Selective colleges have increasingly considered a variety of factors, such as academic rigor, extracurriculars, essays, interviews, recommendations, and background characteristics, alongside traditional academic factors in determining who is admitted. These efforts have been hailed as a strategy to expand access to selective higher education for talented students from racially and economically marginalized backgrounds. But such efforts introduce ambiguous admissions criteria—excellence in extracurriculars, subjective assessments of character and talent gleaned from essays, interviews, and recommendations—that may favor students from socially privileged families. We draw on nearly a decade of data on selective college admissions processes to examine how the importance of various admissions criteria relate to enrollment among racially and economically marginalized students. Using panel data from 2008 to 2016 and random effects analyses, our findings indicate ambiguous criteria that often comprise a more comprehensive approach to admissions may do little to ameliorate—and in some cases, may exacerbate—existing enrollment inequities. We also find that moving away from test scores and focusing on academic rigor represent potentially promising strategies for expanding access at some institutions.
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