Based on what conservatives are saying, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor is doing a horrible disservice to education in America. The university rates applicants on a scale with 150 points as the maximum. In January, President Bush claimed that the university had established a racial "quota" because "a perfect SAT score is worth only 12 points in the Michigan system. Students who accumulate 100 points are generally admitted, so those 20 points awarded solely based on race are often the decisive factor." Other commentators have decried the university in more strident voices.
The truth about the Michigan admissions system is much more complicated than that, of course. And conservatives would generally prefer to describe the Michigan admission as equivalent to a quota rather than describe it for what it is. Fortunately, one conservative group, the Michigan Review, took a break from equating the New York Times with the Russian Bolsheviks to put the full 2001 admissions guidelines on its website.
In 2001, the University of Michigan scored undergraduate applicants on a 150-point scale, consisting of 110 possible points for academic achievement and up to 40 points for other factors. There is no mention about how many points generally guarantee admission, but for the sake of argument, let us take President Bush at his word. The actual guidelines show many paths to achieving the full 150 points, never mind the 100 points that he maintains is the threshold to admission.
- Grade Point Average: applicants receive points equal to 20 times their grade point average from 10th and 11th grade academic courses, on a 4.0 scale. A student with a 3.75 grade point average receives 75 points.
- School and curriculum factors: applicants receive up to 18 points for attending strong high schools and choosing hard courses.
- standardized test scores: students who do well on the SAT receives extra points. A student with a combined 1360 earns the full 12 points for this category.
A student with a 3.75 grade point average, in an average school district, who opts for an average to fairly strong academic program and receives SAT scores of 1360 will have 87 points. Students in tougher high schools or with more honors or academic placement courses will be at or near 100 points, just on their academic qualifications alone.
- Geography: applicants from Michigan receive 10 points. Applicants from underrepresented counties within Michigan receive an extra 6 points. And applicants from one of 23 other states receive an extra 2 points.
- Alumni relationships: sons and daughters of Michigan alumni receive an extra 4 points. Applicants get one point if they had a grandparent, sibling, or spouse, attend the university.
- Essay: applicants receive up to 3 points for superior essays included in their applications.
- Personal achievement: applicants receive up to 5 points for superior persistence, character, awards, or recommendations.
- Leadership and service: applicants receive up to 5 points for superior leadership and service to their schools and communities.
- Nursing: men applying to the School of Nursing receive an automatic 5 points. (Women applying to the School of Engineering receive a similar bonus.)
- Socioeconomic disadvantage, underrepresented racial/ethnic minority, or scholarship athlete: applicants receive 20 points from at most one of the following factors. First, students who are disadvantaged socioeconomically, or attend a high school serving primarily socioeconomically disadvantaged students, receive 20 points. Second, students who are members of an underrepresented race or ethnicity which is also underrepresented at the university, or attend a high school serving predominantly underrepresented races or ethnicities, receive 20 points. Finally, recruited athletes can receive 20 points.
- Provost's discretion: the provost of the university can add up to 20 points to any applicant, subject to the 40 point maximum for other factors in the selection index.
Any student within Michigan can receive 23 points from this section without having any help from the provision that so upsets conservatives (10 points for residency, 3 for an essay, 5 for personal achievement, and 5 for leadership and service). Our hypothetical student with a 3.75 grade point average and excellent SAT scores now has 110 points, even without many of the other factors coming into play.
Conservatives have attacked the Michigan admissions scoring because it gives blacks and other underrepresented minorities an extra boost in the admissions scoring. But note the other factors about which they have been silent. Why should potential legacies get 4 extra points? Why should prospective male nurses get 5 extra points? Why should some applicants from only some Michigan counties get 6 extra points? Why should recruited athletes get 20 extra points? Why should disadvantaged students or students from schools in poor areas get 20 points?
The truth is that the number of qualified applicants to good schools like the University of Michigan far exceeds the number of spots in the freshman class. And much of what applicants could bring to a college or university lies outside their SAT scores or even their transcripts. Harvard or Yale could set thresholds of 3.80 grade point averages or 1500 SAT scores and get more than enough applicants to fill their freshman classes. Every college needs well-rounded students who are intellectually fearless, as well as specialized students who will pursue their interests as deeply as graduate students. Every college needs students who have blossomed in high school, as well as students whose full potential will not happen until their college years. Every college needs students whose extracurricular activities, in the orchestra or the basketball court or the greater community, make it a better community.
President Bush would prefer that Michigan use the system that the University of Texas implemented during his term of governor, in which the top 10 percent of every Texas high school is guaranteed admission. This system does mean that minority students get admitted, because Texas school districts, like so many others, reflect the de facto segregation of minorities in America. But it means that many deserving students get left out. Good students, whether white or black or Hispanic, from strong high schools who are short of the top 10 percent of their classes, get left behind. The Texas system simply replaces one arbitrary measure with another.
President Bush should know the limitations of grade point averages and SAT scores in determining the worth of college applicants. His high school grades were far from stellar, and his SAT scores were good, but hardly Ivy League material. If Michigan is so wrong to supplement grades and SAT scores with other factors in deciding who gets admitted, was Yale wrong to admit him?
In an ideal world, all high schools students would have equal opportunies to succeed. But only fools or liars would claim that American high schools afford equal opportunities to their students. I attended the same high school as President Bush, only twenty years later. One anecdote should illustrate the advantages that he and I shared. Only once in four years did one of my classes have as many as 20 students. That class was on vector calculus and linear algebra. Few students nationwide have high schools with such small classes or with such a deep curriculum. It is hardly fair to assume that all applicants to a college or university have had full opportunies to develop as scholars.