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Experts Say Common App Change Promotes Racial Equity in College Admissions

The Harvard College Office of Admissions and Financial Aid is located in Radcliffe Yard.
The Harvard College Office of Admissions and Financial Aid is located in Radcliffe Yard. By Kathryn S. Kuhar
By Benjamin L. Fu and Dohyun Kim, Crimson Staff Writers

The Common Application announced plans Sept. 30 to remove a question asking college applicants to self-report disciplinary actions taken against them in high school, a move that experts on higher education say will make the college admissions process more equitable.

The Common App dropped the question after it conducted research finding that Black applicants reported disciplinary infractions at more than twice the rate of white applicants.

“We want our application to allow students to highlight their full potential. Requiring students to disclose disciplinary actions has a clear and profound adverse impact,” Common App CEO Jenny Rickard said in a press release. “Removing this question is the first step in a longer process to make college admissions more equitable.”

The Common App also cited external research finding that Black and low-income students are, on average, disciplined more harshly for the same infractions when disciplined alongside white students.

Russell J. Skiba, a psychology professor at Indiana University, said he supported the Common App’s decision, saying it would help lessen racial inequities in college admissions and systemic racism more broadly.

“I just think this is a courageous act on the part of the Common App, when an institution looks at itself and says, ‘you know, here is something that is potentially disadvantaging a group’ and takes affirmative action to remove that,” Skiba said. “I think it’s the kind of actions that address and hopefully put an end to systemic racism.”

Jonathan N. Mills, a researcher at the University of Arkansas whose report the Common App cites, said the research on school discipline is significant for the striking disparities it reveals.

Black students and low-income students “were more likely to experience longer suspensions than their white, non-poor counterparts, and that is a concern,” according to Mills.

The Common App’s decision is, in part, a response to concerns that many high school students that choose to disclose their disciplinary record end up forgoing their college applications entirely.

The question will no longer appear by default on the Common App starting with the 2021-2022 application cycle. Universities will still be able to ask students about disciplinary records in supplemental questions, however.

Two years ago, the Common App also removed a question asking about previous criminal records. Since then, roughly 50 percent of colleges using the application service, including Harvard, have added the question back into their specific supplemental questions.

Dana N. Thompson Dorsey, an education and law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, said she believes the Common App’s decision to drop the disciplinary action question is not enough to create an equal playing field for students of color.

For example, Dorsey believes that Harvard and other schools around the country would have to place less weight on standardized tests in order to achieve greater diversity and equality in their applicant pools.

“That's just one aspect of what contributes to a more diverse applicant pool and those who matriculate. There's also the issue of SATs on the undergraduate level,” Dorsey said. “While that is still the primary focus for admissions committees, particularly at elite institutions like Harvard University, I think it's still being limited in terms of the racial and economic diversity of a student body.”

Kayla M. Patrick, a policy analyst at Education Trust, an advocacy organization that works to improve education outcomes for low-income students and students of color, echoed the idea that other areas in the admissions process need reform.

In addition to decreasing the role of standardized testing in admissions, Patrick believes reallocating funding to support students would gradually increase higher education opportunities for students from marginalized backgrounds.

“We are really calling for schools to invest in the support that students need to make that link to college,” Patrick said. “That means things like guidance counselors who can really support students as they navigate high school and make sure that they've taken the right courses, and also support them and really expose them to schools like Harvard, which many students haven't even heard of.”

—Staff writer Benjamin L. Fu can be reached at benjamin.fu@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenFu_2.

—Staff writer Dohyun Kim can be reached at dohyun.kim@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @dohyunkim__.

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