UW’s top-secret admissions process revealed

UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN-MADISON — Now that Wisconsin state legislators are joining others in asking for information on university admission practices, it is necessary to look at the plain facts of diversity admissions. The UW-Madison 2001-02 undergraduate application brochure provides a framework for understanding how the admissions process works. This is the same brochure that had to be reprinted last fall after the doctored cover photo was discovered by The Daily Cardinal.

In its text, the brochure says, “We give particular consideration to applicants who have been out of school two or more years, veterans, persons with disabilities, and those disadvantaged as a result of substandard education, family income level, or ethnic background” (p. 5). It adds “we also take into consideration personal characteristics that will contribute to the strength and diversity of the university community” (p. 6) and that consideration is given to “other factors that may help predict success as well as contribute to the strength and diversity of our university community” (p. 9). The photos in the brochure do advertise minority undergraduate participation. Yet these three vague statements are as close as the text comes to revealing what the university’s racial admission practice actually is.

To guide potential applicants in thinking about their qualifications, the brochure includes a table of high school class rankings for year 2000 freshman applicants (p. 7). Applications, admissions and enrollment are sharply skewed toward high class rankings; only 5 percent of the enrolled freshmen ranked below the top 30 percent of their high school class. Surprisingly, no similar information is given about minority freshman.

When the data are broken down by diversity characteristics, we see quite a different pattern: 34 percent of enrolled minority freshmen ranked below the top 30 percent of their high school class.

Why are so many minority freshmen enrolled at a disadvantage, thereby handicapping them from the start of their university careers by noncompetitive preparation? The answer lies in the university’s admission practices.While only 14 percent of non-minority applicants below the top 30 percent of their high school class were admitted, the figure for minority applicants was 54 percent. The disparity is even wider for applicants in the bottom half of their high school class; the admission rate for non-minority applicants was 6 percent, as compared to 37 percent for minority applicants.

The reason for these wide differences is more favorable decisions to admit similarly ranked minority applicants.

With such large differences, is it any wonder that retention rates lag for minority students? The plain fact is this: UW-Madison is admitting and enrolling minority students who are not academically competitive.

This practice is not fair to anyone — minorities who are admitted on their academic records, non-minority applicants who are denied admission, faculty, administrators and most especially the minority admits themselves, who are underqualified relative to non-minority admits.

Must diversity at UW-Madison continue to mean racial preference in admission and the resulting disproportionately low minority retention and graduation rates? If UW-Madison is proud of its diversity efforts and programs, why doesn’t it describe in the admissions brochure how its admission policy works for both minority and non-minority applicants?

Why doesn’t it print by high school class rank the admission rates for both minority and non-minority applicants, as well as the percentage distributions of enrolled minority and non-minority freshmen? Why hide the truth from applicants and their parents, as well as faculty, legislators and the public about the strength and effects of UW-Madison’s commitment to diversity?

— W. Lee Hansen is a UW professor emeritus of economics. Hansen can be contacted by e-mail at:

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