Subjectivity and bias in college admissions: Can letters of recommendation promote fairer decisions?

Does the inclusion of reference letters in a selective college’s admissions process reduce inequality in admissions decisions?

While the admissions process at selective universities is often a major barrier to diversifying elite higher education, it can also serve as a lever for reducing inequality. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds often do not have SAT scores and grades high enough to ensure admission on their own. Essays and letters of recommendation allow for the consideration of contextual factors that are otherwise invisible, but they may also further advantage students who have access to tutors and sophisticated letter writers. This study leverages a policy experiment conducted at the University of California, Berkeley to test whether the inclusion of letters reduces inequalities in admissions decisions by race/ethnicity, family income, and parental education. Invited by Berkeley to evaluate the effects of the introduction of reference letters to its admissions process, Rothstein has access to an unprecedented dataset of application packets, including letters. These applications were evaluated with and without letters, allowing Rothstein to isolate the influence of the letters from other aspects of the decision process, and to examine patterns in letter content by group. The study will examine in-state applicants for freshman admission to Berkeley in the 2016-17 admissions cycle (i.e., to matriculate in Fall 2017). 18,000 students who were neither admitted nor rejected by an initial screen were invited to submit letters of recommendation. The study focuses on 10,000 applicants randomly selected from among those who submitted letters and were scored both with and without their letters. About half of these applicants come from at least one of four groups defined as underrepresented at Berkeley: low-income (qualifies for application fee waiver); from a high school with a low Academic Performance Index score; first-generation; or member of an underrepresented racial or ethnic group. By examining how letters of recommendation might shape admissions decisions, the study will shed light on how universities might design more equitable processes for evaluating applications.