Are University Admissions Academically Fair?
50 Pages Posted: 12 Jun 2012 Last revised: 7 Jan 2016
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
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