After a year of turbulence, elite universities welcome more and more diverse freshman classes

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Jianna Curbelo attends career-oriented public high school in New York City, works at McDonald’s, and lives in the Bronx with her unemployed mother, who did not graduate from college.

So, when her high school counselor and her PhD graduating aunt urged her to apply to Cornell on her way to becoming a vet, she had second thoughts. But she also had her hopes.

“It was one of those, ‘I’m going to give it a try, boost my ego a little bit,’” she said, laughing contagiously, of her decision to apply.

Then she got the unexpected news: she was accepted. She thought she was helped by the fact that Cornell, like hundreds of other universities, had suspended its standardized test score requirement for admission during the coronavirus pandemic. She also said she believed the protests sparked over George Floyd’s death caught the attention of admissions officers, inspiring some to write essay questions designed to spark students’ thoughts on racial justice and justice. value of diversity.

“These protests really inspired me,” she said. “It felt like times were sort of changing, in a way.

It is not known whether university admissions have changed over the long term. But early data suggests that many elite universities have admitted a greater proportion of traditionally under-represented students this year – black, Hispanic, and those who were from low-income communities or were the first generation in their families to attend. go to college, or a combination – than ever before.

The gains appear to reflect a moment of national racial and social awareness unparalleled since the late 1960s, which motivated universities to prioritize diversity and which prompted students to broaden their horizons on possible university experiences.

“I would say the likelihood is that the movement that arose in the wake of George Floyd’s murder exerted some influence on admissions officials at these institutions,” said Jerome Karabel, a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley. and university historian. admission.

“But I think an equally important factor may be the effect of the pandemic on the applicant pool – they had a much larger choice of low-income and minority applicants.”

“It was just another thing that made me go to Harvard and prove everyone else wrong, and challenge the common stereotype imposed on so many African American men today,” he said. -he declares.

He also suspected Harvard of thinking she owed a duty to young men like him “because of the social outcry.” And, now he says, it looks like he was right.

He finds himself deciding between Harvard, Emory, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, University of Pennsylvania, Wake Forest, Davidson and Georgetown.

The growth in minority admissions to top schools, both private universities and flagship institutions in the state, has been in part due to an overall explosion of applicants in this country. Although the total number of students applying to college this year has increased only slightly (although slightly more for black, Hispanic and Asian students than for whites), the number of applications to top schools has increased significantly in all fields – 43 percent at Harvard and 66 percent at MIT, for example.

At the University of California, Los Angeles, freshman applications rose 28%, and even more for racial minorities – 48% for African Americans, 33% for Hispanic students, and 16% for American Indian students.

Relaxing the use of standardized testing, which critics say often works to the benefit of more educated and affluent families who can afford tutors and test preparation, has probably been the most important factor in encouraging candidates from minorities.

According to Common App, the non-profit organization that offers the app used by more than 900 schools, only 46% of this year’s applications were from students who achieved a test result, up from 77% last year. First-generation, low-income students, as well as black, Hispanic and Native American college students were much less likely than others to submit their results to tests on college applications.

Schools had abandoned required tests for years, but during the pandemic a wave of 650 schools joined. In most cases, a student with good scores could still submit them and have them considered; a student who had good grades and good recommendations, but did not get test results, could leave them out.

Most schools have announced that they will continue the optional test experiment next year, as the normal pace of the school year is still disrupted by the pandemic. It is not known whether the change predicts a permanent change in the way students are selected.

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Gabriella Codrington, 17, a black student at Bard, a selective public high school in New York City, only submitted her SAT score to her “security” schools, like the University of Delaware and Temple University, where she thought it would help his candidacy. She turned it down to more selective schools like Harvard, Michigan, Stanford and NYU, emphasizing her grades and her resilience to cancer, now in remission. “It certainly gave me a little more relief,” she said of the voluntary testing policy.

Neither her father, a porter, nor her mother, a saleswoman, went to university. She was admitted to NYU

Jaylen Cocklin’s family (his father attended a historically black college and his mother attended a Christian college) encouraged him to aim high.

He “just fought” for the SAT, he said, using a free online program, books and lessons on YouTube, and traveled 45 miles through the pandemic to pass the first of two. SAT tests. His score was high enough that he thought it would help him stand out in top schools, so he submitted it.

In his application essay, he wrote about the “struggle to be who I was” at AC Flora High School in suburb of Columbia, South Carolina. “I’ve been pretty stereotypical being African American, the common stereotypes – thug, hoodish, looking at what African Americans can do,” he said.

But he also had to face the stereotype of “whitewashed”. He wrote about his efforts to find a balance.

As students like Jaylen and Gabriella told their stories, admissions officers listened to them.

“You could tell the story of America through the eyes of all these young people, and how they handled the weather, Black Lives Matter, the wave of unemployment and the uncertainties of the political moment, wanting to make a difference,” he said. said MJ Knoll-Finn, senior vice president for enrollment management at New York University.

At NYU, the class admitted this year is about 29% black or Hispanic students, up from 27% last year, and 20% first-generation students, up from 15%.

At Harvard, the proportion of admitted students who are black rose from 14.8% to 18%. Last year. If all enrolled, there would be about 63 more black students in this year’s freshman class than if they were admitted at last year’s rate. Asian Americans saw the second largest increase, at 27.2% from 24.5%, which could be significant if a lawsuit accusing Harvard of systematically discriminating against Asian Americans is resumed by the court supreme.

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The percentage of black students who offered a place at the University of Southern California rose from 6% to 8.5% and Latino students to 18% from 15%.

Stu Schmill, dean of admissions at MIT, said the school had not released the admitted class breakdown because it was not the final enrollment class. “But I can tell you there is a higher percentage of color students this year than last year,” he said.

A number of schools did not report admissions figures by race, but instead listed non-white “students of color” (including Asians) as a group, which generally showed an increase.

Once students actually accept an offer of admission and enroll, the diversity tally may look different, reflecting the difference between admitted students and where those students choose to enroll.

Some admissions experts fear that making standardized tests like the SAT optional will make it more difficult to select the best students, especially in an era of widespread grade inflation. But when tests were needed, “the students withdrew from the race,” said Cassie Magesis, director of post-secondary access to Urban Assembly, a network of small schools that includes the one Jianna Curbelo attends.

Admissions directors said that in the absence of test results, they went into not only high school grades, but also the rigor of high school classes as well as personal essays and recommendations from teachers and counselors. ‘orientation.

Some hired a small army of app readers, like NYU, which added 50 new readers, more than doubling its regular reading staff.

Even some admissions directors who believe the standardized tests have been misused have mixed feelings about their elimination altogether.

“In some ways I would say good riddance to the SAT,” said Joy St. John, dean of admissions and financial aid at Wellesley College. “It feels like we just can’t stop putting gas on disadvantaged students.”

Nonetheless, she said the tests could identify students who exceeded their environment or who excelled in certain subjects, such as math and science. “There are aspects that I will miss if we don’t have it,” she said. As flawed as the process is, admissions directors have said they welcome students trying to tackle challenges in schools.

NYU’s Ms. Knoll-Finn said. “Why not reach for the stars and see what you can get?”

Stephanie Saul contribution to reports. Sheelagh McNeill contributed to the research.