College admissions in the U.S. takes into account many factors that are rarely considered in other countries and seem unrelated to academics. For example, legacy status (children of alumni may be given preference), athletics, extracurricular activities, etc. Why do these nonacademic criteria play a larger role in the U.S. than they do elsewhere?
As with any complicated social phenomenon, there is no simple and conclusive answer. However, here are two important factors:
The U.S. didn't have world-class universities until the 20th century. Even ones that are world-famous today (such as Harvard or Yale) did not particularly impress 19th century Europeans. These universities had started out as vocational schools for pastors and gradually turned into finishing schools for the elite, but they weren't scholarly powerhouses. In the early 20th century, there started to be more academic competition for admission. This was very upsetting to the traditional students (largely wealthy young men from prep schools), who didn't want to be around too many Jews or other minorities or to have to compete with nerds for grades. One tactic universities used in response was quotas for Jews, but the Nazis made that look bad. Leading U.S. universities then moved on in the 1930's to develop other methods to ensure that they could pick whichever students they wanted. For example, geographic diversity (you should take students from Kansas to avoid having too many New Yorkers), preferences for children of alumni, athletic recruitment (you really need a strong lacrosse team and fencing team), well roundedness (students should study hard but not be too nerdy), extracurricular activities, etc. Jerome Karabel has documented this history in his book The Chosen.
What is Harvard's purpose in educating students? People often imagine the goal is to educate smart people, and that corruption is the only explanation for why Harvard would deliberately admit a wealthy applicant over someone more talented but poor. However, this is thinking about it completely wrong. Harvard's primary goal isn't to educate smart people, but rather to have an impact on the world by educating influential people. They want to educate the people who are going to grow up to become leaders of all sorts (social, political, commercial, academic, etc.), and while they are happy to help shape who becomes a leader, they know perfectly well that wealth and privilege play a major role. When Harvard admits someone whose wealth exceeds his intellectual talents, it's because they want to help set the national agenda by providing this person's education. From this perspective, all the strange admissions criteria are an excuse for Harvard to select whoever they feel has the most potential to change the world, taking into account all aspects of their talents and background.
So what about other universities? The first axiom of higher education in the U.S. is that everybody imitates the most prestigious universities. If Harvard, Yale, and Princeton are doing something, then everyone else will follow. Not necessarily in exactly the same way: different universities may employ very different criteria for admission, thanks to different goals regarding who they want to educate. But they almost all use the same basic framework for what information is relevant to their decision.
My dad was admitted to the university in Novisibiersk in the late sixties, which was indesputably one of the top three technical universities in Russia. He said the only admission criterion was an exam with olympiad-level math questions, which kids studied for all through high school much like some American kids study for the USAMO etc.
Now, the reason I mention this is because he said the reason why admissions here are different not only from Russia but from most of the rest of the world is because in other countries, the students study to serve the state, while in America, the universities provide education as a service to students.
In most other countries, a student is accepted on the basis of the expected value he can bring to society if he is given the appropriate educational opportunity, and then his education is subsidized on the expectation that by studying he can improve the general economy of the state.
However, in America the state pays little (especially for private schools) because education is not a service the individual is doing so he can better the state: it's a service being given to the individual so he can better himself. Even when the government expands measures to pay for student loans etc. the main motivation is to aid poor people in improving themselves, not aiding smart people in improving the state. There isn't anything inherently wrong with this, it's just different and perhaps less efficient.
So that's why American schools don't care so much about academics: they don't care as much about how you do because they aren't investing in you. In fact, you're investing in them, and the return on that investment is an education you can use to get a better job. So they take into account criteria related to how much you'll improve their image, how much you'll be likely to donate later in life, etc.
I'll answer the less-obvious point that other answers so far missed:
- Colleges practice sport recruiting, whereby athletes are recruited by the colleges for their athletic promise, over other applicants who might be more qualified in terms of academics.
The reason for this is that most US colleges are funded in large part by college Alumni donating money.
And college Alumni donate more money if the college has a successful sports team(s).
Here's one study showing causation
Anderson’s report found that for NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision teams -- teams that compete during the season and are potentially eligible for postseason bowl games -- winning football games increases alumni athletic donations, enhances academic reputation, increases the number of applicants and in-state students, reduces acceptance rates and raises average incoming SAT scores.
Please note that the other benefits are also somewhat explainable - college athletics is pretty visible in US culture, and therefore a university's brand among possible applicants is raised significantly - a LOT more people can name top NCAA winners than top colleges with best biology superstar professor.
A totally unrelated reason is tradition - USA has a very long tradition that sound body is a big plus for a sound mind (it's not a uniquely USA thing, of course - the same idea was held from Ancient Greece to Russia to modern scientific studies results). As such, a good student was always expected to be able to do athletics for well-roundedness.
Interestingly, the "legacy" point also is influenced the same monetary way - a wealthy Alumni is more likely to donate to the college if their family member, especially offspring, will attend.
Many of your questions are difficult to answer without a larger industry/history lesson, but you can find much of that information by searching for it.
As for your actual question, why do schools care about non-academic things;
There are many reasons, but these 'non-academic' things are what makes well rounded people that are likely to succeed. Leaving the country and helping people in need is just one of many ways to show that your mind is broader, which helps creative thinking, which helps problem solving, which helps you to succeed.
The act of doing something non-academic in a group setting shows ability to work cooperatively. It shows a diverse background, which is regarded as important by many prominent institutions because diversity in academic settings helps improve educational experiences.
In essence, your question is the same as "Why do undergraduate students in Engineering need to take non-engineering classes?" If you don't know the answer, im sure you can find other posts about this.
There are a few reasons why US Colleges make some of these selection criteria. Having extra curricular activities shows a number of potentially important things:
- the ability to juggle more than just school (I can volunteer and play a sport on top of keeping my grades
- travel can indicate a wider range of interesting experiences
- Interesting students will do interesting things, which can be good for recruitment
- Being successful in a variety of areas indicates a general ability to succeed better than being successful in only one (and Universities here gain prestige by having successful alumni).
Something worth noting - in most places in the world University is about specializing. You take one subject, gain mastery in it, move on to work in that subject. In the US this is not the case. We value a "broad" education where you are required to study many subjects that have little to do with your major - in fact many people do not decide their majors until a year or two in (we feel this creates "well-rounded" people). As a result students who have evidence of non-academic achievements can be favored over those who focused their efforts (especially if both candidates have comparable grades).
You highlight on "quotas" (often referred to here as "Affirmative Action"). Ultimately it is a political issue. The idea is to ensure fairness. At one point (basically any time before 1970) a perfectly qualified black woman would be passed over in preference for a white male. Rules (and often laws) were enacted to say that women (and other minorities) needed to be fairly represented in the school (and business) - the quota was the way to ensure the school would look at the non-preferred candidates. Legally Affirmative Action is not discrimination, and in many jurisdictions it is still legally mandated.
Whether the practice is discrimination or not is highly subjective (to my incredibly intelligent mother who likely got a chance at earning her BS and MS in Computer Science only because Duke had to let women in for their "quota" it was not discrimination).
(Disclaimer, there is a large amount of politics in the discussion over what is "necessary spending" for universities in the US, and the high cost of tuition)
The rest of your questions are actually talking about the same point. I am not familiar with universities in India, but in many places in the world universities are fundamentally part of the state - the state either directly runs the institution, or it subsidizes most to all of the cost for the students attending.
In the US there are a few state sponsored schools, but individual US States get to determine the amount of support those schools get, and most schools are not well funded in the state's budget. In addition there are a large number of private schools that do not receive any funding (Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, MIT, etc.). For most schools in the US, they have to fund their own budgets. These budgets include facility/maintenance fees (paint, lights, utilities, etc.), staff pay (student, faculty, and non-faculty employees), expansion to the campus, and all the other things the school pays for (e.g. having a gym, hosting symposiums, etc.).
Tuition is very high ($20000+ per year is pretty common), but even still is often not enough to cover the budget. Thus the school relies on other things to pull in revenue - research grants can help, but are earmarked for specific projects and do not help with general budget goals. The two other major sources of income Universities can get are donations, and "event fees".
Donations often come from alumni who are grateful for their success. The school does not want to upset great donors - nor potential future donors - and will give preferential treatment to children of alumni as a result.
"Event Fees" can come from a number of things (e.g. hosting a conference/symposium, putting on a play or concert, etc.), but in general Universities believe that Sporting activities bring in the most money (for the rest of this I will assume that is true, even though there is evidence that is not always the case). Sporting events bring in money through a few avenues:
- More donations from fervent supporters of the school's teams
- Ticket sales
- Merchandise sales
- Some competitions pay winning teams in some way
Because the schools with the best teams get the strongest support and thus the most income from all of those avenues, schools do what they can to ensure their teams are the best. Sometimes the best athletes are exceptional academically, but more often they are not. Since the school wants the best athletes they will provide scholarships and admission to candidates who might have been disqualified academically.
Because it is a way for universities to discriminate students while keeping plausible deniability.
Universities in the US have a history of discrimination. After WW1, universities were faced with an influx of immigrant students, in particular Jewish students. To "cope" with this, they started by creating quotas of students (again, in particular, Jewish students). This soon became unacceptable for obvious reasons. This is when universities started to introduce more unusual criteria when evaluating incoming students, such as "geographic diversity", "character", and "familial ascendancy". This in particular included so-called "legacy" criteria, where students were given a bonus if their parents went to the same university.
A key point in all this is that the universities never reveal how much weight they give to each criterion. This makes for a completely opaque selection system. A student can never be sure why they were rejected. They can rationalize it by thinking that their "extracurricular" activities were not good enough. But how would they know? It may be another, less tasteful criterion that prevented them from getting in, such as who knows who, where there parents studied, the personal biases of the selection committee regarding ethnicity and religion, and so on.
In practice, this is simply a way for the elite to remain the elite. For example, at Harvard, 29% of students had a parent who went to Harvard. (Think about it; this number is insane.) More than half the students come from the 10% richest families. Students from the 1% richest families are as many as students from the 60% poorest. Students from minorities account for 12.5% of candidates, and 6.7% of accepted students. A study found that in the top 10 US universities, being a "son of" (a former student) gave you the same increase in chances as a 160 points boost on your SAT. In 2011, another study found that in the top 30 universities, children of former students had 45 points more in chances of being accepted (i.e. if based on qualifications the student had 40% chances of being accepted, then their "legacy" means that they actually have 85% of being accepted).
Note that unfortunately this is not limited to the USA. This year's changes in undergrad admissions in France are starting to implement similar ideas, although on a smaller scale, and some universities try to be open about the weight assigned to each criterion. I would not be surprised if this happened in other countries too.
A lot of the information in this answer comes from this article written by Richard Kahlenberg. The article is not freely accessible and is written in French, but below is the (freely accessible) list of references used in the article, most in English.
(1) Michael Lind, « Legacy preferences in a democratic republic », dans Richard D. Kahlenberg (sous la dir. de), Affirmative Action for the Rich, op. cit.
(2) Jessica M. Wang et Brian P. Yu, « Meet the class of 2021 », The Harvard Crimson, 2017.
(3) Richard V. Reeves, Dream Hoarders : How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do About It, Brookings Institution Press, Washington, DC, 2017. Lire également « Classe sans risque », Le Monde diplomatique, octobre 2017.
(4) Cf. Daniel Golden, The Price of Admission : How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way Into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates, Three Rivers Press, New York, 2007.
(5) John Brittain et Eric L. Bloom, « Admitting the truth : the effect of affirmative action, legacy preferences and the meritocratic ideal on students of color in college admissions », dans Affirmative Action for the Rich, op. cit.
(6) Thomas J. Espenshade, Chang Y. Chung et Joan L. Walling, « Admission preferences for minority students, athletes, and legacies at elite universities » (PDF), Social Science Quarterly, vol. 85, n° 5, Hoboken (New Jersey), décembre 2004.
(7) Michael Hurwitz, « The impact of legacy status on undergraduate admissions at elite colleges and universities », Economics of Education Review, vol. 30, n° 3, Amsterdam, juin 2011.
(8) Steve D. Shadowen, Sozi Pedro Tulante et Shara L. Alpern, « No distinctions except those which merit originates : the unlawfulness of legacy preferences in public and private universities », Santa Clara Law Review, vol. 49, n° 1, 2009.
(9) Thomas R. Dye, Who’s Running America ? The Obama Reign, Paradigm Publishers, Boulder (Colorado), 2014.
I think a lot of the other answers here have some good points, but I think the most important thing you need to remember about universities in America is that they are BUSINESSES. Education is the primary service that they provide, but they are also selling things like prestige (how good does your University degree look on your resume/CV?), contacts/networking, sports programs (many professional athletes start at colleges that have top-notch sports teams), etc.
My guess is that the United States probably has more universities than any other country and therefore has the most competition amongst them than in other countries. A university's admissions "formula" is like a food company's recipe or a technology company's patents - it provides a competitive advantage (hopefully) and is constantly reviewed and tweaked in an effort to maximize profits.
When looked at through the eyes of a business looking to maximize profit, it's pretty obvious why legacy students, promising student athletes, minorities and foreigners, etc are admitted - it all ultimately leads to more revenue over time.
- Endowments are the #1 source of funding for universities. Harvard's is around $35B (yes, that's BILLION) while Yale's is around $25B. Thus it's obvious why sons and daughters of alumni are given preferential treatment in admissions.
- College sports is BIG business. Recruiting and admitting talented student athletes is a no-brainer for universities.
- Part of the "university business" is hiring and keeping the best professors. Famous people like former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Cornell West can teach anywhere they want. I bet they don't want to teach at a university with a homogenous (i.e., dull) student body. Professors are also very liberal and therefore support initiatives like affirmative action. Also, they want to go where the money is!!
Like I said, other people have some good points, but having received my undergraduate degree from Harvard and my master's degree from New York University I've seen firsthand how these educational institutions are just like any other business in America.
One further point that I haven't seen yet in the other answers relates to a general philosophy of education.
My impression is that in many countries, the philosophy of education is centered around the development of technical skills. In the United States, however, it is often held that the primary purpose of education is to develop a creative and insightful mind.
This philosophy is reflected in the "breadth" or "common core" requirements that appear at many universities, which assume that a student cannot be considered "well educated" unless they have been taught to think in ways other than is preferred by by their discipline. For example, as an undergraduate at MIT, I was required to take classes from a range of scientific disciplines (math, biology, physics, chemistry), and also a humanities course in every semester, as well as doing a humanities focus entirely unrelated to my major.
This notion that intellectual "breadth" is as important as intellectual "depth" seems to play a strong role in the way in which admissions are handled for US undergraduates. Whether it is truly a good or bad thing is something there is currently no clear answer to, but some have argued that this philosophy may be an important contributor to the highly successful US "startup" and small business culture.
Specific example of why this is considered: MIT has been known to turn down people with top grades when there's evidence that they will deal very poorly with no longer being at the top of their class. Someone who can draw good grades and sustain extracurricular activities is more likely to survive in that environment than someone who got those grades by doing nothing but study.
Extra curricular activities indicate levels of involvement and discipline that grades alone don't always reflect. If two students have equivalent grades and equivalent coursework, it's more impressive if one student was able to do that while participating in a sport, a music group, and volunteering while the other student did not have these additional time constraints. A university would likely see a student with strong extracurricular involvement as one who would be more likely to be involved in activities in college, which can benefit the school by improving its image ("look at our students giving back to the community") or through research (the "do it all" types may be more likely to participate in undergrad research). Colleges like well-rounded students, and having extracurricular involvement shows well-roundedness.
Legacy students...that's an entirely different matter in my opinion. That may be more to appease the alumni parents who might donate. Also, if the parents are alums, the kid may be more likely to matriculate (because colleges want a high matriculation rate among accepted students) and be successful (if the parents were able to graduate, the kid probably would as well).
In the US, it all comes down to decentralized control and funding.
Education is primarily a State and local responsibility in the United States.
This is actually a consequence of the US constitution which limits the reach of the Federal government in States affairs. Even in the few instances where some Federal funds are allocated to education, the Federal government will usually disburse those funds and leave the implementation details to the States themselves.
It is States and communities, as well as public and private organizations of all kinds, that establish schools and colleges, develop curricula, and determine requirements for enrollment and graduation. The structure of education finance in America reflects this predominant State and local role.
In other words, there is not one single academic standard that runs across the entire United States and there is not a single standard way to measure the abilities of students. One could say that the SAT and the ACT are such standards, but those are not government-sponsored, nor government-mandated, they're just private and proprietary products owned and licensed by the companies that developed them, and those tests are just partial bandaid solutions that have evolved over time as a direct result of not having standards in the first place.
In any case, even if academic abilities could be measured accurately, there is still the issue of which entities and special interests are funding the University. If it's a particular State, it wants the children of its electorates (this is usually written in their charter). If it's private donors, then it means they want their children and the children of their friends to be accepted (that's also written in their charter, but instead of using the word "nepotism", the euphemism "legacy" is used instead). If it's the military (through the ROTC, or the GI Bill), it wants its recruits and its veterans and/or their dependents to be accepted by the schools it funds (keep this in mind if you ever want to become a Medical Doctor and don't have the best absolute grades for it).
If a University was started by funds from a particular religion, or if it is supported by local politicians, or by local private interests, that are predominantly one religion, then it will tend to favor members from that particular religion. The same goes for Universities that practice racial discrimination (whether be it the negative kind of discrimination and preferential nepotism, or affirmative action which is supposed to correct past discrimination and past nepotism).
And if a University depends on the funds from college sports, either franchising, rebroadcasting rights, increased publicity, and/or increased donations from Alumni, then it will do its very best to recruit athletes for its sports teams through its admission process.
In the US, professional sports leagues are government-backed monopolies (exempt from anti-trust regulations). Those sports leagues artificially limit the number of teams they allow to very low numbers (at least compared to our population size). And semi-professional college leagues end up filling the gaps left by professional leagues, except that schools are legally required not to pay their athletes (except for tuition and expense reimbursements), thus creating a real bargain for each school.
Also on the athletic side of things, even if you're not good enough to play on a college league for a University, having attended school both in France and in the US, I'll disagree with you and say that athleticism probably has a bigger role in France than in the US. The French school system has a standardized and a rigorous way of testing high school students for general physical education, which will figure as a part of their Baccalauréat and therefore indirectly be a part of the overall criteria used for University admissions. But physical education in the US is largely dependent on the particular high school you attended. In California, where I attended, it was basically a joke (and thus can not be relied on for University admissions, unless you took sports as extracurricular activities, thus this would explain why they would want you to list those extracurricular sports on college applications).
I always assumed parents would complain that their precious child was not being measured accurately if admissions criteria did not include ridiculous things like hiking in the Himalayas.
But there’s also not really any choice. As a current college student in a fairly elite college with fairly elite stats, I of all people know that high-school GPAs and the SAT are meaningless for college success. A lot of high schools, like inner city or rural schools, produce kids with high GPAs and the inability to do basic math. The SAT is something you can study maybe three weeks for and get a full score on. The most impressive thing I can see on a resume is doing well in Math Olympiad or high-school programming/robotics contests. That is not something available to everyone.
In the end, colleges need to separate kids somehow, and the basic criteria, like GPA and standardized test scores are just not adequate. So they turn to feel-good things like trips to Nepal. It’s almost not the college’s fault... except they could imitate the Asian system and administer their own personal examinations for entrance. That would make a lot more sense, but you would have to refer to my first comment about over-sensitive parents and college administrators as for why that would not work.
As Najib Idrissi pointed out, nonacademic criteria play a large role in the admissions process in the US, because it is a way for universities to discriminate students while keeping plausible deniability. It is a common misconception, however, that it's mostly rich White men who benefit from this:
Perhaps the most detailed statistical research into the actual admissions practices of American universities has been conducted by Princeton sociology professor Thomas J. Espenshade and his colleagues, whose results were summarized in his 2009 book No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal, co-authored with Alexandria Walton Radford. Their findings provide an empirical look at the individual factors that dramatically raise or lower the likelihood of acceptance into the leading American universities which select the next generation of our national elites.
The research certainly supports the widespread perception that non-academic factors play a major role in the process, including athletic ability and “legacy” status. But as we saw earlier, even more significant are racial factors, with black ancestry being worth the equivalent of 310 points, Hispanics gaining 130 points, and Asian students being penalized by 140 points, all relative to white applicants on the 1600 point Math and Reading SAT scale.
Here's how it typically works:
Consider the case of Tiffany Wang, a Chinese immigrant student raised in the Silicon Valley area, where her father worked as an engineer. Although English was not her first language, her SAT scores were over 100 points above the Wesleyan average, and she ranked as a National Merit Scholarship semifinalist, putting her in the top 0.5 percent of high school students (not the top 2 percent as Steinberg mistakenly claims). Nevertheless, the admissions officer rated her just so-so in academics, and seemed far more positively impressed by her ethnic activism in the local school’s Asian-American club. Ultimately, he stamped her with a “Reject,” but later admitted to Steinberg that she might have been admitted if he had been aware of the enormous time and effort she had spent campaigning against the death penalty, a political cause near and dear to his own heart. Somehow I suspect that a student who boasted of leadership in pro-death penalty activism among his extracurriculars might have fared rather worse in this process. And presumably for similar reasons, Tiffany was also rejected by all her other prestigious college choices, including Yale, Penn, Duke, and Wellesley, an outcome which greatly surprised and disappointed her immigrant father.
There was also the case of half-Brazilian Julianna Bentes, with slight black ancestry, who came from a middle-class family and attended on a partial scholarship one of America’s most elite prep schools, whose annual tuition now tops $30,000; her SAT scores were somewhat higher than Tiffany’s, and she was an excellent dancer. The combination of her academic ability, dancing talent, and “multiracial” background ranked her as one of America’s top college recruitment prospects, gaining her admission and generous financial packages from Harvard, Yale, Stanford and every other elite university to which she applied, including the University of Chicago’s most prestigious academic scholarship award and a personal opportunity to meet Chelsea Clinton while visiting Stanford, which she did, before ultimately selecting Yale.
Finally, there was the case of Becca Jannol, a girl from a very affluent Jewish family near Beverly Hills, who attended the same elite prep school as Julianna, but with her parents paying the full annual tuition. Despite her every possible advantage, including test-prep courses and retaking the exam, her SAT scores were some 240 points lower on the 1600 point scale, placing her toward the bottom of the Wesleyan range, while her application essay focused on the philosophical challenges she encountered when she was suspended for illegal drug use. But she was a great favorite of her prep school counselor, who was an old college friend of the Wesleyan admissions officer, and using his discretion, he stamped her “Admit.” Her dismal academic record then caused this initial decision to be overturned by a unanimous vote of the other members of the full admissions committee, but he refused to give up, and moved heaven and earth to gain her a spot, even offering to rescind the admissions of one or more already selected applicants to create a place for her. Eventually he got her shifted from the Reject category to wait-list status, after which he secretly moved her folder to the very top of the large waiting list pile.
In the end “connections” triumphed, and she received admission to Wesleyan, although she turned it down in favor of an offer from more prestigious Cornell, which she had obtained through similar means. But at Cornell, she found herself “miserable,” hating the classes and saying she “didn’t see the usefulness of [her] being there.” However, her poor academic ability proved no hindrance, since the same administrator who had arranged her admission also wrangled her a quick entrance into a special “honors program” he personally ran, containing just 40 of the 3500 students in her year. This exempted her from all academic graduation requirements, apparently including classes or tests, thereby allowing her to spend her four college years mostly traveling around the world while working on a so-called “special project.” After graduation, she eventually took a job at her father’s successful law firm, thereby realizing her obvious potential as a member of America’s ruling Ivy League elite, or in her own words, as being one of “the best of the best.”