Foucault and the Promise of Holistic Admissions

It’s that time of year again. College admissions season. And along with the actual admissions process, and the torrent of advice pieces on how to win the game, come a host of essays, news stories, and blog posts about what it all means. An example of this genre is The Atlantic’s The False Promise of ‘Holistic’ College Admissions’. The essay argues that holistic admissions promise an individualized form of assessment that they can’t actually deliver:

In exchange for your candor (‘here are my parents’ tax returns, my transcript, an essay about my deepest secret, and some letters from my teachers about what I’m really like’), many colleges promise to evaluate you as a human being.

The issue, then, isn’t that schools look beyond grades and scores. It’s that admissions committees don’t really know applicants personally, and that their claiming to do so is bad for students.

The article links to a useful NYTimes piece that reports the experiences of a past application reviewer for UC-Berkeley, who notes that each application gets about eight minutes of review, and that the criteria for sorting packets into rankings (from 1 to 5) are deeply weird.

This weirdness is not surprising if we step back and think about colleges as organizations. Admissions, including holistic admissions, are designed to meet multiple organizational objectives at once. Mitchell Stevens shows this tremendously well in Creating a Class, an ethnographic look at admissions at a small, selective liberal arts school. Administrators need enough football players for the team, enough academically talented admits to keep up the academic reputation of the school and populate honors programs, enough rich admits to pay full tuition to help make up for the scholarships needed to attract students who bring other talents or desirable traits, and so on. Ellen Berrey, Fiona Greenland and I explore some of these tensions in the history of the transition at the University of Michigan from more mechanical, quantitative admissions to a holistic process modeled after the Ivies in the wake of the 2003 Supreme Court decisions on affirmative action [pdf available here].

But what struck me about this particular Atlantic essay was not the general concern with the subjective character of holistic admissions, or the deep weirdness of the admissions process and its conflicting goals, but rather the Foucauldian aspect of the current system. Students are asked to translate their entire lives into transcripts, essays, and letters of recommendations, to tell the truth about themselves in a way legible to a large bureaucracy, to become a certain kind of admissions subject:

“Holistic” language is central to how students understand the application process. On the New York Times’s college-admissions blog, then-high school senior Michael Campbell wrote of “the struggle to disassociate an admissions rejection from the rejection of me as a person.” Yet he added, “I hope colleges see and evaluate ‘human me,’ not just ‘transcript-test-scores-class-rank me.’” Unfortunately, it’s the very notion that a college might be able to identify “the real and complete Michael Campbell” that makes rejection that much more difficult.

Older systems (at least at Michigan) judged applicants purely on some (admittedly problematic) standardized metrics, mostly GPA and SAT/ACT score. Holistic assessment abandons this pretense of mechanical objectivity in favor of a deeper engagement, an attempt to get to know the real you. The supposed payoffs include being able to better take into account the context of a student’s academic performance (a low junior-year GPA might mean less if a student dealt with a difficult personal or family problem that year, etc.). But it also means a shift from judging students on what they’ve done (grades, test scores) to judging them based on who they are.

And, as usual, the system itself is kind of a joke compared to its promises – how can an admissions officer know your true self from eight minutes spent with a carefully tailored application package? The Atlantic story emphasizes these failures in order to try to absolve applicants:

Ultimately, what’s at stake in college admissions isn’t who you are as a person, but whether you’ve demonstrated that you have the skills and experiences that qualify someone for a slot at a particular institution. If a school rejects you, what they’re really rejecting is your application.

Good intentions aside, holistic admissions becomes one more process forcing us to have a “true self” that we can somehow put fully into documents in order to be processed by a faceless bureaucracy – that delightful combination of individualized attention and mass control that characterizes Foucauldian/disciplinary systems.

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1 Comment

  1. Oh yes. Perfect. Step too far away from the norm of the slot you might inhabit and it’s “well, I don’t think this one is for us.”


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