College: Diversity Drive Isn't Quotas

For high school students aspiring to get into the most competitive schools, it is no longer enough to have a good academic record. They need something more.

(This story is the third in a series of five. See links below for other stories in the series.)

Several Washington-area students at three high schools told ABCNEWS they were getting ready to market themselves as they went through the college application process.

"My best selling point would be my well-roundedness," said Elizabeth Gahl, a student at Langley High School, a public high school in a wealthy suburb in northern Virginia, and one of three students ABCNEWS is following as they apply for early acceptance to Georgetown University.

"I believe I have determination," said Andrew Bontrous, a fellow Langley student. "I have what it takes."

"A lot of clubs and extracurricular activities," said another, Reena Brar.

"Editor-in-chief of the school newspaper," said Joanna Joly, a student at Georgetown Visitation, a Catholic girl's school near Georgetown University.

"Field hockey captain," said Caitlin May, a Georgetown Visitation student ABCNEWS is following as she applies for "early action" on her Georgetown University application.

"I'm a student athlete," said David Brown, a student at Benjamin Banneker High School, a selective, mainly African-American, public magnet school. Brown also is applying early to Georgetown, and he is the third student ABCNEWS is following. "I play soccer and basketball."

Importance of SATs

However, for all the insistence by college officials that they are looking for the total student, one factor is still very important for the most selective schools — scholastic aptitude tests, or SATs — and the students know it. Many don't like it, even the ones who have aced them.

"People who, for example, can make millions of dollars a year and then can afford to pay for tutors are obviously going to have better scores than those people who cannot," said Helam Gebremarium, a student at Georgetown Visitation who, like most of her classmates, took a course to prepare for taking the SAT.

"I thought maybe I'd be getting a head start on the process," said Julia Schroer, another student at Georgetown Visitation. "But what actually happened was I did it so early that by the time I actually got around to taking the real SAT, I really hadn't remembered anything."

The Race Factor

While there was much concern about the unfair advantages of class, there was also a deep ambivalence about the perceived advantages of race.

"Well, it can sometimes help you, I think," said Schroer, the student who sought the "head start" by taking the SAT prep course. "If you're in a minority or if you can really make yourself into someone who's individual, that no one else can offer to a school, then the school will really want to have the diversity that you can bring."

Some of the students believe there may be certain fundamental biases at work in the admissions process that they might have to overcome or account for.

"Like being Caucasian," said Elliott Formal, a Langley student, when prodded. "I think it plays some sort of role."

"Well, it seems like it's easier nowadays to get into college if you're of a different nationality," he added, when pushed further.

"They want someone from like every state and like every country," said Langley student Kathryn Koras. "So there's more competition, it seems like, around here than — You know, I should tell my parents to, like, move to Nebraska and I'll be all set."

"When they see an application and we as minorities have equal numbers, equal credentials as a regular white student, then I think they see that as a positive thing," said Brown, who is African-American.

"When a college looks at an application, they're look for someone they think will excel in their program, not necessarily because she's African-American or because she's Caucasian," said another Banneker student, Tiffany Jackson, who is black. "I would say that to me, I don't look at my ethnicity as a basis on where I applied to or, what institution I'm interested in."


Charles Deacon, dean of admissions at Georgetown, is unapologetic in his defense of diversity as a part of the educational experience.

"Probably the one time in your life when everyone's equal is when you're living together in college," Deacon said. "You come from homogeneous communities, usually, and return to homogeneous communities. But you can take a lot away from that undergraduate experience where everyone, essentially, is the same and you learn from each other."

In his presentation to the alumni admissions council, he is very specific about who is at Georgetown now and who he would like to see.

"African-American students represent about 8 percent of our applicants against about 13 percent of the population," he said. "So, we would say African-American students are under-represented at Georgetown. Similarly for Hispanic American students — under-represented."

Although he admitted the targets "could be" interpreted as a quota, he added, "They aren't a quota because there isn't a specific number. They are goals, perhaps. And so that kind of diversity in the student body of all sorts is really critical to us and, I think, critical for these kids. And I think it makes a big difference on how they see themselves and their futures."

ABCNEWS' Michel Martin and Courtney King contributed to this report.