The Admissions Balancing Act

Author: Ed Cohen

For a high-school student making the rounds of potential colleges, the treatment doesn’t get much more royal than this:

A seven-day, all-expenses-paid trip to campus during the summer. Tickets to a professional production of Shakespeare one night, a pizza party the next, a banquet the night after that. A guided tour of the football stadium, a bowling outing. Meetings and discussions with officers and distinguished professors. Advice on career choices and financial aid, even pointers on how to write a winning personal statement to go with your college application.

An old story, right? Prized athletes being dined, if not wined, by eager-to-impress college coaches. But it’s unlikely anyone in the group of high school students that strolled into the Hesburgh Center for International Studies on a perfect July morning last summer will ever emerge from the tunnel at Notre Dame Stadium wearing golden headgear.

The 40 male and female students — all African Americans, all high school seniors this fall — were on campus to attend the annual African-American Catholic Leadership Development Seminar. Though the title sounds like something where scholarly papers are exchanged, the program is actually a recruitment tool of the Office of Undergraduate Admissions.

In recent years Notre Dame has stepped up its efforts to get more of the nation’s brightest and most accomplished black high school students to consider enrolling here. No specific goal exists as to how much of the undergraduate student body the University’s officers would like to be made up of African Americans, but the current 5 percent is deemed insufficient.

Participants in the leadership seminar are considered doubly attractive because they’re also Catholic. As part of a commitment to preserve the University’s “Catholic character,” the officers have decided they want Catholics to continue to constitute 80-some percent of undergraduates (this year’s freshman class is 83 percent Catholic), irrespective of any gains in racial diversity. From an admissions standpoint, enrolling black students who are also Catholic fulfills two institutional dictates with one acceptance letter.

Leaving perhaps a dozen others to fret over.

At Notre Dame, as at many other highly selective colleges and universities, the admissions process has become less a struggle to attract students capable of earning degrees — about 80 percent of today’s applicants could be successful academically, says Daniel Saracino ‘69, ’75M.A., Notre Dame’s assistant provost for enrollment — and more about balancing institutional desires. For example:

Notre Dame wants to enroll better and better qualified students every year, as measured by standardized test scores, grade-point averages and the like. These are the people, one could argue, who have the best potential to change the world for the better.

But the University doesn’t want to risk losing critical future donations from well-heeled benefactors by not accepting their children if the offspring are competitive academically. The University’s fund-raising operation remains in contact with the admissions office and alerts it to families of applicants that have been or have the potential to become strong financial supporters of the University.

A similar situation exists with Notre Dame employees who have children. Some employees pass up potentially higher salaries outside of academe to remain at the University because they expect that when their children are old enough for college they’ll go to Notre Dame — for free. The University offers free tuition (but not free room and board) for dependent children of veteran employees. But the child has to get admitted first.

Notre Dame also wants to remain true to its heritage of being a stepping stone to a better life for first-generation college goers and others of modest means. And it wants to reshape the student body to be more ethnically and racially diverse and include more international students. The belief is that students learn more, in and out of the classroom, if they’re thrown together with people from different backgrounds than their own.

But the University also wants to satisfy the desire of many of its alumni – an overwhelmingly Caucasian and homogenous group – to see their children follow in their footsteps. Accepting legacy students has the added benefit in that second-, third- or whatever generation Domers typically arrive already passionate about the place.

Then there’s Notre Dame’s longstanding commitment to fielding football and other athletic teams capable of competing for national titles and TV ratings. Championship-caliber teams enliven the atmosphere of campus, sometimes generate revenues to underwrite the educational enterprise, and enhance name recognition for the institution. Scholarship athletes constitute about 9 percent of each freshman class.

It’s true that the best athletes are not always the best scholars. But when it comes to relaxing admissions standards to accommodate applicants with special non-academic abilities, Saracino points out that Notre Dame sometimes gives special consideration to, say, a cellist who struggled in high school calculus but can saw through Grieg’s “Holberg Suite” like Yo-Yo Ma. Especially if the University orchestra is in need of cellists.

All this means that admissions has become a huge and complicated balancing act. Notre Dame won’t admit any applicant — whether a blue-chip quarterback or the heir to a software empire — if the student’s academic record suggests he or she can’t handle the University’s course work. Nothing would be gained for either party if the student flunked out. But with hordes of capable applicants knocking hopefully on the doors of elite colleges and universities, the institutions find themselves in an enviable position.

As Saracino tells parents, the situation facing most students who apply to elite schools today is not whether they can do the work — they tend not to apply to places obviously out of their league — but what the school is looking for this year.

Whether schools can show a preference for certain races or ethnicities was decided earlier this year by the U.S. Supreme Court. By a 5-4 vote the court said colleges and universities can consider race and ethnicity as part of a holistic, individualized review of each applicant’s file. The vote affirmed the admissions policy of the University of Michigan Law School, which said it screens candidates that way. At the same time, in a 6-3 vote, the court struck down the affirmative action system of Michigan’s undergraduate admissions office, which automatically awarded under-represented minorities bonus points that ensured admission to most.

Notre Dame filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting Michigan’s point-based system even though its own undergraduate admissions policies are more like the Michigan law school’s. So the rulings have had no effect on Notre Dame’s undergraduate admissions policies.

The same goes for the Notre Dame Law School, MBA program and the Graduate School, which includes the master’s and doctoral programs in such fields as engineering, science, political science and English. According to admissions officers in each of the post-baccalaureate areas, race is one of many factors they take into account as they sort through applications. Others include the applicant’s score on graduate-school aptitude tests like the LSAT and GRE.

Often the decisive factor with graduate school admission isn’t race, the admissions officers say, but considerations like the applicant’s career plans or — especially in the case of the Graduate School — whether the student’s research interests line up with anyone on the faculty.

The Graduate School does offer nine competitive fellowships for qualified minority students. But these are add-ons to departmental budgets. They reward the department for recruiting qualified minorities but don’t take away any slots from non-minorities.

Political conservatives and others have long opposed preferential admissions treatment based on race, calling it unfair reverse discrimination. In his dissent to the Michigan law school decision, Clarence Thomas, the only black Supreme Court justice, quoted black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who in 1865 told a Boston audience, “If the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also.”

When retired anesthesiologist Paul Witkowski ‘65, who is white, read about the University having filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Michigan’s affirmative action policies, he wrote to Saracino to say he was disappointed in Notre Dame.

“Any form of affirmative action to achieve racial diversity results in rejecting some deserving students because they are white,” the alumnus, who is also the father of a graduate, argued. He said he had no problem with scholarship athletes receiving special consideration in admissions because they had worked at perfecting their physical skills. But racial preference rewarded “incidental facts of birth.”

As part of their deliberations, the Supreme Court justices examined the reasons schools give for wanting to admit larger numbers of racial and ethnic minorities. In previous decisions the court recognized the legitimacy of affirmative action to remedy the effects of past discrimination. It now validated the notion that having a more diverse student body could be in a college’s own self-interest. If students really do learn more from being around people of different backgrounds, then the more-diversified campus can say it offers a better product.

Many educators also argue that in the future society forecasted by demographers — more global and less dominated by Caucasians, at least numerically — leaders will have to reflect the rest of society if they hope to be seen as having any legitimacy. That’s the reason many military leaders and heads of some of the nation’s best-known companies give for supporting affirmative action and why many filed friend-of-the-court briefs to that effect in the Michigan case.

Even the Bush administration, which joined in the suits against Michigan, acknowledged the logic of this argument. After the verdicts were announced, the president said the court had sought “a careful balance between the goal of campus diversity and the fundamental principle of equal treatment under law.”

One of the off-campus activities for participants in this past summer’s Catholic leadership seminar was a tour of the Notre Dame-sponsored Robinson Community Learning Center. Notre Dame students volunteer as tutors at the center, a former Goodwill store at the corner of Eddy Street and Corby Boulevard. As he tailed a group of about 20 of the seminar participants snaking their way through meeting rooms and computer labs, political science professor George Lopez, one of the directors of the seminar, was asked why it was so important for Notre Dame to recruit more minorities.

He said, “I can’t keep going into a discussion group to talk about the civil rights movement and international nonviolence and Martin Luther King and be looking only at white faces.”

Lopez, director of policy studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at Notre Dame, also said, “Teaching international relations to just upper-middle-class white kids doesn’t work either.”

For their part, seminar participants seemed largely unaware of any controversy over race- or ethnicity-based preferences in college admissions.

“I think it’s nice they (Notre Dame) recognize the need for diversity,” said Anna Mazig of Minneapolis, who was considering Loyola University, Stanford and possibly Harvard or Yale along with Notre Dame. “When you’re in the real world you’re going to be dealing with all different cultures. The real world isn’t all white, it isn’t all black, it isn’t all anything.”

Each year after admissions decisions are mailed out, Saracino’s office fields calls from parents of children not admitted. Some suspect their child was a victim of reverse discrimination.

“We had a student with a 1370 SAT who was fifth in her class,” Saracino recalls. “Her father asks, ‘If she was black, would she have been admitted?’ Frankly, yes. But she would also have been admitted if she were an athlete or the child of an alumnus.”

The admissions chief’s point is that affirmative action has existed in college admissions as long as colleges have. The first group to benefit was children of politicians and benefactors, then alumni children, athletes and promising artists. He wonders why so many people want to outlaw preferences for under-represented races and ethnicities when these groups have enjoyed special consideration only since race-based affirmative action began in 1965.

Saracino explains that Notre Dame’s outreach is about more than gaining the perceived educational benefits of having a more diverse campus. The effort also reflects what he describes as “our responsibility as a school within a faith tradition to respond to groups that have been historically marginalized in the educational process.”

Saracino also imagines that in the future, affirmative action may focus more on socioeconomic factors than race. Evidence suggests it may be time to start.

The September issue of The Atlantic Monthly reported on a study by the Century Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research group, that found that 74 percent of students at the country’s 146 most selective colleges came from the most privileged 25 percent of the U.S. population. Blacks and Hispanics were under-represented, too, at 12 percent. But only 3 percent of all students came from the bottom fourth of the socio-economic scale. The magazine said the findings raise the possibility that “middle- and upper-income students from minority groups could be benefitting from affirmative action at the expense of poorer, more disadvantaged whites.”

Fortunately for Notre Dame’s admissions office, most alumni appear to support its approaches to engineering the student body. Charles F. “Chuck” Lennon, Jr. ‘61, ’62M.A., associate vice president in charge of alumni relations, said alumni generally don’t complain to him about preferences given to racial and ethnic minorities in admissions, and they support preferences for legacy students and talented athletes.

In surveys, graduating seniors also consistently say they wished the student body were more diverse, Saracino says.

Even Witkowski refuses to criticize the judgment of the school’s officers, saying, “I know Notre Dame always tries to do the right thing.”

To those who insist admissions should be done strictly “by the numbers,” taking into consideration only supposedly objective measurements like standardized test scores, Saracino says Notre Dame wouldn’t be Notre Dame if that were the case. Fewer children of alumni would be admitted (Notre Dame’s share of legacies, 23 percent, is the highest among elite universities). The same would be true of employees’ children, and far fewer athletes would make the cut.

“They (the student body) would be academically bright but not competitive athletically, and it would not be a really exciting place,” he says.

In terms of diversity — and by almost any recruiting measure — the admissions office is coming off its most successful year ever. The percentage of ethnic and racial minorities enrolled this fall rose to 21 percent from 16 percent the previous year. However, the University has a long way to go to catch up with other elite universities that say they value diversity. At Stanford, for instance, racial and ethnic minorities make up 50 percent of the student body, Saracino says. (The category of minorities includes Asian Americans, who traditionally have not been plentiful among Notre Dame undergrads but are well represented on West Coast campuses.) Another reason for Notre Dame’s lack of diversity relative to other places, Saracino notes, is the University’s faith tradition. Notre Dame has always been dominated by Catholics, and most Catholics in the United States, other than Latinos, are white.

Saracino says he knows firsthand the benefits of diversity. A Caucasian born in Detroit, he later lived in South Bend and various places in California. His freshman-year roommate at Notre Dame turned out to be an ebony-skinned youth from Aruba who spoke English with a British accent (his native tongue was Papiamento). Living with someone whose background was so different from his own was a revelation, the admissions director says.

Saracino also recalls how, during his senior year, at the height of the student protests against the Vietnam War, the head of the Army ROTC unit lived across the hall with a conscientious objector.

More recently he came to know an African-American woman student who was prickly on the subject of race relations and associated almost exclusively with other black students. When she went on a study abroad program to Australia she ended up making friends with many of the white Notre Dame students. The participants were brought closer through a shared sense of kinship, all of them being together in a foreign land.

“College should not be a comfortable four years,” he says. “College should be an exhausting, exhilarating, challenging, demanding four years.”

Given the task of balancing competing imperatives, that pretty much describes the environment in admissions every year.

(Autumn 2003)