the demonstrated interests of the rich

If you’ve followed affirmative action debates at all over the past decade or two, you’ve probably heard something about legacy preferences in admissions. Legacy admissions are routinely described as “affirmative action for whites” and their legitimacy is at least a little contested, and are held up as a key example of how college admissions are not and have never been purely about academic merit. And they are that indeed. But they are by no means the only example. Another one, perhaps of growing importance, is what colleges call “demonstrated interest.” Demonstrated interest means showing specific interest in attending that school by contacting admissions officers, visiting the school, and so on. Two new papers emphasize the importance of demonstrated interest in an era when high-achieving students routinely apply to 10 or more schools, frustrating enrollment managers. But, of course, demonstrated interest is not equally available to everyone.

The first paper emphasizing the importance of demonstrated interest comes from a research project by Nicholas Bowman and Michael Bastedo, which reports on a field experiment with a sample of admissions officers. Abstract here, with the key line emphasized:

Attending a selective college or university has a notable impact on the likelihood of graduation, graduate school attendance, social networks, and career earnings. Given these short-term and long-term benefits, surprisingly little research has directly explored the factors that might promote or detract from equitable admissions decisions at these schools. This study examined a unique national sample of 311 undergraduate admissions officers who work at selective institutions to explore this issue. Among the descriptive findings, more than half of respondents reported that they consider applicants’ demonstrated interest in attending their institution when making a recommendation, about two-thirds review at least 100 applications during busy weeks, and almost half were working at their alma mater. Moreover, in a simulation of admissions scoring, admissions officers from historically underrepresented groups were more likely to admit low-SES applicants, whereas participants with more work experience and who were employed at their alma mater provided less equitable recommendations.

There’s more to the paper than demonstrated interest, but the finding is important and supports another recent paper by Dearden et al. (discussed in Inside Higher Ed here). Here’s Dearden et al.’s abstract, with a key bit emphasized:
In college admission decisions, important and possibly competing goals include increasing the quality of the freshman class and making the school more selective while attaining the targeted size of the incoming class. Especially for high-quality applicants who receive multiple competing offers, colleges are concerned about the probability that these students accept the offers of admission. As a result, applicants’ contacts with admissions offices, such as campus visits, can be viewed positively by the officers as demonstrated interest in the colleges. We provide empirical evidence on the effects of demonstrated interest on admission outcomes. Specifically, we use unique and comprehensive administrative data, which include all contacts made by each applicant to the admissions office of a medium-sized highly selective university during two admission cycles. We find that an applicant who contacts the university is more likely to be admitted, and that the effect of the contact on the probability of admission is increasing in the applicant’s Scholastic Assessment Test score, particularly when the contact is costly to make. We also use a numerical example to explore policies to reduce the inequity associated with the use of demonstrated interest in admission decisions, examining in particular the subsidization of costly demonstrated interest by low-income students.
The “costly to make” bit is key, because it reminds us that sending signal of demonstrated interest requires both knowhow (cultural capital) about how institutions work, and money (economic capital) to actually make the trip out to campus (and parents who can take time off of work, etc.).
So, long story short, if you’re talking about selective college admissions and searching for examples of how they are not meritocratic in ways that are biased towards class reproduction and racial hierarchy, add “demonstrated interest” to your list.

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

1 thought on “the demonstrated interests of the rich”

  1. It’s very helpful to know the specific mechanisms at work when we talk about inequity in higher ed. My own experiences and anecdotes only go so far. These studies give us more to work with than the blanket concepts of “diversity” and “inclusion.” I know that one of my goals in higher ed admin is to make explicit the implicit norms and expectations so that students from a broader range of backgrounds have the tools to navigate the institution effectively. It’s good to have research on hand when someone asks, “But why?”

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