Pew study on what criteria Americans think should matter for college admissions

October 21, 2022 • 11:15 am

Although colleges and universities are, left and right, dropping or devaluing high school grades and standardized tests as criteria for admission, the American public still maintains that these two factors (which I’ll consider as indices of “merit”) are the most important considerations, ahead of “community service and involvement” and well ahead of being first in your family to go to college, athletic ability, race or ethnicity, gender, and whether one is a “legacy” (i.e., had a relative attend the applicant’s school). This is what today’s article concludes.

The big contention, of course involves whether one should consider “merit” (as evinced by tests and grades) a lot more important than “race or ethnicity”. This is the conflict involved in debates about affirmative action.  But according to this Pew study in March, all groups see indices of merit as more important than ethnicity, though the emphasis on merit has dropped a tad in the last three years. But the order of importance of the eight factors shown below, including legacy admissions and “outside activities,” hasn’t changed since 1999.

Click on the screenshot to see a summary of the study. (The methodology is here, detailing the use of 11,687 subjects.)

Here are the overall results, lumping all Americans together. Each criterion was weighted by each respondent as “major”, “minor” or “not a factor” in how they should be weighted for college admissions.

As you see, high-school grades are by far the most important criterion, followed by standardized tests, and then, in decreasing order of importance, “first in the family,” athletic ability, race or ethnicity, legacy admission, and gender.  I would reverse grades and standardize tests, since standardized tests put everyone on the same scale, while high school grades vary tremendously among schools. Rather than “community service involvement,” I’d use “extracurriculars” as an index of breadth of interests.  For “race or ethnicity” I’d substitute “socioeconomic class”, which would allow a form of affirmative action for racial groups but also give a leg up to the disadvantaged in other groups.  Then “first in family”, which is correlated with socioeconomic status. I wouldn’t consider athletic ability at all, nor whether one’s relatives attended the school, but schools use the latter criterion as a way of ensuring an income stream from families with an intergenerational college affiliation.

I’m not sure about gender, as more women than men now get college degrees, so the problem is largely solved. But I’d make an exception for historically male colleges like military schools, where qualified women should be admitted on the same basis as qualified men.

Here’s the inter-year comparison (2019 vs. 2022) of how grades and standardized tests are rated, which is of lesser interest than how different population groups and how Democrats vs. Republicans see these factors. Blacks and Hispanics tend to see high school grades as less important than do whites and Asians, while Republic and and Democrats are pretty equal on the importance of grades.

The same holds for ethnic groups regarding standardized tests, while Democrats see standardized tests as of lesser importance than do Republicans—in line with the greater emphasis of Republicans on formal indices of merit.

Finally, we have a bar graph showing how different ethnic groups—and Republicans vs Democrats—regard legacy, first-generation status, and race/ethnicity as weighting factors for admissions.  All three “groups of color” see “first in family,” “legacy” and “race and ethnicity” as more important factors than do whites.  I can understand these data except for the “legacy” part, which I would think would be less emphasized in groups of color.  There’s also a substantial difference between Democrats and Republicans on the race/ethnicty and “first in family” criteria, with Republicans putting less weight on race/ethnicity and “first in family” criteria. That, too makes sense since Republicans, in my view, care less than Democrats about “leveling the playing field”. Political affiliation makes little difference, however, in how one weights “legacy” as a criterion.

In sum, the public apparently still wants grades and standardized tests to be the most important criteria for admission to college, with “activities” a bit behind and other factors, including race/ethnicity, far behind.  In the public’s view, including the views of blacks, Asians, and Hispanics, the debate between merit vs. ethnicity seems to have been settled, though a ranking doesn’t rule out affirmative action—it just makes race a less important criterion for helping a student jump the merit queue.

This debate, however, will all be settled when the Supreme Court bans affirmative action in its next term.

26 thoughts on “Pew study on what criteria Americans think should matter for college admissions

  1. I immediately thought the importance of standardized test scores and grades should be flipped due to grade inflation and the wide range of quality in high schools. Interesting that the average person does not think so. Perhaps they believe four years of consistent work should outweigh the results of a couple of hours of testing. That is a fair consideration.

    I wonder if this information from Pew will have an impact on how colleges and universities approach admissions. My assumption is that in this moment, financial pressures and far-left internal political pressures are a more powerful force than the average American’s views on merit.

    1. Here in the U.K., admissions are based on the grades that each student obtains in nationally-standardised exams known as A-levels, which are taken in May-June of the final (senior) year. In 2020, due to the Covid pandemic, the U.K. government decided that the A-level exams would be cancelled and students’ grades would instead be based on assessment by their teachers. An undisclosed algorithm was applied by the exams regulator Ofqual to prevent grade inflation, but when the results were announced, this algorithm had strongly favoured students attending private schools, whose results were significantly better than would have been expected based on previous cohorts. By contrast, students attending state (public) schools found their grades reduced by the algorithm. This led to a huge furore. The government initially stood by Ofqual, but eventually agreed that the results would be re-issued using the raw grades assigned by teachers.

  2. I don’t think athletics or extra-curriculars should be considered at all. Too much of high-school is devoted to this stuff when it should be focused on learning.

    1. Thank you for this comment. Currently considering private schools for our daughters for this very reason (or moving to a new district)…our public school seems obsessed with sports (mainly American football and cheerleading), clubs, “spirit days”, pajama days…anything but rigorous academics.

    2. Isn’t this an application of “sound mind in a strong body” concept? The idea I assume is that being well-rounded is more desirable than being a book grind. This may work for teens from ambitious families who regiment all of their activites in and out of school to enhance their university applications. Not helpful for the student that is playing sports or music instead of studying. Unless of course, they get an athletic or music scholarship!

      1. This looks to me like Americans being influenced by the traditional emphasis on sport among the English upper-class, itself a consequence of an aristocracy distinguishing itself from the low-born through military prowess.

        1. Yes. Outside of the Anglo-Saxon world, the idea that sports prowess can help you into college/university, and colleges competing with each other in sports, is unknown (to my knowledge).

    3. I don’t think athletics or extra-curriculars should be considered at all. Too much of high-school is devoted to this stuff when it should be focused on learning.

      I wouldn’t make that blanket statement. I think some extracurriculars should be taken into account in certain circumstances. I think that students writing for their school newspaper, literary magazine, etc, should get special consideration for literature and journalism programs.

      I do agree that athletics shouldn’t be taken into consideration. I have heard informal discussion that there is some correlation between athletics and the ability to work as part of a team. There is the question as to how much that should be considered an academic skill, rather than purely a professional one.

      1. ,Only extracurriculars that are directly relevant should be considered, and only in the sense of using work done there ,can be used as a work sample when applying, where this is appropriate (e g arts, musical instrument, writing, and of course sports if you are training to become a phys ed teacher or coach or something like that).

  3. Is there evidence that affirmative action is actually helping the people it purports to help? Lots of scholars argue that putting kids into situations in which they are uncompetitive is not doing them any favor.

    1. Lysander’s comment ignores the difference between affirmative action which involves admitting people who aren’t capable of doing the academic work and affirmative action which involves selecting among the large number of applicants all of whom are capable of doing the academic work but some of whom may be admitted on criteria which are not meritocratic. Admissions officers in places like Harvard, Amherst etc may want to choose candidates who are less well qualified academically but who are still among those who have the capacity to succeed academically. In fact they could take the group of applicants capable of the academic work and choose an entering class by lottery. So choosing among that group by some forms of affirmative action in no way involves admitting people who can’t be successful once admitted.

  4. “I’m not sure about gender, as more women than men now get college degrees, so the problem is largely solved.”

    But it’s getting to be 60/40 favoring females…so is it now a problem of underrepresentation of males?

  5. I’d drop community service/extracurriculars. If you really value diversity, have as few criteria as possible. There should be room for all kinds of people. Extracurriculars are going to be as much an indication of box-ticking as of genuine interests anyway.

    I would set a minimum cutoff for some combination of grades and test scores appropriate to the rigor of your institution, and then pick people at random. That would give you real diversity.

    1. Denise says that extra-curricula activities are going to be as much an indication of box-ticking as of genuine interests. No doubt there may be some box-ticking but admissions people should be able to recognize genuine interests, and having people with a variety of non-academic interests helps enrich the education students get…for example by putting out a literary magazine or putting on a play. Why shouldn’t the admissions process reflect the kind of significance this can have in the education students get?

  6. The woke left is very inconsistent in its criticism of merit.

    If we are talking about areas that are well-represented or even dominated by non-Asian people of color, then there is no problem with merit. Nobody is looking to decrease standards for sports like American football or basketball….it’s 100% merit based there…a very much “let the chips fall where they may” type of competitive environment.

    But if non-Asian people of color are underrepresented in an area…say physics or classical music? Well, merit and objective standards are BAAAD, and need to be replaced with something that increases the representation of NAPOCs.

    And not to pile on the left, but the right are engaging in this now. How can they talk of “merit” and then run Hershel Walker for the Senate?

  7. Too many of my immigrant students struggle with English language competency. They can’t fully understand the lectures or in-class activities.

    More than one of them have admitted that they put written material into a language translator application so they can better understand it. Or, at least try to get a better understanding.

    Likewise, they write papers in their primary language and then use an app to translate it into English. They don’t have the benefit of those translation tools during an in-class exam, and it shows.

    I’d like to see English language competency (and yes, I’d even be willing to accept AAVE) as a primary requirement.

    1. Thanks for this! I was just about to write the same thing! Just compare how the British speak and write (they have by far the best newspapers and journals…delightful to read), and how Americans manage to flounder and flub their way through a sentence, not to mention a paragraph or a whole article. I recall a NY Daily News headline once (not sure if it was a joke or not) about a new city school initiative: “Illiterarcy targeted”. I had this posted on my wall for years. To my knowledge it was not an April Fool’s Joke or any other kind. It describes our present day situation perfectly. (Read the Financial Times for a living breathing example of the glory of the English language).

  8. They covered gender and sex, but – I could be wrong – I think they forgot to evaluate sexual preferences as a criterion – homosexuality v. heterosexuality. One might wonder if that would rank in there somehow.

  9. I know the standardized tests have a reading component, but if I had to pick a top metric it would be a more rigorous reading comprehension exam.

  10. Surprised by the low regard for sports, given the hostility I receive when suggesting to Americans that universities should just get rid of the football players.

  11. Here’s what I would do. Reduce the number of collage students by half or more. Permit and encourage employers to give IQ tests to job applicants which should replace the need for a near worthless degree. So much time and money would be saved, and it would yield a better result.

  12. When the Supreme Court does away with preferential college acceptances based on race, it will not change very much. California voters eliminated such preferences years ago and reaffirmed their commitment to this policy relatively recently. The University of California, however, has simply used a system whereby more than a dozen variables are mysteriously considered to come up with their acceptances. As almost everyone who applies to the UC system has a 4.0 GPA (it’s capped at that number), and the SAT/ACT scores are no longer considered (they stopped taking them seriously years ago), there is nothing much on which to base these admissions. Being on your school’s soccer team doesn’t really predict much about how you will do as a bio major. Consequently, about half the students are smart and about half are not-so-smart, but nobody wants to fail half the class. Consequently, we are passing students in courses and giving them degrees based not on their merit, but on their presence. It’s an advanced form of affirmative action.

  13. These are generally good results, in that traditional measures of merit remain the most important criteria across all groups, with unsurprising variations by race, political party, etc. We’ll see if the slight reduction in the numbers becomes a trend over time.

    I totally agree that test scores are super important. One can debate whether they should be first or second. The reason why some colleges are eliminating standardized test scores from consideration is precisely *because* doing so makes it impossible to compare people against a standard. This gives them license to pick and choose among candidates as they see fit. Despite this trend, it’s good to see that most people recognize the value of comparative merit.

  14. There’s something very revealing about the last chart you posted which I think is worth pointing out:

    The last time they surveyed that question was in 2019, and the results were basically similar, which you can see here:

    So the numbers are mostly the same, but notice how the way they framed the results are drastically different:

    2019: “Majorities across racial and ethnic groups say colleges should not consider race in admissions.”

    2022: “Black, Hispanic and Asian American adults more likely than White adults to say race… should be factors in college admissions.”

    The survey question in 2019 and 2022 was exactly the same, the results were almost identical, yet in 2022 they chose to frame the results in a deliberately racially divisive way rather than the framing from 2019 which emphasized are common perspective.

    (Not only that, but in 2022, black people were actually *less likely* to say race should be a “major factor” than in 2019, but of course that wouldn’t be something that advances the racial narrative of conflict.)

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