Digest No. 05 - October 2018

Admissions Office Diversity and Equitable Admissions Decisions

Bowman, N. A., and M. N. Bastedo. 2018. “What Role May Admissions Office Diversity and Practices Play in Equitable Decisions?” Research in Higher Education 59, Issue 4: 430–447.



The purpose of this study was to explore equitable decision making by admissions officers who work at selective institutions. The authors approached the topic from a series of perspectives ranging from conversations about institutional prestige to understanding admissions as a holistic process, defined as “evaluating prospective students in the context of the educational, personal, and financial conditions experienced by the applicant” (p. 431). Their discussion of prestige was offered as a rationale for the study’s importance, as the admissions officers recruited for this study were employed at selective colleges. The authors determined whether these officers followed a holistic admissions process by using a rigorous method that involved a survey collection and an in-person data collection effort. In the effort, officers were asked to simulate their admissions decision-making processes through a series of fictitious cases, which the authors describe:

“One applicant had strong academic credentials (in terms of high school grades, difficulty of coursework, and standardized test scores) and attended an upper-middle-class high school. Another applicant also attended an upper-middle-class high school, but his grades, coursework, and standardized test scores were all lower than those of the first applicant. A third applicant received good grades and took among the most difficult courses offered at the lower-SES [socioeconomic status] high school that he attended, but his courses were less advanced and his standardized test scores were lower than those of the most qualified applicant. The grades, coursework, and test scores were adjusted across selectivity tiers so that these hypothetical applicants could be reasonably competitive in institutions with very different admissions standards” (p. 434).

Through this complex approach to examining admissions decision-making practices at selective colleges and universities, the authors hoped to shed some light on the “black box” (p. 432) of access to these institutions, especially for students from historically marginalized socioeconomic groups. Through accompanying survey and analytic work, the authors also highlight the importance of understanding how the characteristics of an admissions officer inform the process that officer uses to make admissions decisions based on the presented simulated cases.



A number of results are noteworthy. Many admissions officers indicated the importance of high school curricular rigor as an admissions determinant, especially those at top-tier institutions. Despite the push for holistic admission considerations that take distinctive family or educational circumstances into account, these officers also noted that academic criteria “almost solely” (p. 443) determined whether students received a full reading of their file and ultimately a positive admissions decision, with little to no consideration of the applicant’s family or educational circumstances.
The number of files any given officer had to review also played a role in admissions. The authors note that “the number of admissions files read during busy weeks predicts lower admissions recommendations for all applicants” (p. 440). This load intensity is offered as a potential reason for participants not being able to execute a holistic admissions approach to each presented case as “the life of an admissions officer in high season is intense, with 2/3 of our respondents reading at least 100 files per week, in addition to other duties” (p. 443).
The authors also suggest that admissions officers at more competitive colleges and universities behave differently from their peers at less competitive institutions. When compared with their peers at competitive colleges and universities, admissions officers at less competitive institutions were more likely to enroll most applicants and were less likely to write a paragraph explaining their admissions decisions.
Moreover, admissions officers who were alumni of the institution or who had more years of admissions experience treated cases differently than their counterparts. Working at one’s alma mater and having more years of admissions experience served as a deterrent for admitting students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.
Finally, positive admissions recommendations were more likely to be made by admissions officers who identified as women, people of color, and/or people whose parents had achieved lower levels of education. Extending the equity argument, the authors conclude that “admissions officers from historically underrepresented groups may be more inclined toward equity and social justice in the decision-making process” (p. 443).



What should CIC senior administrators expect from their admissions officers? This question underlies the many questions raised by the authors of this study. Given the number of applications—especially at competitive institutions—and the limited resources admissions officers often have for adopting a holistic approach to every applicant, is this type of review process practical? What alternate ways to maintain a commitment to holistic review might be considered? Careful consideration of admissions practices would be a first step toward concerns about equity and social justice.
CIC institutional leaders may want to consider the characteristics of admissions officers hired to do this important work. Findings from this study suggest that officers from historically underrepresented groups may be more likely to take a more holistic view of each applicant—a strong empirical note, as institutions strive to increase the diversity of their student bodies.
Also, institutional leaders may need to examine the admissions recommendations of officers working at their alma mater, officers with more years of work experience, and officers with heavy file loads. These characteristics often lead officers to privilege applicants from higher socioeconomic backgrounds.
Turning to the selectivity of the institution, leaders may want to require all officers to draft a summative paragraph for each applicant—a practice more often associated with officers employed at competitive institutions. This step would help leaders better track the admissions decisions of each officer and could help improve the equitable treatment of all files, as written narratives often provide officers with greater opportunities to reflect on each applicant they review.

About the Authors

Nicholas A. Bowman is professor of educational policy and leadership studies and director of the Center for Research on Undergraduate Education at the University of Iowa.
Michael N. Bastedo is professor and director, Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education (CSHPE), University of Michigan.

Literature Readers May Wish to Consult

Bowen, W., and D. Bok. 1998. The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Cole, J. R. 2016. Toward a More Perfect University. New York: PublicAffairs/Perseus Book Group.

Karabel, J. 2005. The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. New York: Houghton Mifflin Group.

Steinberg, J. 2002. The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College. New York: Penguin Books.

Stevens, M. L. 2007. Creating a Class: College Admissions and the Education of Elites. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.