This comment from abl leads to the Parable of the Privilege Pill.

Imagine a family with twin sons, just entering 9th grade. The boys are average, both in their natural abilities and in their academic inclinations. Son 1 goes through high school with average grades and average test scores. According to Williams Admissions, he has an Academic Rating of 9. If he applies, he is rejected, as are all AR 9s. Note that Williams is not punishing him for bad performance in high school. The purpose of admissions is neither to punish nor reward. Williams rejects Son 1 because AR 9 high school students, on average, do very poorly at elite colleges.

Imagine that Son 2, on the other hand, takes a magic Privilege Pill on the first day of 9th grade, a pill which dramatically increases his academic performance for four years. He will receive excellent grades in high school and do very well on the SAT. Williams Admissions will rate him an AR 1 and, probably, admit him if he applies.

Williams would not (and should not) admit Son 2 if it knew about the Privilege Pill. By assumption, the pill only lasts for four years. After that, Son 2 becomes identical to Son 1, an AR 9, highly unlikely to perform well in an elite classroom. Admission to Williams is not a reward for strong performance in high school; it is a forecast of academic success in college.

The same reasoning applies to the Anti-Privilege Pill. Imagine a different family with twin daughters blessed with academic talent. Daughter 1 does very well in high school, is rated AR 1 by Williams and (probably) admitted. Daughter 2, unfortunately, takes an Anti-Privilege Pill at the start of high school and does much worse in terms of grades/scores than she would have done if she had not taken the pill.

Williams would (and should) admit Daughter 2 if it knew about the Anti-Privilege Pill. Recall that the pill, by definition, only lasts 4 years. Daughter 2 is, in truth, an AR 1 student whose underlying abilities have been masked in high school. We expect her to do as well at Williams as Daughter 1. Rejection from Williams is not a punishment for poor performance in high school; it is a forecast of academic struggles in college.

Things are different, however, in the case of a Privilege Pill (or Anti-Privilege Pill) which is permanent in its effects rather than temporary.

Consider a car accident in 9th grade which, tragically, leaves Daughter 2 with permanent neurological damage. Through no fault of her own, she will do only average in high school and will be scored as an AR 9 by Williams admissions. She will be rejected because, on average, high school students with AR 9, regardless of how they came to have an AR 9, do poorly at elite colleges. Even though she would have been an AR 1 (like her twin sister) were it not for the car accident, that sad fact does not influence Williams admissions.

The same reasoning applies to a Privilege Pill whose effect is permanent. If the Pill turns an average 9th grader into an AR 1, then Williams should admit her because she will, we expect, do as well as all the other AR 1s. The source of student ability — genetics, parenting, schooling, luck, wealth, special tutoring, magic pills — does not matter. Admissions to Williams is not a value judgment on the source, or justness, of student achievement in high school; it is a forecast of success in a Williams classroom.

With this framework, we can evaluate abl’s question:

If there are two students alike in every material respect (1450 SATs / 3.8 GPAs at the same school with comparable resumes), and you know that one student achieved her SAT scores after working with a private tutor with a long history of success stories while the other student did not have that opportunity — who would you accept?

The student without the tutor, obviously! In this scenario, the tutored-student has taken a Privilege Pill which, by assumption, is only temporary. She isn’t truly an AR 2. She would have scored 1300 without the tutor. She is really an AR 4 (or whatever). She is likely to do as well as other AR 4s at Williams. So, we should reject her (unless she is an AR 4 that we really want).

I honestly don’t see how any rational, clear-minded person can say that they aren’t going to accept the student who achieved her score on her own. That’s not because we are prejudiced against the student who got help: it’s that we don’t (or, at the very least, we shouldn’t) believe that her 1450 represents the same level of accomplishment and potential as the 1450 of the student who took the test cold.

Exactly how do you propose that Williams admissions determines “the student who achieved her score on her own?” While I am happy to answer your hypothetical question, the sad truth is that Williams has no (reasonable) way of determining which students achieved on their own and which did not. High quality SAT tutoring is available for free at Khan Academy, for example. How could you possibly know if a given applicant “took the test cold?” Answer: You can’t.

There strikes me as being a reasonable debate to be had about how and whether admissions officers should take these sorts of advantages into account in the admissions process. There is no reasonable debate to be had about whether or not privilege plays a role in student achievement as measured by SAT scores and by GPAs.

Perhaps. But the key question becomes: Are the advantages of privilege temporary or permanent? Does the Privilege Pill last through 4 years at Williams? If it does, then we can ignore it. Admissions to Williams is not a value judgment on the source, or justness, of student achievement in high school; it is a forecast of success in a Williams classroom.

Fortunately, this is an empirical question! Define “privilege” however you like, while using data available to Williams Admissions. I would suggest: A privileged applicant is one who attends a high quality high school (top decile?), will not need financial aid at Williams, and comes from a family in which both parents attended an elite college. (Feel free to suggest a different definition.) We can then divide all AR 1 Williams students into two groups: privileged and non-privileged. If you are correct that privileged students benefit from things like high quality SAT tutoring which makes them look temporarily better than they actually are, we would expect the privileged AR 1 students to perform worse at Williams than the non-privileged AR 1s. The same would apply to privileged versus non-privileged AR 2s, AR 3s and so on. Director of Institutional Research Courtney Wade could answer this question in an hour.

But don’t expect that analysis to be made public anytime soon. Courtney, and the people who do institutional research at Williams and places like it, are smart. They have already looked at this question. And the reason that they don’t publish the results is because of the not-very-welcome findings. Privileged AR 1s do at least as well at Williams as non-privileged AR 1s, and so on down the AR scale. The effects of the Privilege Pill are permanent. If anything, the results probably come out the other way because the AR scheme underestimates the benefit of going to a fancy high school like Andover or Stuyvesant. But let’s ignore that subtlety for now.

The last defense of the opponents of privilege is to focus on junior/senior year. Yes, the poor/URM AR 3s and 4s that Williams currently accepts don’t do as well as the AR 1s and 2s in their overall GPA. But that is precisely because of their lack of privilege, or so the argument goes. After a couple of years, Williams has helped them to catch up, has made up for their childhood difficulties and obstacles.

Alas, that hopeful story isn’t true either. AR 3s/4s do worse than AR 1s/2s even after two years of wonderful Williams.

Summary: Admissions to Williams is not a value judgment on the source, or justness, of student achievement in high school; it is a forecast of success in a Williams classroom. It does not matter why you are an AR 1: intelligent parents who value education, luck in your assignment to a charismatic 8th grade teacher, wealth used to pay for special tutoring, genetics, whatever. All that matters is that your status as an AR 1 provides an unbiased forecast of how you will do at Williams. The Parable of the Privilege Pill highlights why the source of academic ability is irrelevant.

If Williams wants better students — students who write better essays, solve more difficult math problems, complete more complex science experiments — it should admit better applicants.

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