Transparency, Fairness, and the Admissions Game

Is it the case that “Neither can live while the other survives...?”

Judging from the common use of the word, “transparency” of processes is something we all admire. When it is easier to understand why a process produced the outcome it did, we are happier for it. “Fairness” of processes is something else we desire. Processes ought not to be biased in favor of some outcomes or of some people over others. But may these two objectives be in direct conflict? College admissions, a subject of perennial discussion at this time of the year, offer an illustration as to why the answer is sometimes in the affirmative.

On the one hand, consider a transparent admissions policy. This would be one that is objective or “meritocratic,” i.e. based on a composite score of one or more standardized examinations. A massive example is China’s gaokao, a two-day long series of tests taken by approximately 10 million Chinese students each year. The gaokao is the sole determinant for admission to almost every Chinese college, and high school students sometimes spend their entire final year of school in preparation for it; every Chinese teenager is well aware of the test and of the requisite score for a given institution. The Joint Entrance Examination to India’s most prestigious educational institutions, the Indian Institute of Technology, offers another example.

Such processes are both objective and transparent; it is clear why one gets in or does not. But are they fair? Opponents of such processes have argued that when outcomes hinge on the performance in a single test, those better able to prepare for the test (via private tutors, special classes, or simply attending better schools) are, ceteris paribus, advantaged. The socioeconomically better-off populations will be better able to exploit these conditions to gain admissions. Fairness includes the equality of opportunity to do well, and this is largely absent in such processes.

However, this is not always the case — perhaps a transparent system can be more “fair” when exercised at a considerably smaller scale. New York City’s Specialized High Schools Admissions Test is the sole metric by which eighth graders are evaluated for admission to eight of the city’s top public high schools. The specialized schools are dominated by an Asian population, and have been criticized for their lack of racial diversity. However, over half of their students, including the vast majority of Asian students, qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch, a standard measure of the concentration of low-income students in the American school system. (In fact, the specialized high schools are more economically diverse than academically comparable New York City schools that use a multifaceted admissions process.)

On the other hand, the American college admissions process actively tries — in principle — to create a fairer system. This is done by considering a more “holistic” process that takes into account not only a student’s performance on objective measures, but also background information and hurdles they have had to encounter. The problem here is that the system is no longer transparent. Students with perfect SAT scores, incredible GPAs, and extraordinary extracurriculars are sometimes denied admission at the expense of those with lower visible achievements.


The opacity creates two different sets of problems. First, it engenders and exacerbates anxiety in high school students who have the distinct feeling they are taking part in game to which they don’t know the rules. When there is a single test to study towards, one at least knows what one is attempting to achieve, but here, merely excellent curricular and extracurricular performances are not enough. And this creates deep resentments, leading to lawsuits of the form filed by Abigail N. Fisher or Edward Blum. The second problem it creates is bias, and even corruption, in the system, perhaps the most extreme manifestation of which has been the Operation Varsity Blues scandal that dominated the headlines a week ago. When human subjectivity is introduced into the selection process, personal biases, human error, and abuses of power are impossible to avoid.

It would appear that we are at somewhat of an impasse. Under the current system, which claims to have the explicit purpose of maximizing fairness, we see a complete lack of transparency. And, with the opacity comes undue stress and prejudice. However, an objective, transparent system seems to lead to a world in which all students are equal, but some students are more equal than others. Reconciling these two ideas is not easy, but it is certainly not impossible. If the current admissions system were to be more transparent, and individual students were aware of what criteria to focus on, we may see a system that is more appealing to everyone, and ultimately, even more fair.

Aditi T. Sundaram ‘19 is a joint concentrator in Mathematics and Philosophy in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.