Kaizad Irani ‘22
When looking at an application for admission, Davidson College states on its website that they engage in a “holistic review” and pay special attention to “difficulty of high school course selection” and the “breadth of extracurricular pursuits.” Some students, however, believe that another factor is playing a large role in promoting systemic inequality in Davidson’s admissions policy.
Nearly a week after the release of a petition calling on Davidson College to offer a Jewish Studies program, all students received an email from the Student Government Association (SGA) about another petition floating around campus. Written by the Davidson Students for Just Admissions organization, the petition calls for a reform of the college’s admissions policies. Specifically, the petition asks Davidson to create a legacy-blind admissions policy and replace its early decision application option with either a non-binding or single choice early action option.
Emma Tayloe ‘19 leads Davidson Students for Just Admissions. A legacy student herself, Tayloe wants to help Davidson admissions become more fair and inclusive.
“The group consists of legacy students, including myself, as well as first generation [students] and students of color,” said Tayloe. “Davidson was one of the first colleges to establish a need-blind admissions program, and we should continue our role as a leader for equitable admissions.”
Legacy preference in American college admissions has been around since the nineteenth century. However, it has recently made headlines because of the October 2018 lawsuit against Harvard University. The lawsuit involves Harvard’s Students for Fair Admissions organization and its accusation that the school’s admissions office discriminates against Asian-American applicants. The group believes that the school rejects deserving Asian-American applicants by holding them to a higher standard over applications of other races. However, the case also revealed that Harvard gives preference to legacy students. According to six years of admissions data shared in the case, legacy students are five times more likely to get accepted into Harvard over non-legacies.
According to page six of the 2018-2019 Davidson Common Data Set, legacy status is also considered in a student’s application to Davidson.
“Davidson is about 25% more white than our self-identified peer institutions, and legacy preference contributes to this,” said Tayloe. “Most legacy students are white because Davidson did not start accepting non-white applicants until 1963. Furthermore, due to the wealth status of most legacies, they are given an additional and explicit advantage in the application process.”
The same petition also calls for the removal of early decision from the application process. The petition states that the binding early decision option is not fair to those applicants who may need financial aid. Instead, Davidson Students for Just Admissions want a non-binding early action process or a single-choice early action policy, which allow students to apply early to a school in a non-binding commitment. Those who apply single choice early action would only be allowed to apply to one school through an early admissions program.
“Early decision hurts applicants as it does not allow those accepted to evaluate their financial aid packages, making it hard to commit when you do not know what your aid will be,” expressed Tayloe. “Although we are need-blind, I still see students receiving federal aid and experiencing financial hardships.”
The petition is directed towards Davidson’s Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, Christopher Gruber. Gruber explained that he has taken suggestions from Davidson Students for Just Admissions in the past to help reform the school’s admissions process.
“It would be very difficult for us to be blind in a process when there is a great context that is shared when we understand where a family comes from. The questions on our application such as ‘Where did your parents attend college? Where did your siblings attend college?’ just gives us context,” said Gruber. “However, we now recognize the problems associated with directly asking an applicant about that information. Those questions will not be on the application process starting next cycle, and I credit that decision to [Davidson Students for Just Admissions]. We are replacing that question with a broader one that simply says, how did you learn about Davidson?”
Gruber argues that legacy students do not get an advantage in the process solely because they have family associated with the school. Although legacy students statistically have a higher percentage of getting into Davidson, Gruber claims that it is not due solely to their legacy status, but rather their personal values and merit.
“Everyone is getting the same review. To imply that something is being given to them that elevates them in a process by way of a profile so that an inferior student is being admitted is not the case,” said Gruber. “An acceptance rate is higher for those who have had a family tie towards the college. You could say the same of any any applicant whose parents attended a college of Davidson’s caliber. That typically means that they are better prepared in terms of coming from a family that higher values education, that has made sure their children prepare for college and college admission. Where we have made progress, and need to make more, is in drawing in qualified applicants who do not come from those same types of backgrounds.”
In response to the claim that early decision is not fair due to the inherent advantage given to families that can pay the cost of attendance, Gruber disagreed and stated that while that was true in the past, it is no longer the case.
“We used to say to families that if the decision of where your child will be going for the next four years will be influenced by the amount of aid received through need or merit based aid to not apply early decision. Why? Because, we never had the ability to share to families how much they would be receiving by the means of aid until the spring,” said Gruber.
“However, this changed in 2011 when every college and university in the United States became required to have a net price calculator. Davidson invested heavily in developing a precise and accurate net price calculator. Today, we have the same percentage of those qualified for aid in early decision, as we do in regular,” added Gruber. “As a result, the thought of saying that early decision is not fair is one that I totally disagree with. Those are fair questions to raise about the process a decade ago but not now”
In a 2017 email to Tayloe, Gruber linked legacy preference and early decision benefits: “The acceptance of legacy students [at Davidson] are typically about two times the regular admission rate to the college, yet appreciate that this preference is given primarily to those students that are applying to the college under our early decision (binding) program.”
Students on campus recognize the complexity regarding the debate on Davidson’s admissions policy. Chloe Craig ‘22 is a fifth-generation legacy student who recognizes her status as a legacy and wishes there was more transparency coming from Davidson admissions.
“I do recognize all the benefits I got from being a legacy early-decision applicant, and I see how it can be perceived as being unfair,” shared Craig. “However, I honestly believe that the students who attend Davidson, including those who are legacies or early-decision students, truly deserve to be here. Yet, I wish the Admissions Office was more transparent with their policies and expectations.”
Although Gruber disagrees with most aspects of the petition, he says that he is looking forward to working with the group and improving dialogue about admissions on campus.
“We are looking forward to discussing with students how our application process works and what is weighted, perhaps with a Common Hour talk,” said Gruber. “The reality is that they [Davidson for Just Admissions] are looking to make things better, and they have already done that. Error on me if the changes that we are implementing were not publicly known.”
As of the time of writing, the petition has nearly 400 signatures from students and alumni.