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communication tips “Live by the Score, Die by the Score:” Academic Freedom and Responsibility in Admissions Decisions
Arthur Coleman, Deputy Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights

In the context of recent challenges to affirmative action policies, higher education leaders are reexamining their definitions of merit and the ways in which admissions criteria are related to educational objectives. Fundamentally, these issues are not legal ones; they are academic inquiries. In fact, a four-decade old U.S. Supreme Court opinion by Mr. Justice Frankfurter confirms the inherently academic nature of college admissions decisions. Justice Frankfurter observed that Discretion to determine, on academic grounds, who may be admitted to study, is “one of the ‘four essential freedoms’ of a university.”1

I would like to suggest that academic decision making in the admissions process also brings with it four essential responsibilities. They guide the all important decision making that opens the door to educational opportunity and growth for millions of our students every year. These responsibilities are: 1) defining merit in a way that aligns--both in principle and practice--with the unique educational mission of the college or university; 2) establishing a non-discriminatory definition of merit; 3) establishing a comprehensive definition of merit that recognizes a range of important criteria that should be considered in admissions decisions, including but not limited to testing; and 4) articulating one’s definition of merit in a clear and understandable way for the academic community, as well as for the community at large. Today’s vigorous debate regarding the use of standardized test scores and affirmative action programs in college admissions highlights the appropriate exercise of each of these responsibilities.


One important question is whether student admissions standards are aligned with and supportive of the mission of the institution of higher learning. In fact, higher education leaders should be asking themselves three important questions:

  • What is my school’s educational mission?
  • What kinds of students do I want to attract to my institution and what contributions to society do I want my graduates to make?
  • What are my school’s educational interests that justify the standards inherent in our admissions program?

“From a federal legal standpoint, the decision of whether (and how) to use test scores and grade point averages is, in the first instance, an academic one.”

The establishment of educational interests, goals, and strategies--uniquely within the province of academe--varies significantly from institution to institution. Federal courts will not, as a general rule, second guess that decision making. In fact, federal courts will intrude into this academic arena only where there is evidence that admissions decisions are not the result of the legitimate exercise of professional judgment, or where there is a claim of unlawful discrimination.


Regarding discrimination issues, federal authorities clearly indicate that the prohibition of federal civil rights laws and related constitutional protections apply fully to academic decisions, including those affecting college and university admissions.2 Decisions that result in educational opportunities for a nation’s youth must not be undermined by acts of intentional discrimination, nor should such life-defining decisions have discriminatory effects upon individuals based on their race or sex.

The need to address responsibly--and clearly--the definition of merit as part of the admissions process is perhaps most evident when considering the debate centered upon so-called reverse discrimination. In jurisdictions where voluntary affirmative action programs are permissible and are integral parts of admissions programs, all members of the academic community must have a clear understanding of the standards for admissions.

That college admissions officers live by the sword or die by the sword (or, as we shall see, live by the score or die by the score) is most tellingly articulated in the oral argument of the counsel representing Alan Bakke before the United States Supreme Court in the landmark case of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. In that case, where racial set-asides for 16 of the 100 medical school entering class were, ultimately, struck down as violating the Equal Protection Clause, Mr. Bakke’s counsel addressed, squarely, the question of standards:

“A:…[O]ne of the…questions asked… [was]: What is the standard of admission to the school? And [the school’s] response [was] that the standard is that we will interview no one who has a grade point average below 2.5….Now…the record on that point [shows that]…[i]n the year 197[4], the people within the…special [set aside] program have overall Grade Point Averages which run all the way down to 2.21…. In 1973, they run all the way down to 2.11….

The Court:…[Y]ou do not dispute the basic finding that everybody admitted under the special program was qualified, do you?

A: We certainly do dispute it. Not upon the ground that Mr. Bakke is attempting to tell the school what the qualifications are, nor upon the ground that we, as his counsel, can somehow set up a rule which will tell us who is qualified to go to medical school….[T]he point we are making is this[:] that the rules as to admission were fixed…by the school itself. They were the ones who chose grade point averages, and they were the ones who chose MCAT scores as a basis for judging admission….
[T]aking the school’s own standards, taking the very thing that the school was talking about, [the set aside pool of candidates] simply do not measure up….
[emphasis added].”

From a federal legal standpoint, the decision of whether (and how) to use test scores and grade point averages is, in the first instance, an academic one. Well developed and validated tests can, indeed, play a meaningful role in providing information regarding the achievements and skills of students. The extremes of the dialogue--from “eliminate standardized tests” to “tests are the be all and end all of academic decision making”--are wrong, both educationally and legally. The real question, in educational as well as legal terms, is how a test is being used in a particular context to serve a particular educational objective. It’s simply not an either-or question.


If, as many assert, there is a need to pursue diversity-related objectives through admissions processes, then the responsibility of higher education leaders is clear: each institution must define and explain the role that tests play in the admissions equation as part of an overall, comprehensive selection framework. For instance, if various factors enter into an admissions decision--such as particular artistic or athletic skills, or evidence of leadership or the ability to overcome obstacles--then the academic community must define merit to include not only the more traditional “academic” criteria such as test scores or grade point averages, but other factors as well. This latter category of factors is either part of what a higher education community values, or it is not. Schools cannot define “standards” in theory, and pay lip service to them in practice.

In addition, a student’s value to the academic community may be reflected not only when assessing his or her credentials in isolation, but also when assessing that student’s potential contribution to the larger community of learning. What can this student bring to enrich the intellectual and social experience of his or her classmates and professors that few others can match? Think about it in these terms: You are a conductor of an orchestra. You may hire five additional musicians before your fall tour. Of the twenty candidates who have applied, the five most musically-credentialed candidates are all violinists. Do you hire only violinists when you have broader musical needs? The answer here should be as obvious as the answer that many in the higher education community are providing: There is more to merit than test scores or grade point averages. There is no second class citizenship when the qualifications and qualities of the students are defined to meet particular educational objectives of the higher education institution as a whole.


Given widely held, and often erroneous, perceptions that test scores or grades alone define merit in the context of college admissions, higher education leaders need to do a better job not only of assessing and defining holistically the definition of merit and value among student applicants, but also of communicating the substance of these decisions. With better clarity, communication, and conviction, we can all move forward to dispel many of the myths surrounding admissions decisions. And, to end as I began, quoting Mr. Justice Frankfurter, “justice must satisfy the appearance of justice.”3 The establishment and articulation of admissions standards to meet the wide range of a higher education institution’s interests is a critical step in establishing educationally excellent and legally sufficient admissions practices.


1. Sweezy v. New Hampshire, 354 U.S. 234 (1957) (Frankfurter, J., concurring in the result), cited with approval in Regents of the University of Michigan v. Ewing, 474 U.S. 214 (1985).

2. See, e.g., Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265 (1978).

3. Offutt v. United States, 348 U.S. 11, 14 (1954).

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Affirmative action is one of the most contentious issues before the public today, and the media coverage tends to emphasize inflammatory rhetoric by both proponents and opponents.

Before talking to journalists on this subject, prepare your talking points carefully. Gather one or two key facts such as how your institution weighs various admissions criteria, and how diverse your college or university’s student body is today compared to the past.

Then determine the three most compelling points you can make--perhaps that a diverse student body improves education for all students, that affirmative action levels the playing field for all applicants, and that affirmative action does not mean that your institution is admitting unqualified students. Then, practice using those points to answer the questions you think you may be asked. Preparation is the key to a good interview on a contentious issue like affirmative action.

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