’re operating in secrecy, like we’re hiding something from prospective students, about the true meaning of affirmative action on the basis of race or legacy status.

More importantly, by frankly admitting the practical implications of different forms of affirmative action, we will facilitate a more honest and pragmatic discussion of its merits. Yes, we’d be inviting controversy, but we should have the strength in our own convictions to face that controversy head-on.

By not releasing these profiles, we send the wrong message. We suggest that we have some reason to keep these numbers to ourselves; whether we mean to or not, we imply that the disparity is embarrassingly large. We suggest that the public outcry over seeing them would derail our diversity efforts.

Sharing these profiles would open up the debate in real terms. We could discuss not only whether preference is appropriate in the abstract, but also how much preference is acceptable. It would enrich the debate about affirmative action, and the debate would become more meaningful and practical.

And if you, as a college admissions office, believe in affirmative action – whether for legacy status, or race, or both – this sort of disclosure will ultimately help your cause. With full disclosure, you can effectively engage and defeat the ignorance that the current vagueness fosters.

And it’s the only way to address the ultimate goal of affirmative action: greater ethnic diversity. Without acknowledging the gap and its magnitude, it’s easy to deny the need for diversity and preference. But the fact that an achievement gap still exists so prominently underlies the need for affirmative action programs – a need that many people cannot appreciate when considered only in abstractions.

Dismantle the “Black Bogeyman” and extend a bit of Notre Dame education to everyone – even those 10,000+ to whom we say, “no thanks.”

Andrew Nesi is a junior American Studies major from Fairfield, Conn. He has his own “dirty strengths,” if you know what he means. He can be reached at anesi@nd.edu

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.