New York Times Article about Wesleyan Admissions
Please read this article about Wesleyan's "commitment" to people of color who have "overcome hardship." USLAC and the Initial workers ask why it is that the Initial workers aren't included in this commitment.
27 February 00
For Gatekeepers at Colleges, A Daunting Task of Sorting
By JACQUES STEINBERG
The two applications on the card table in front of Raphael Figueroa were for admission to Wesleyan University, sifted from 6,849 requests for 715 seats in the Class of 2004. One 17-year-old was a standout, an Asian-American from California whose score in the high 1400's on the College Board exam, out of a possible 1,600, earned her a coveted berth as a National Merit Semifinalist.
The other, a Dominican from New York City, had struggled, her score in the 900's on the College Boards and ''D'' in English hardly representative of the private school she was attending on scholarship. Seated on a folding metal chair on the porch of his home here, the heat off to keep him awake, Mr. Figueroa, an admissions officer, spent 11 hours contemplating whether either of them -- along with 20 others under review that snowy February day -- merited entrance to Wesleyan, a liberal arts college that is among the most selective in the nation. This is the season when such hard choices are made -- indeed, they have never been harder -- and like many in college admissions, Mr. Figueroa's was personal and even idiosyncratic, reflecting not only shifting views of academic merit but Mr. Figueroa's own background. Though the Californian's SAT scores exceeded the median of those applying to Wesleyan (1,350), and her race and West Coast origin were in high demand, Mr. Figueroa finally circled the preliminary
recommedation ''deny.'' Among his concerns, he said, was that she had not selected very challenging courses. The New Yorker, despite scores that ranked her among the bottom of this year's applicants, got a tentative ''admit.'' Mr. Figueroa liked the portrait of a scrapper and born leader that emerged from her essay and teacher recommendations. But he conceded that he also saw a grainy reflection of himself -- he is the sixth of seven children raised by Mexican-born parents in California -- staring back from her manila folder.
''She's an academic risk,'' he said. ''It's one I'm willing to take.'' Mr. Figueroa is an anxious sentry at Wesleyan's front gate these days, and like those doing similar work at dozens of other selective colleges and universities, his job is tougher than ever . By every measure, last year was the most competitive on record for students seeking admission to the nation's top colleges. Harvard rejected more than 9 of every 10 students who applied. Columbia spurned suitors at a similar rate. Wesleyan rebuffed 7 out of 10.
Fueled by an increase in the number of high school graduates and a growing perception that top educational credentials create the best job opportunities in an information-based economy, this admissions season is on track to break many of last year's records -- applications to Harvard and Columbia are up 3 percent; those to Middlebury are up 6 percent; Wesleyan, 7 percent. And while admissions officers are having a hard enough time swimming in such deep applicant pools, they are also fighting a fierce current, one being churned by the rewriting of decades-old affirmative action policies at state universities in California, Texas, Florida and Washington, where critics have put deans on notice that they believe whites have been treated unfairly. By the last week of March, when Wesleyan and most other colleges mail their decisions, Mr. Figueroa and his eight colleagues here will have read enough applications to fill the freshman class 10 times over. Because many of those admitted will decide to go elsewhere,
abot 1,900 students, or 28 percent, will be invited to take one of the 715 spots in Wesleyan's freshman class next fall; 4,949 others, or 72 percent, will not.
An Art, Not a Science
The daunting task of determining who makes the cut and who does not is anything but scientific.
Mr. Figueroa, 35, and his colleagues will consider an applicant's grades, class rank and test scores, of course, and an SAT score below 1,400 would immediately be considered a negative. But it would hardly be a deal-breaker. That's because the officers will also weigh a student's race, ethnicity and hometown, as well as course selections, athletic prowess, alumni connections, artistic skill, musical talent, writing ability, community service and the quality of the school. (A student's means to pay Wesleyan's annual tuition, room and board -- $31,600 -- is not to be considered by the admissions officers.)
The officers will assign the applicant a rating of 1 to 9, with 9 highest, in a half-dozen broad categories. Applicants be warned: letters of recommendation from members of Congress or Gen. Colin L. Powell; boxes of cookies sent by priority mail, and essays about discovering yourself at summer camp have, this year as in others, provided little added traction. In the end, the officers will often rely as much on their gut feelings as on numbers, balancing an applicant's chances for academic excellence at Wesleyan against the broader contribution the applicant might make to the college community and, ultimately, the world.
Mr. Figueroa, echoing colleagues at Wesleyan and elsewhere, sees himself as a social engineer, one charged with making sure that the Class of 2004 is not only academically sound and ethnically and racially diverse, but also well-stocked with poets, running backs, activists, politicians, painters, journalists and cellists. That philosophy trickles from the very top of the university, from Douglas J. Bennet, Wesleyan's president since 1995. ''It's a mistake to hold out that total fairness is the only objective,'' said Mr. Bennet, who graduated from Wesleyan in 1959, though he wondered if he would be admitted today. ''It's intuitive. It's a guess, to some degree, about where an individual at 16 or 17 will end up at 18 or 20.''
Mr. Figueroa's first word in the process will not necessarily be the last, though it often foreshadows an applicant's fate.
From January to early March, each application will be read by at least two officers -- the first selected at random, the second because he or she covers the particular region from which the student is applying. If the readers concur, the director or dean of admissions, who will review the recommendations, will probably endorse them.
But often the officers' verdicts are at odds. And the fate of hundreds of applicants will be left unresolved until late March, when the officers will convene for several days of fiery committee meetings.
Role of Gatekeepers' Pasts
The Wesleyan admissions officers are encouraged to bring their own life experiences to the deliberations. For it is their own diversity, both of race and of interests, that the university hopes to replicate in Wesleyan's next class.
One of the nine, for example, is a white, former Philadelphia high school teacher, age 39. Another, who is 25, grew up in Hawaii. A third, now 53, was director of a community halfway house before he came to Wesleyan more than 20 years ago. A fourth graduated from Wesleyan last year with a double major in English and African-American studies.
Mr. Figueroa grew up in Southern California. His mother's father, a miner in Mexico, did not attend college but took engineering courses by mail. Mr. Figueroa still keeps his grandfather's worn correspondence books in his office. And his grandfather's mantra -- ''I'd give anything to have worked with my head, and not my hands'' -- served as a prod to Mr. Figueroa's father, who became a lawyer, and his mother, who obtained a master's in bilingual education. Mr. Figueroa and his six siblings all graduated from college, and most also received graduate degrees.
Even with a College Board score of 1,400, Mr. Figueroa believes his own application to Stanford University would have been considered anything but unique, had he not been of Mexican descent. The experience of attending and graduating from Stanford, as well as the University of California Los Angeles Law School, has made him a passionate defender of affirmative action. ''These are students who have overcome hardship,'' he says. ''And these are students who, the evidence shows, are much more likely to go back to their communities as leaders.''
It was his gratitude for the gifts of affirmative action, he said, and his high regard for his mother's work as a college counselor to Mexican children, that persuaded him to bypass a legal career for admissions.
Picking and Choosing
This year's admissions season, at Wesleyan and elsewhere, began in November, when the officers began considering applicants who sought early admission, on the promise that they would attend Wesleyan if accepted. Some 40 percent of the new freshman class was taken up by those accepted early.
But Mr. Figueroa and his colleagues have read the bulk of the applications, including personal statements, high school transcripts and references, over the last few months, from 9 a.m. until 11 at night, six days a week, mostly from home. Of the 22 applications Mr. Figueroa read one recent day, he tentatively recommended admitting nine candidates -- which, he worried, was too many. Accepting no more than six of every 22, given the size of the pool, is more of a goal, he suggested. He says he is always telling himself, ''Read faster, say no.''
Among the applicants who made strong impressions on Mr. Figueroa that day were a young woman who had competed in the United States National Chemistry Olympiad and a young man who wrote about saving someone's life.
The prospects were less clear for a young Connecticut man who devoted his personal statement to the rules of his Italian family -- ''If you're wise to your grandmother, it's a slap upside your head.''
But it was the applications of the California merit scholar and the struggling Dominican from New York that ate up much of Mr. Figueroa's time, nearly two hours.
He was disappointed that the merit scholar had taken few advanced placement courses at her top-notch public school and had several C's. Mr. Figueroa recommended denying the woman admission -- but he added the designation ''plus,'' which meant that if another reader strongly disagreed with him, the committee should discuss it.
The Dominican woman from New York was a harder call. Her grades were worse than the Californian's, as well several others whom Mr. Figueroa had recommended rejecting that day. But Mr. Figueroa liked that she had gotten herself a scholarship to private school, that she had taken leadership positions there and that, like his own parents, she had already exceeded the education level of her parents. He marked her application ''admit minus'' meaning he wanted it discussed by the committee.
''Spanish is her first language,'' he said of the New Yorker, reading to a visitor from her application. ''Her parents didn't go to school.''
''Coming from the Southwest,'' he said, ''I know that 1 in 4 high school dropouts is a Latina female.''
Though Wesleyan -- where this year's freshman class is 9 percent black and 7 percent Latino -- has no quotas for minorities, the officers are encouraged to admit as many as possible. Mr. Figueroa said that such cases often kept him up at night.
''You can't help but thinking, 'Those kids are out there somewhere. They don't even realize we're sitting here and agonizing about them and spending time really worried about their lives and what's happening to them,' '' he said.
But a moment later, his mind drifting to the sheer number of applicants for so few slots, he added: ''They're going to end up in good places. They're going to have good lives. I don't have the ability to bring them all to Wesleyan.''
Admission to elite colleges is more competitive than at any time in history. The New York Times asked Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., to give a reporter full access to it's selection procedure. It did so, permitting him to read applications and attend admissions meetings, on the condition that applicants' identities not be revealed. This is the first of several articles on that process.
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