New Bill Would Hold Colleges Accountable For Using Personality Traits In Admissions

A proposed bill would bring transparency to higher ed, requiring colleges to justify the use of certain admission factors.

By Erika Hanson | Published

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admission factors

Admission factors are a touchy subject in school applications. In a growing fashion, more colleges and universities are enacting bizarre admission factors in an effort to racially balance the applicant pool. But that means to bring more equity and diversification to student bodies often is counterintuitive to the end goal. To combat this, a Republican representative from California is proposing a bill that would hold higher ed institutes more accountable for their admission policies. 

GOP Rep. Michelle Steel is the Golden State lawmaker championing the measure. The bill is titled The Helping Applicants Receive Valid and Reasonable Decisions (HARVARD) Act. The acronym for the bill is quite befitting, considering the major cause leading the Congresswoman to this point was in part due to a massive case involving Harvard and the university’s controversial personality trait admission factors.

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This past fall, the Supreme Court agreed to hear two cases against alleged bogus college admission factors from both Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). The suit claims that the two schools were guilty of penalizing Asian American applicants, more so by using race as a major factor in their admission policies. Coming to fruition in 2018, the Department of Justice claimed that Harvard scores Asian Americans significantly lower on a “personal rating” section of the university’s admission report.

If approved, the HARVARD Act would bring more transparency to admission factors in California’s colleges and universities. The piece of legislation would require these higher ed institutes to not only acknowledge their use of personality traits in admissions but also justify them. Furthermore, they would be required to make this information readily available directly on application materials, along with their school’s websites. 

Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) is an organization that represents over 20,000 students and parents, with a majority of its group being made up of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. They are the group responsible for bringing the court case involving Harvard to the Supreme Court. They claim that the Ivy League school heavily leans on race as an admission factor over academic standards. “African-American and Hispanic students with PSAT scores of 1100 and up are invited to apply to Harvard, but white and Asian-American students must score a 1350. … In some parts of the country, Asian-American applicants must score higher than all other racial groups, including whites, to be recruited by Harvard,” the group claimed in its filing via Fox News.

admission factors

But despite these claims, both Harvard and UNC adamantly defend their college admission factors, saying that the process does not discriminate against Asian Americans. The Atlantic once ran a story shedding light in favor of Harvard’s admission policy, drawing on the complexity of selecting applicants. It pointed out that of the roughly 40,000 applicants the school receives each year, the school is tasked with selecting only 1,600 of those individuals to be accepted into the university.

To put into perspective how daunting the task can be, officials can not simply base admission factors on grades, as there are too many candidates that hold the same grades. Furthermore, Harvard’s motto boasts the long-standing institution’s vision as a place where students and professors simultaneously grow and develop from one another. “However you measure these things—whatever you do [in the admissions process]—is going to privilege one group and disadvantage another group,” said Natasha Warikoo, an associate professor of education at Harvard.

The HARVARD act is still in its early stages, and Steel still needs to gather more cosponsors to get the ball running in congress. Sealing her approval for the admission factors legislation, Steel said “I’ve worked for decades to bring fairness in our education system, and this is another important step toward ensuring a level playing field for ALL students.” As for the supreme court case concerning Harvard, the high court is likely to make a decision in 2023.