On March 30, the Jefferson Admissions Office released their decisions for the Class of 2016. The numbers evoked a variety of reactions, but there was one figure in particular that had students, faculty and other stakeholders in the Jefferson community buzzing. The incoming freshman class is 64.2 percent Asian. This figure, in addition to the continued underrepresentation of Hispanics and African-Americans, gives cause for concern.
A trend we’ve begun to feel among incoming students at our school is the increasing presence of the “robot student,” for lack of a better term. When the current seniors were recruited to come to Jefferson, part of the recruitment spiel was the culture that exists here. That culture has been eroded, forcing students to focus even more on an Ivy League acceptance from your first day as a freshman.
Jefferson has seen a shift from a vibrant place of learning to a simple college admissions factory. And our own admissions process has a lot to do with it. As Jefferson became better known due to its multiple consecutive U.S. News & World Report number one rankings, the number of applicants increased, and the admissions process became more cutthroat. Starting with the Class of 2012, who began applying prior to the first ranking, the number of applicants has increased each year from 2,577 to 3,423. It is now harder than it has ever been to gain acceptance to our school.
This is because the process is based purely on numbers. Look at any college admissions website, and you will find the word “holistic” to describe their selection process. On Jefferson’s admissions site, that word is absent. In its place is, quite fittingly, an equation. For those who make it past the first round of admissions, their application is judged on a number scale. The essays written on test day count for 25 percent of a student’s score; student information sheets and teacher recommendations count for 20 percent each; as do the math scores from the admissions test. The final 15 percent takes into account a student’s grade point average in their math and science courses.
Admissions places a premium on opportunity. Numerically grading a student’s résumé rewards them for opportunities, opportunities such as participating in science fair or a certain after school program, opportunities that not every school offers. The achievement gap could be simply be explained by an opportunity gap.
The process is obviously designed to admit students with a focus on STEM subjects. Being a science and tech school, this makes sense. However, well-rounded students make for a better school environment, and ignoring applicants’ English and history grades and assigning them a number doesn’t benefit the school.
According to admissions statistics, Asian applicants are the beneficiaries of the nuances in the application process. About 21 percent of all Asian applicants are admitted, compared to 10 percent of white applicants (the fact that these numbers are so much higher than that of Hispanics and African-Americans can be explained by the opportunity gap referenced above). Jefferson used to have a majority of white students, but the rise in Asian population has erased that. Asians are now the majority.
With a new majority, inevitably, comes a new culture. It is no secret that the Asian culture lends itself to increased focus on academics, an emphasis on scholastic excellence, and pressure to get into the best possible college. That pressure leads students on the proverbial “race to nowhere.”
Students learn material for one test, then dump their brains the next night to cram for the next exam. At its best, this culture of just getting by can lead to unpreparedness in college. At its worst, we encounter problems such as cheating and poor grades. An example of this in action is the unprecedented number of freshmen who are in danger of being kicked out of Jefferson, a number that includes 15 percent of the class, according to Principal Evan Glazer. In years past, that number has been eight percent. Glazer does, however, caution against drawing too much of a conclusion from one year’s statistics.
That ability to game a test is also seen in the admissions process. The presence of Jefferson test prep tutors, similar to SAT prep courses, can teach students tricks to game not just the test, but the entire admissions process. At this point, it isn’t hard for prospective students to guess what the admissions committee wants to see on an application. Cram for the test, memorize a prewritten essay, and feign an interest in science and tech on the student information sheet, andit appears that you are on your way to getting that acceptance letter.
This brings us back to the original point. Despite its unique distinction as a governor’s school, Jefferson is not a college admissions factory. It is still a comprehensive high school, and a very good one at that. But it seems as though in recent years, students have lost focus. The point of attending high school is not just to get into college, but to prepare yourself for college. Jefferson still does that just about as well as any high school, but we could do a lot better.