Can Implicit Bias Training Make College Admissions Fairer?

Last week, the ugly and absurd side of the United States’ college admissions process burst into public view. Charges were filed against 50 people from wealthy families across the countries, who were accused of paying hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars to bribe their way into selective private schools.

The world of elite college admissions is a psychologically messy one in which impulses such as status-seeking, ruthless individualism, and parental protectiveness collide. Surprisingly, not many psychology studies have looked at college admissions specifically, which might be a testament to the secrecy of the college admissions process more than anything else.

One interesting study that did look at the mechanics of who gets admitted comes from Ohio State’s medical school and was published in 2017. The study focused on the topic of implicit racial bias in the admissions process – the idea that admissions committees, without necessarily even being aware of it, might assume that people of certain races are more likely to be good candidates for medical school.

In the study, admissions committee members were asked to take an Implicit Association Test that measured whether they tended, not necessarily consciously, to associate certain traits with black individuals or white individuals. Seventy-one percent of the admissions committee members agreed to take the test.

It turned out that people on the admissions committee tended to be biased in favor of associating positive characteristics with white individuals. This was true for men, women, students and faculty who were on the committee, although the bias was stronger among men and faculty members.

The point here isn’t just to show that racial discrimination continues to be a factor in the admissions process. It’s that making people aware of their own biases might actually lead them to make better admissions decisions.

In the next admissions cycle, half the people who’d taken the test reported keeping their test results in mind. And a fifth of the admissions committee members who’d taken the test said they actually made different admissions decisions as a result of learning about their own biases.

Subsequently, the medical school enrolled their most diverse class ever. It’s not possible to show a direct cause-and-effect, but having an admissions committee who was more able to recognize their own potential for discriminating on the basis of race probably didn’t hurt.

This kind of implicit bias training for admissions officers won’t fix all the inequalities in the United States’ college admissions process. It won’t lower tuition rates, it won’t stop children of wealthy donors from skipping to the front of the line, and it certainly won’t stop families who are willing to literally bribe their way in. But it is one step that’s relatively easy to take that seems to lead to a more level admissions playing field.