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Michael Bastedo Launches the Michigan Admissions Collaboratory

A new center highlights the role admissions play in equitable access to college 

Michael Bastedo
Michael Bastedo

Long before the Varsity Blues Scandal of recent years was front-page news, Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education (CSHPE) professor Michael Bastedo had a vested interest in the topic of college admissions. As a first generation college student himself, Bastedo remembers how daunting it was to navigate the application process. 

“My parents didn’t go to college,” says Bastedo. “They had no idea where I should go. So I sat in the library and read the admissions guidebooks from beginning to end. One of them twice!” This fall, he will launch the Michigan Admissions Collaboratory, the first academic center of its kind devoted to researching college admissions.

Admissions research was not what Bastedo set out to study. Long fascinated by the ways that people and organizations make decisions—specifically, how bias factors into the decision-making process—he began his academic career researching state policy and governance structures. “I was very interested in what was going on in psychology around biases and heuristics—what are the cognitive biases that people hold? And how do those biases affect their work?” Furthermore, he was interested in finding ways to change how people think so that they would become less biased, and the potential impacts on access, equity, and educational justice. 

But as he approached tenure, Bastedo felt that his research on policy and state governance was, as he puts it, “in a cul-de-sac.” While he was a graduate student, he had worked in an admissions office as a seasonal reader. The experience stayed with him. “Admissions,” says Bastedo, “is a crucible for decision making.” He conjectured that it might be the perfect arena to continue his investigation of decision-making biases and their impact on people’s work. 

On sabbatical, Bastedo volunteered as a seasonal admissions reader in two public university admissions offices. His goal was to ascertain what biases admissions officers had and why, and how those biases might be impacting the number of low-income and racially minoritized students who were admitted to selective colleges. Since he turned his focus to admissions in 2010, he has gone on to visit nearly 30 admissions offices. Ultimately, he found that admissions practices are deeply connected to the population attending each college.
“I looked at 30 years of data, and whether we were looking at low-income students, or racially minoritized students, or women for that matter, there had been little to no progress over that time in the proportion of those students who were enrolling in selective colleges,” says Bastedo. Given that, he says it would be easy to assume that increasing enrollment for these students is not a priority for admissions offices. But because of his background working in such offices himself, Bastedo quickly realized that was not the case. In the field, Bastedo examined what attempts had been made to increase enrollment of low-income and racially minoritized students, what admissions officers were currently trying to do, what was failing, and why. 

“Everyone talks about research-to-practice, but I’ve always thought that my best ideas for doing research have actually come from practice,” says Bastedo. That’s why he is calling the new Michigan Admissions Collaboratory a “practice-to-research” center. Housed at the SOE, it will be a place where both professionals working in the admissions field and scholars can talk to each other. In addition to Bastedo’s research team, the center will have a board of working professionals in the field. He intends the center’s work to be collaborative in nature, and wants the scope of its research to expand beyond the national context. By establishing a center people can turn to when seeking research on the topic, he hopes to raise the profile of the crucial role the admissions process plays in equitable access to a college degree.

“Everyone who’s gone to college has an opinion about how they got in,” says Bastedo. And yet, he adds, “the topic of admissions has historically been overlooked in academia. When I first started doing this, there was very little research on admissions. There were a few histories, but in terms of empirical research, there really wasn’t much.” In recent years, though, Bastedo has seen an uptick in interest, not just in society at large, but among researchers. 

“I think for a long time people thought admissions was a bit of a sideshow topic. The real meat of college access was in community colleges and broad access colleges. But more people who are really committed to access and equity are seeing that this is a pretty significant proportion of schools. The people who go to selective colleges are far more likely to graduate with a bachelor’s degree. They have big impacts on their communities. They’re much more connected to power in our society. They are much more likely to be leaders in business and politics. And so these schools matter a lot.”

In addition to academic conferences, Bastedo regularly presents at professional gatherings in the admissions field. This fall, he will present at the National Association for College Admissions Counseling conference and the College Board Forum. He also leads workshops for admissions offices in which he talks about what research on admissions tells us about cognitive bias, and the ways in which officers can organize to mitigate it. 

In collaboration with the College Board, Bastedo’s research inspired Landscape, a dashboard tool that provides admissions counselors with a more well-rounded profile of an applicant by sharing data about their high school and neighborhood. On Landscape, readers can access information about the availability of Advanced Placement courses, the percentage of students on free or reduced-cost lunch programs, and how applicants’ test scores compare with those of their high school classmates.  Over 150 colleges have adopted the tool, and a recently published article shows that, on average, the percentage of underrepresented students who were admitted increased by five percentage points.

Rethinking College Admissions book cover

“I think it’s really important to tie our work to what professionals need and want,” says Bastedo. Leading these workshops and presentations, it struck him that there needed to be a book that presented the empirical research being done on admissions practices in a format that would be apprehensible by an audience that doesn’t necessarily have time to read journals. This December, Bastedo and co-editor OiYan A. Poon will publish Rethinking College Admissions (Harvard Education Press), which translates research-backed insights into actionable strategies for innovative, equitable admissions practices. 

Michigan Admissions Collaboratory’s scope of research will include holistic admissions, the movement for test-blind and test-optional admissions, and the ongoing impact the pandemic has had on college admissions. Another goal of the center is to engage with scholars who are researching admissions around the world. In spring 2023, the center will host an AERA Education Research conference in Ann Arbor. Until now, there have been few opportunities for international admissions scholars to share their work with colleagues in the field. The first-of-its-kind gathering, titled Holistic Admissions in Global Context: Access, Diversity, and Diffusion, will bring together leading scholars from many countries, including South Korea, China, France, the UK, and Japan, to share ongoing research on holistic admissions practices around the world. The conference will provide a space to share their work and develop opportunities for collaborative inquiry that can move the field forward. In addition to examining the development of holistic admissions practices and their role in promoting and hindering social stratification, reproduction, and mobility, participants will prepare working papers examining issues of access, mobility, transparency, and corruption across country contexts. Working within and across groups, participants will develop a multidisciplinary and global perspective on admissions practices. The ultimate goal is to ignite a robust, global community of admissions researchers who will inspire a research agenda for the field for many years to come.  

As a researcher, says Bastedo, one always has to find one’s own motivation. The practice-to-research basis of the Michigan Admissions Collaboratory is his. “You never know what is going to make an impact. As a scholar, you just have to pursue what you think is interesting. I hope that by focusing on practice-based problems in admissions, that increases the likelihood that people will be interested in what is discovered, and want to integrate those findings into their work.”

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