NO(rthwood): Students are underrepresented at elite schools

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It’s a phrase ubiquitous at Northwood, from class scheduling to club membership: “It looks good on college applications.” While students here are great at polishing the GPA and extracurricular sections of the application, we never question what is perhaps the most important part of our applicationsthe school from which we get our GPA and extracurriculars. Despite the almost-singular drive of Northwood students to “get into a good college,” it turns out that Northwood High School is, in fact, not so good at getting students into those good colleges.

The anecdotal evidence is strong; Northwood hasn’t sent a student to Harvard in three years, Princeton in two. Others, like CalTech, MIT, Yale and Stanford are few and far between, and while such evidence is itself somewhat compelling, it does beg the question—is this just because these schools are so selective no one gets in, or is the dearth of acceptances a phenomenon unique to Northwood?

The data supports the latter. We took a look at historical Naviance data, which catalogs the admissions for Northwood High School and compared them to the school’s average acceptance rate. After some statistical analysis, (specifically, a chi-2 goodness of fit test), we found that the generic Northwood student isn’t proportionately represented at elite universities; rather, there is evidence that suggests that we are underrepresented.

Consider a few examples—Harvard’s national acceptance rate is 5 percent—a low number, for sure, but nothing compared to the 1 percent of Northwood students who got in between 2016 and 2018. Princeton’s 6 percent national average might turn heads, but the 2 percent of Northwood students who get in is a far more selective number. In aggregate, when the observation data is assumed to be discrete (a somewhat useful but not statistically conclusive marker), we find that the average Northwood student bears a 43.72 percent “disadvantage” during the admissions process for top 10 universities, and a 25.14 percent “disadvantage” at top 20 ones. That’s pretty badand it may indicate Northwood as a high school is underperforming.

This discrepancy is particularly surprising—especially when you consider the fact that Northwood was recently ranked the sixth best high school in California. Yet Niche’s ranking methodology isn’t focused on how well a high school prepares students for admissions into elite universities—and other factors it doesn’t consider can negatively harm us.

A litany of different things might put Northwood students behind, one of them being the lack of AP courses. In their official statement, The Northwood Counseling Department said that “admissions counselors from colleges across the country and across the “selectivity” spectrum have said that applicants are considered in the context of the high school they attend, which means that Northwood policies such as reserving most AP coursework for the junior and senior year, do not disadvantage students.” Yet, “in the context of the school they attend” seems purposefully vague; a university won’t ever explicitly state that schools (and not students) influence their decisionmaking process—after all, imagine the bad publicity that would spark. In addition, a lack of advanced classes in specific subject areas (economics, physics, mathematics, psychology) coupled with restrictions on others (biology, government) make it harder for students to realize their passions and decide what to pursue. This means even if students are considered “in context,” their applications inevitably have less of a voice, because they had less time to find and pursue those things they’re interested in and that they are applying to college to continue studying.

Other things, such as a lack of support for academic clubs, including restrictions on how often and where they can travel, as well as a chokehold on funding (and, on top of that, myopic restrictions on funding and/or corporate sponsorship) (see: Speech and Debate, Science Olympiad) make it more difficult for students to compete with other schools that have well-funded programs (see: schools like Canyon Crest, Troy, Dougherty Valley, Gunn) and make it harder to stand out. An almost singular focus on “de-stressing” both limits the ability of teachers to help students internalize their curriculum and only shifts the stress externally (can’t take that class at NHS? Go to IVC, Ardent, etc.)

Another (admittedly easy) target is Integrated Science. Its structure creates a zero-sum trade-off with Advanced Placement classes (at least, up until their junior year) and results in a superficial understanding of many different areas. It’s a famous trade-off—breadth or depth—and its focus on the former makes it harder for students to delve into a single subject and develop a complex understanding of that subject matter.

It’s obvious Northwood students want to go to college (and over 99 percent of the student body does). Yet, a clear disconnect exists between the disproportionately passionate student body and their under-proportionate opportunities. It’s hard to pin down why exactly such a difference exists (even our data is at best, observational, and not large enough to control for other factors such as international acceptance rates). While we don’t know exactly what’s caused this large discrepancy is elite institutional representation, it’s up to us all—the administration, the teachers and the student body—to try something different. After all, for many Northwood students, it might just be try or die for their academic aspirations and futures.

What’s our methodology?

We chose to define an elite university as that which was ranked within the top 20 by out of at least two of the following three rankings websites – US News, Times Higher Education, and Niche. Of those which met the criteria, one had a suboptimal sample size and was excluded from consideration (Notre Dame). We found the Northwood acceptance rate for a university by adding together the total successful applicants to a school from the 2018, 2017, and 2016 cycles and dividing by the total number of applicants to that school in the corresponding years, based on the data reported by Naviance. We found the institutional acceptance rate for a university either on its official admissions website or the affiliated university newspaper. We were unable to find data for one university (Washington University in St. Louis) and excluded it from the sample. Once the data was gathered, we performed a 𝜒2 goodness of fit test with Northwood acceptance rates as our observed value and institutional acceptance rates as expected values and with df = 16, we find a p-value of 0.0025, and so we reject the null hypothesis at significance level p = 0.01 that Northwood students are proportionately represented at “elite” universities and instead believe the evidence to suggest Northwood students are underrepresented at “elite” universities.

Universities that met our criteria for elite included: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Columbia, the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth, Brown, Cornell, Northwestern, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the California Institute of Technology, Duke, Vanderbilt, Rice, and the University of Southern California.