Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Who Gets In? Strategies for Fair and Effective College Admissions

reviewed by Patricia A. Pérez - December 19, 2017

coverTitle: Who Gets In? Strategies for Fair and Effective College Admissions
Author(s): Rebecca Zwick
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0674971914, Pages: 270, Year: 2017
Search for book at Amazon.com

In Who Gets In? Strategies for Fair and Effective College Admissions, Rebecca Zwick scrutinizes the fairness and effectiveness of various college admissions models by drawing on nationally representative data from applicants to top-ranked U.S. schools. Providing analyses that differ by grade point average, standardized test scores, socioeconomic status (SES), gender, and, where possible, race and ethnicity, Zwick points out both the challenges and benefits of pursuing different admission models. Ultimately, one of Zwick’s underlying messages is that no matter which college admissions system is applied, institutions must remain transparent in their processes and ensure that these processes are aligned with their educational missions and philosophies. She argues that institutions should routinely evaluate and make publicly available their college admissions processes “to determine whether admissions policies are consistent with the institutional mission in their effects as well as their intent” (p. 198).    

The introductory section of Zwick’s text begins with a brief history of the preliminary oral and written examinations used in college admissions through the 19th century. She discusses the controversies and benefits surrounding entrance examinations and delves into how the ACT and especially the SAT have evolved. Much of the controversy surrounding these college entrance exams focuses on the SES and racial/ethnic disparities in average scores. Zwick also introduces the concepts of high school content-based standardized exams and admissions plans based on high school rank, the latter of which is developed further in Chapter Five.

In the first chapter, Zwick looks at the ideal of fairness in college admissions, asking what fairness looks like and how it is communicated through higher education institutional missions. In the subsequent chapter, the author explores whether entrance exams or high school grades (or a combination of both), are a better measure in the admissions process. Chapter Three investigates the legitimacy of predictors of college performance models and academic indexes.

Perhaps the most controversial chapter, Chapter Four, addresses the role of race-based and SES-based affirmative action policies as well as other admissions preferences for athletes, veterans, and children of alumni or potential donors. Zwick thoroughly highlights the contentious debate surrounding race- and ethnicity-based admissions preferences and the shift to using more palatable SES-based processes to attempt to procure a more diverse student admit pool. In this chapter Zwick also makes clear that other types of development admits (i.e., legacies, athletes, etc.), “rarely raise an eyebrow” (p. 120).    

The ensuing chapter reviews admissions plans based on student rank, known as percent plans, as well as institutions that have moved to test-optional admission models. Zwick aptly points out that in order for percent plans to successfully further racial/ethnic and SES student diversity, institutions must rely “on the existence of racially and socioeconomically segregated [high] schools” (p. 17). The author also finds that test-optional models, i.e., processes that have eliminated or made optional the reporting of a standardized examination, “might make the prospect of applying to college less daunting for some potential applicants, particularly students of color and those from lower socioeconomic brackets” (p. 138).

Chapter Six assesses the use of “noncognitive measures” within college admission processes as one strategy to provide a more holistic evaluation of an applicant while remaining committed to achieving a plural campus. The succeeding chapter outlines the benefits and drawbacks to using lottery systems, with and without thresholds, while Chapter Eight explores the use of constrained optimization (CO), a model wherein an entire class or group is admitted based on predetermined criteria and goals. Of the myriad college admissions models analyzed by Zwick, CO appears to be the one best-suited to the goal of maximizing racial/ethnic student diversity while maintaining academic excellence.  

Finally, the concluding chapter offers several important and practical principles that should be taken into consideration when institutions are drafting admissions policies and processes. Chapter Nine also reiterates Zwick’s critical message that “transparency is much needed in order to tame applicant anxieties, increase public faith in the admissions process, and pave the way for improvements” (p. 198).

Throughout her review of college admissions models, wherever possible, Zwick presented analyses disaggregated by major race/ethnicity groups. However, it is important to unmask disparities among ethnic subgroups as well. Research has identified and documented the importance of highlighting educational attainment disparities within Latina/o (e.g., Mexican and Cuban) and Asian American (e.g., Korean and Cambodian) student populations (CARE, 2013; Pérez Huber et al., 2015; Poon, Matias Dizon, & Squire, 2017). Through no fault of her own, Zwick is limited to how the Education Longitudinal Study data is collected and thus how she is able to analyze and present the data. However, a critical opportunity to communicate the importance of the heterogeneity and inter-ethnic differences within ethnic subgroups was missed, especially when achieving racial/ethnic diversity on college campuses was an important tenet addressed throughout her text.

Overall, Zwick’s reader-friendly text is an important contribution to the field of higher education policy and a must-read for college admissions practitioners and administrators charged with formulating college admissions guidelines. The author is meticulous not only in outlining the advantages and disadvantages of the various college admission models analyzed, but also in examining the role that different criteria play within each selected model. Indeed, in her analysis of college admissions systems she highlights how the use of particular methods or criteria may have unintended consequences or the opposite outcome of what was hoped to be achieved. Zwick’s text will undoubtedly serve as a go-to guide for those involved in the college admissions process who continue to strive for fairness and effectiveness in student applicant evaluation.  


National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education (CARE). (2013). iCount: A data quality movement for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in higher education. New York: CARE.

Pérez Huber, L., Malagón, M.C., Ramirez, B.R., Camargo Gonzalez, L., Jimenez, A., & Vélez, V.N. (2015). Still falling through the cracks: Revisiting the Latina/o education pipeline. CSRC Research Report (No. 19). Los Angeles: UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.

Poon, O., Matias Dizon, J.P., & Squire, D. (2017). Count me In!: Ethnic data disaggregation advocacy, racial mattering, and lessons for racial justice coalitions. Journal Committed to Social Change on Race and Ethnicity, 3(1), 91–124.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 19, 2017
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22212, Date Accessed: 1/23/2022 11:21:12 AM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools
Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • Patricia Pérez
    California State University, Fullerton
    E-mail Author
    PATRICIA A. PÉREZ, PhD, is a Professor in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at California State University, Fullerton. Her research interests focus on U.S. educational inequalities with an emphasis on underrepresented student populations. These include: higher education access and equity, Latina/o college choice, college persistence and retention, racial diversity in higher education, and examinations of the role of race/ethnicity, gender and im/migrant status on college access. Her most recent co-edited volume, Facilitating Educational Success for Migrant Farmworkers Students in the U.S., was published in Routledge’s Research in Educational Equality and Diversity series (2017). Dr. Pérez received her Ph.D. from the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies in Higher Education and Organizational Change and also holds an Ed.M. with a concentration in Administration, Planning, and Social Policy from Harvard University.
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue