Are University Admissions Academically Fair?

50 Pages Posted: 12 Jun 2012 Last revised: 7 Jan 2016

See all articles by Debopam Bhattacharya

Debopam Bhattacharya

University of Cambridge

Shin Kanaya

Aarhus University - Department of Economics; Aarhus University - CREATES

Margaret Stevens

University of Oxford - Department of Economics

Date Written: January 2, 2016


High-profile universities often face public criticism for undermining academic merit and promoting social elitism or engineering through their admissions-process. Popular statistical tests for detecting such biases, based on the significance of socioeconomic characteristics on admission probability after controlling for past test-scores, suffer from omitted characteristic bias. In this paper, we develop an empirical test that attempts to circumvent this problem. We assume that students who are better-qualified on standard observable indicators would on average, but not necessarily with certainty, appear academically stronger to admission-tutors based on characteristics observable to them but not us. This assumption can be used to reveal information about the sign of differences in admission standards across demographic groups which are robust to omitted characteristics. Using admissions-data from a selective British university, we provide empirical support for our identifying assumptions and then apply our analysis to show that male applicants face admission-standards that are significantly higher than female applicants, and private-school applicants possibly face a slightly higher threshold than state-school ones. In contrast, admission success rates are equal across gender and schooltype both before and after controlling for key covariates. Our method is the first practical application of econometric bounds-analysis to the problem of detecting taste-based discrimination; it can be used to test meritocratic fairness of other institutional decisions such as loan-approval and surgery-referrals, where allegations of bias are common.

Keywords: University admissions, affirmative action, economic efficiency, marginal admit, unobserved heterogeneity, threshold-crossing model, conditional stochastic dominance, partial identification

JEL Classification: D61, D63, C13, C14, J7

Suggested Citation

Bhattacharya, Debopam and Kanaya, Shin and Stevens, Margaret, Are University Admissions Academically Fair? (January 2, 2016). Available at SSRN: or

Debopam Bhattacharya (Contact Author)

University of Cambridge ( email )

Sidgwick Site
Austin Robinson Building
Cambridge, CB3 9DD
United Kingdom

Shin Kanaya

Aarhus University - Department of Economics ( email )

University Park
DK-8000 Aarhus C

Aarhus University - CREATES ( email )

School of Economics and Management
Building 1322, Bartholins Alle 10
DK-8000 Aarhus C

Margaret Stevens

University of Oxford - Department of Economics ( email )

Manor Road Building
Manor Road
Oxford, OX1 3BJ
United Kingdom
+44 1865 271 092 (Phone)
+44 1865 271 094 (Fax)

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