The Effects of Contextual Priming on Attitudes toward College Admissions

By Gillespie, Andra; Brown, Madeline | The Journal of Race & Policy, Fall/Winter 2015 | Go to article overview

The Effects of Contextual Priming on Attitudes toward College Admissions


Gillespie, Andra, Brown, Madeline, The Journal of Race & Policy


INTRODUCTION

Abigail Fisher, the plaintiff in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, was by all accounts a college-ready high school senior. She had a 3.59 grade point average and a combined verbal and math SAT score of 1180 (Merlan, 2013). She later proved her mettle by graduating from Louisiana State University. The question was whether her record, relative to others, merited her admission to the University of Texas at Austin, her dream school and the alma mater of her father and older sister (Reilly, 2015).

At the heart of Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin (2016), the US Supreme Court case which upheld the University of Texas' policy considering race as a part of a holistic college admissions process, are overarching debates about merit and whether colleges and universities have a responsibility to recruit a wide cross-section of students to their campuses. However, we often fail to recognize that the debate about affirmative action in college admissions really focuses on a specific subset of colleges: those colleges that are rated the most selective because of their high admissions standards and high rejection rates. The University of Texas at Austin is not just any school. It is its state's premier public institution, intended to attract the best students and faculty and to elicit the most prestige and access for alumni who list the school on their CV's.

The University ofTexas is not the first school at the center of an affirmative action debate.1 In the years since Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978) affirmed the use of affirmative action in college admissions, subsequent litigation has focused on admission to flagship state universities. In Podberesky v. Kirwan (1994), the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals invalidated the University of Maryland-College Park's use of state money to recruit African American students who were not Maryland residents. And in Gratz v. Bollinger (2003) and Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), the US Supreme Court invalidated the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor's use of a point system that automatically awarded minority students bonus points in the undergraduate admissions process but upheld the law school's holistic admissions process which considered race as a factor among many other characteristics. In all of these post-Bakke cases, it is important to note that it was a state's most prestigious institution whose admission policy became the target of legal challenges.

Thus, we must consider that the debate around affirmative action in college admissions is not necessarily a debate about whether individuals should be able to go to college. Rather, this debate is about who should be admitted to the most selective programs. When we consider affirmative action through the lens of elite merit, we must ask whether people's attitudes about college admissions-and by extension, affirmative action-look differently when the colleges in question have varying degrees of prestige.

In this research note, we present preliminary results from a survey-embedded experiment in which respondents were randomly assigned to play the role of admissions officers for colleges of different distinction (Ivy League, flagship state, regional commuter and generic). After admitting a hypothetical set of students to their respective schools, respondents also answered a series of questions that gauged their attitudes about college admissions. In this note, we focus on the responses to this subsequent set of questions; we will report the results of the admissions exercise in a separate article. Because these attitudinal questions about admissions were asked after respondents received their experimental intervention, we have the ability to see if respondents assigned to various treatment groups report different attitudes about the college admissions process. Thus, we can determine if there are any priming effects from admission to an Ivy League (or equivalent) school, a flagship state school, a regional commuter school, or a control group. …

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