Date of Award

Spring 2008

Document Type



Sociology and Anthropology


After a month of checking the mail every day, the day I had waited for had finally come. I remember seeing the white envelope sent from the Lehigh University Office of Admissions. Regardless of what the letter said inside, I was going to know where I was going to college in a few minutes. I had already been notified of acceptance to another school the week before, but Lehigh was my first choice. I anxiously opened the envelope and the first thing I read was "Congratulations on your acceptance to the Class of2007!" I honestly couldn't say what came after that, but it's the first line that matters; I had gotten in. Out of the thousands of applications that had been sent in for review, mine had been selected. My experience sounds like it could be one of any senior in high school. The reality is, however, that the experience of waiting to hear back from a college is not universal. It is something that only the most privileged students get to experience; there are many students who don't even get to apply to college. The selection for these groups is not random and is something that I call ''the predestination of higher education." This, the central focus for my research, is the idea that before students begin looking at colleges, there is a set ''track" for individuals based on who they are. Most research and literature on tracking in education focuses on primary and secondary schooling and students' academic performance. Tracking is most commonly defined as "the practice of assigning students to instructional groups on the basis of ability" (Hallinan, 1994, p. 79). Social tracking is much different. In this thesis I argue that social tracking in college admissions is a process of "assigning" students to colleges and universities; a process not based on performance. I defme social tracking as the process of assigning individuals to roles and conditions based on their social status. Social tracking can aide or inhibit individuals in many facets of their lives, and it is very much a determining factor in an individual's ability to successfully pursue the American Dream The idea of the American Dream is an ideal that people hold on to; " ... it presumes that despite inequalities in their circumstances each individual will have a fair chance, an equal opportunity ... " (Johnson, 2006, p.31 ). Even though success in the American Dream is tied closely to hard work and determination, this ideological position is deeply rooted in our view of education. It is education that is seen as the great equalizer since it is a guaranteed right for all people, " .. .it is supposed to level out what is initially an uneven playing field" (Johnson, 2006, p.31 ). From parents and teachers, children are taught to value their education from a very young age. The idea that education works as an equalizer leaves out at least two very important points. First, the quality of education that students receive is not equal. Based on many factors such as geographic area of the school, the school district, and even the teachers, different groups of children get a different quality of education. The other point that is left out deals with the access to education. Formal schooling is only guaranteed from kindergarten to twelfth grade education. After students finish high school, they are no longer automatically offered a place in school. If people would like to continue their education, they must prove themselves worthy to admissions officers and are then selected to fill positions at America's colleges and universities. Admitting one student means that multiple students do not get in. A college education is very important to long term success and fmancial mobility. A 2005 survey done by the U.S. Census Bureau, for example, showed large discrepancies in income between those with a college degree versus solely a high school degree; in every measure the median income for those with a bachelor's degree was reported to be around two thousand dollars higher than those with a high school diploma (Bloom, 2005). Education, more specifically, a college education plays a major role in determining a student's eventual class and status. I argue that social tracking that is aiding some and inhibiting others in admissions to colleges and universities. Though social tracking is driven by many outside forces, including schools, friends, and family, looking at it from the point of view of the college admissions office is important because ultimately they have the power to decide who gets into their school and who doesn't. Access to education is no longer controlled by academic achievement as it once was when students would be offered admissions based on their scores on entrance examinations when higher education in America first started through the late 1800's (Karabel, 2005). Through the process of selective admissions which started at the turn of the century, Admissions offices have shifted to more subjective factors to evaluate applicants (Karabel, 2005). I will argue in this thesis that the current admissions trends of selective admissions give advantages to the advantaged. This is one way that education hinders the opportunity for attainment of the American Dream. While the very practical idea of access to education is important, the larger topics of social class and opportunity for upward mobility are what drive my research. When admissions advantages are given to those who are already advantaged, the self-perpetuating cycle of social class is reinforced. A college education is very important for advancement in our society, both financially and socially (Bloom, 2005), and if the privilege to get a college of education is reserved for those who are already advantaged, it makes upward mobility near impossible. Getting into college, however, isn't important if the student isn't successful while in college. The key to a college education is getting a degree and current research shows that students aren't as successful in college when they were given special consideration at the time of admissions (Schmidt, 2007). The current practices of admissions, however, seem to not take this into consideration as advantages are still given out to certain students. As will be seen later in my work, advantages in admissions is a heavily debated topic. Very recently, the issue of affirmative action seems to be inundating the research on admissions advantages. This brings race to the forefront when talking about college admissions. The practice of Mfirmative Action is heavily debated as to whether it is or is not a fair admissions practice. Preferential admissions of minority students does affect many students and I do discuss the topic, as it is brought up in a lot of the literature. However, in my research, I look beyond race in college admissions. Racial diversity is an important factor when talking about admissions, but it's not the only factor. My focus is on social status and socioeconomic status, which have been very much overlooked in research. Race, however, will not be ignored. Just as Jeannie Oakes and Annette Lareau point out in their research, lower socioeconomic groups are disproportionately made up of African Americans and other minorities, one must include race with socioeconomic status (Lareau, 2003 & Oakes, 2005). The major goal of this thesis was to gain and understanding of some of the factors in social tracking, that is, what about a person is considered to be an important factor in admissions to college, and what leads certain individuals to choose a college. Furthermore, I hoped to gain insight to how tracking plays out in the context of college of admissions. Current research and literature only shows the effects of academic tracking through primary and secondary education. I argue that it extends to into college and is especially prevalent in admissions. In this thesis I show that the current system that is widely being used by colleges and universities is tracking certain students into higher education and leaving others out. While academic tracking does play a role, I propose that the social tracking plays a stronger role. The tracking that is taking place is mainly social rather than academic. In other words, who the student is is being considered before what a student can do. I feel that this is especially true in the elite colleges and universities in this country. My thesis begins with a review of current literature from some of the most prominent writers and researchers in the fields of education and sociology. To get a sense of overarching themes, I started with works in the general field of the sociology of education. From there, I went on to the topics of educational tracking and college admissions. It is here where I noticed the lack of work done between these topics. The literature on tracking ends when a student finishes high school and the literature on college admissions begins when students start to look at college. The current research shows no overlap between the two and portrays them as very separate and unrelated topics. Through my research, I pull together tracking and college admissions and show how related they actually are and how social tracking truly exists in the college admissions process. I then present my research. The project started in July, 2006 and carried through March of 2007. I first discuss my experiences and observations working for a summer program designed to help students through the college admissions process. I also had the opportunity to interview the director of this program. What initially started as a summer job, turned into the foundation for the rest of my research. My research includes interviews with current admissions officers at Lehigh University, as well as students who are currently going through or who have recently finished searching and applying to schools. By interviewing students, admissions officers, and program directors, I was able to get a very comprehensive picture of what college admissions looks like. Including all of these different perspectives is critical for a full understanding of the admissions process. The results of my research show that social tracking does exist in college admissions. The consequences social tracking in college admissions are very similar to those of academic tracking. This can be seen in the results of my observations of the pre-college program as well as through my interviews with admissions officers and students. Students are clearly being led in different directions based on their social status. I also found discrepancies in the perspectives of the different parties involved in college admissions. Admissions officers had their own values and opinions on one thing, while the students felt completely different about the same subjects. With the research I have completed, I have been able to make suggestions for a new and restructured system which can help make higher education more accessible to those who want it. More research needs to be done to show the connection between tracking and college admissions. I conclude the thesis with suggestions for further research on this topic. My experience of opening a college admissions letter is not universal to all students in the country. What is universal is the inequality in the system. Since the early 1900's, colleges and universities have turned to selective admissions as a way to keep certain students out of their schools (Karabel, 2006). Selective admissions is something that still the norm at many of our country's most elite colleges and universities. It is through this system where those who are privileged are able to thrive and those who are not are held back. Colleges and universities have the power to end some of the most critical problems social class solely on the way they recruit, evaluate, and accept students. If our ideal of the American Dream is to be true, and everyone is entitled to equal opportunities to success, we must change our education system to provide the basis for that equality.