Would admissions be more equitable without letters of recommendation?

The push for greater equity in college admissions is prompting leaders to scrutinize all facets of the application process, and letters of recommendation are no exception, Inside Higher Ed reports.

Around 80 percent of colleges and universities consider recommendation letters to be an important component of a college application, according to a survey from the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). However, a recent report from NACAC and the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators on racial equity in admissions urges colleges to scrutinize every step of the application process—recommendation letters included—to reduce unnecessary complexity and other sources of inequities.

Related: How could college admissions better promote racial equity? >

“The report encourages us to…ask ourselves whether the information is truly useful in determining a student’s ability to succeed at the institution, whether there is bias in the process of writing and reading recommendations, and whether there are systemic factors that create inequities in students’ ability to fulfill this requirement,” David Hawkins, NACAC’s chief education and policy officer, explained to Inside Higher Ed.

Does the quality of the letter reflect the quality of the student?

Written thoughtfully, letters of recommendation can help show admissions teams why a student might be a good fit for their institution or what they can contribute to a learning community, says Safiya Johnson, who is currently a college and career coach at a South Side Chicago public high school and previously worked in admissions at the University of Chicago. But Johnson points out that many students don’t have access to someone with the time or ability to tell their story effectively.

Johnson, who recently published an essay on minimizing gender and racial bias in letters of recommendation, says that counselors at smaller, private schools tend to write more detailed letters, whereas she saw “counselors not submit a letter due to their counseling loads and short letters from large public schools.” At schools in 13 U.S. states, the average student-to-counselor ratio exceeds 500:1; just four states have a ratio of less than 250:1. Students at schools with high turnover rates also tend to have difficulty obtaining standout letters, Johnson adds.

While acknowledging that she can dedicate more time to writing recommendation letters than her counterparts at larger public schools, one private school counselor says she suspects that “most folks on the admissions side of the desk consider the counselor caseload” when evaluating a student’s application.

How admissions teams handle variability

That is the case at the University of Denver, Todd Rinehart, vice chancellor for enrollment, told Inside Higher Ed. “Our readers evaluate each student within the context of their schools and unique situations,” he said, adding that “this lens is similar to how we review a student who attends a school that doesn’t offer higher levels of math, or limited AP and honors courses.”

However, other college leaders have expressed concern about the variation in the quality of applicants’ recommendation letters. “A disadvantaged student is further disadvantaged” when their recommendation letters are too brief or lacking in detail, says Joseph Montgomery, vice president of enrollment management and student success at Tuskegee University, a private, historically Black land-grant institution in Alabama.

One solution would be to make letters of recommendation optional for applicants or to accept letters from teachers or personal references, Johnson suggests. The University of California, Los Angeles, meanwhile, has taken it a step farther: for decades, the institution has not accepted any letters of recommendation.

The policy puts it in the “extreme minority” among selective institutions, Inside Higher Ed notes. But Youlonda Copeland-Morgan, UCLA’s vice provost for enrollment management, says it helps create a more equitable admissions process, given that “the caseload for most public school counselors is incredibly heavy” and low-income students are especially likely to attend schools where teachers and counselors are stretched thin.

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