The College Admissions Scandal Is Just the Tip of the Iceberg

Most people have probably heard the details of the recent college admission bribery scandal, so I won’t repeat them. If you need a quick reminder, there is an excellent summary here.

Though many of the court cases are ongoing, enough people have plead guilty, both as givers of bribes and as recipients, that we can say with certainly that a major attack on the integrity of the college admissions process has taken place. We don’t yet know for sure how many people are involved, and we may not ever know the full extent to which the process was corrupted.

We don’t really need to know every shocking detail. What we do need to think about is how to improve the college admissions process. To do that, we must first consider what’s wrong with the existing system. The bribery scandal is fresh in our minds, but sadly, it is by no means the only problem.

The Mismatch between Openings and Applicants

University of Texas Austin (copyrighted by stock_photo_world and licensed from Shutterstock)

In an ideal world, all students would be able to go to a college that was perfectly suited for them. Needless to say, that’s not what happens.

I used to think part of the problem was that the number of applicants kept increasing while the number of colleges remained relatively static. That isn’t entirely true, though it’s often hard to find consistent statistics. The Hechtinger Report points out that high school graduates, whose numbers increased 30% between 1995 and 2013, were starting to decline in 2016. This decline was projected to continue through 2032. Fewer high school graduates should have meant fewer college applicants, not more.

Yet it didn’t–at least, not completely. The number of applicants may have diminished, but the number of applications continued to increase for a while, with 2018 being a record year. According to Applerouth, one of the reasons for this increase was the Common App, a mechanism which makes it easier for students to apply to more colleges than in the past. This increase might have been one reason for a decline in UC and Ivy League admission rates.

Yet even in these conditions, the number of colleges with space after May 1 increased between 2012 and 2018 (from 375 to 422, about a 12.5% increase). I just checked with NACAC (National Association of College Admission Counselors), and this year there are 518 (up about 38% from 2012). How do we explain these odd discrepancies?

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It isn’t that there aren’t enough spaces in college. It’s that there aren’t enough spaces in the colleges considered most desirable, the ones with the highest prestige, either in particular fields or in general. This problem has gotten substantially worse since I graduated from high school in 1974. That year, Stanford admitted 31% of its applicants, according to Forbes. In 2015, it admitted only 5.05%. By 2018, it was no longer making its admission rate public, according to the Harvard Crimson. I couldn’t trace Harvard back to 1974, but from 1997 to 2017, its rate fell from 12.3% to 5.2%, according to Business Insider. (it has since dropped to 4.5%, according to TopTier Admissions.)

These two examples illustrate the problem. Though some schools are seeing a decline in applications and more space available, the colleges most in demand still have steadily increasing applicant pools and declining admission rates.

Some public schools are are also much more challenging to get into than they used to be. In 1980, the year before I started teaching, UCLA admitted 74% of its applicants. (I looked that up in 2014, and it’s since disappeared from the UCLA website, but a reference to it was preserved on College Confidential.) By 2018, UCLA admitted only 14%, just a little more than Harvard did in 1997.

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Based on my years of high school teaching experience, during which I taught juniors and/or seniors every single year, I saw these changes firsthand. People I’d gone to high school with who got into schools like Yale probably wouldn’t be able to get into UCLA or Berkeley today. I’ve seen students with GPAs over 4.0 (thanks to bonus points for honors and AP classes), strong SAT scores, and high-quality extracurricular participation not get in. Some of these students practically worked themselves to death to perform as well as they did. They came out of the college admission experience feeling as if hard work and dedication didn’t really matter.

Just in case you’re skeptical, here are some interesting facts from UCLA about students admitted for fall, 2018. 40% of applicants with GPAs over 4.36 were admitted. (For those of you who, like me, are less mathematically inclined, that means that the majority of applicants with GPAs well above 4.0 didn’t get in.) Below 4.36, the rates fall dramatically–just 8% of students between 3.76 and 4.35 got in; just 3% of the students below 3.76 made the cut.

These figures basically mean that a student has to take and perform well in numerous honors and AP classes. For domestic applicants, students with 22 or more such classes were admitted 31% of the time. Students with 11 to 21 classes were admitted only 10% of the time, and those below 11 were admitted only 3% of the time.

It’s important to note that UC schools don’t count freshman classes. They do count all AP classes in grades 10-12, but only honors classes that lead directly to AP classes. On the other hand, that count is by semester. Since AP classes (and, in my experience, most honors classes) are year-long-classes, you can cut those figures in half to see the real number of accelerated classes students took. Even so, the load is pretty heavy. In the highest tier, eleven classes means something like three in sophomore year and four each in junior and senior years–and that level of commitment gets rewarded with admission less than a third of the time. It would be interesting to see how many accelerated classes one would need to take to get into a group in which a majority of the students would be admitted.

(copyrighted by Keith Bell and licensed from Shutterstock)

Private schools typically don’t release statistics in the same way, but there’s no reason to think it’s any easier to get in. For instance, I can’t find an official source for the average GPA of Harvard’s admitted students. Collegesimply, though saying Harvard’s average GPA for admitted students is 4.04, goes on to say that, “Given the school’s very highly selective admissions,  acceptance at Harvard is extremely difficult and unlikely even with a 4.04 GPA.”  So it’s unlikely for a student with the average GPA of admitted students to be admitted? I’ll leave you to puzzle over that one. PrepScholar puts the average at 4.18, which might be based on a different year. The average at UCLA seems to be higher, which makes me think the quoted statistics are probably too low. (Either that, or a larger proportion of the applicants come from really demanding high schools with lower average GPAs.)

Of course, grades and test scores are only part of the picture, particularly for private schools. The students I’ve known who were successful almost always had distinguished extracurricular records as well. So did some of the students who didn’t make it. In some cases, I’d be hard pressed to tell you why some got in and others didn’t. As one of my former students once said, “It’s a crap shoot. You just do the best you can in high school and on your applications, and you take your chances.”

I guess in craps, the higher the stakes, the more temptation there is to try to swap in loaded dice.

Why is it Wrong To Bribe Your Child’s Way into College?

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You might think the answer is obvious, but over the years, I met several parents who were more than willing to do whatever it took to maximize admissions chances for their sons and daughters. I was only offered bribes twice–I’ll take that as a compliment on the assumption that there might have been more if people thought I was receptive to such an approach. In one case, the offer was for raising in grade. In the other, it was for getting a student into an honors class who hadn’t qualified. I also heard about a case in which a parent who was involved in real estate was offering one million dollars in property to college admissions officers in exchange for admission. To their credit, the admissions officers reported this behavior to the high school. I’m not sure what they expected the high school to do about it, but in those days, I don’t think anyone realized such activity might in some circumstances be a federal crime.

Fortunately, such incidents were rare. More common were parents who lied to protect their sons and daughters from the consequences of their actions. For example, I’ve seen parents falsify excuses to clear unexcused absences. I’ve also seen parents claim to have watched students write essays that were plagiarized word for word from sources I had no trouble tracking down. The most memorable case, though, was a father and mother who claimed that their son had not lied when he told me he couldn’t finish an essay because his grandfather had died. (His older brother had already used a grandfather’s death as an excuse for assignments being late in two different years. Neither grandmother had remarried. My student’s parents, while conceding those facts, still insisted that their son was not lying.)

I need to emphasize that even incidents like that didn’t happen in the majority of cases–but they did happen often enough to make me think the ethical question needs to be discussed.

We can all understand the desire of parents to want the most success possible for their sons and daughters. Most parents want that. Where the situation becomes complicated is where ethical means have been exhausted, and the sons and daughters still haven’t reached the parental goal.

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What we all need to understand is that getting an applicant into a college through bribes and/or false data is not a victimless crime. There are a finite number of spaces at each highly selective college. Put in crude terms, getting one student in under false pretenses knocks another student out.

Wanting the best for your child is one thing. Being willing to take something away from someone else to give it to your child is a completely different thing.

What makes this kind of behavior even more reprehensible is that it’s being perpetrated on behalf of students who’ve already had every possible advantage. At the risk of stating the excruciatingly obvious, parents who can afford hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes can presumably afford to give their sons and daughters every ethical advantage imaginable. Think about the possibilities:

  • tutoring when needed (according to care.com, rates could range from $30-$40 per hour to $85 for a certified teacher; high school students or recent graduates will often work for less; tutors in particularly affluent areas will probably ask for more);
  • summer programs (costs vary enormously; the summer academy sponsored by the Beverly Hills Education Foundation costs $440 for semester credit, $880 for year credit, plus a $25 registration fee and lab fees for science classes; Havard Pre-College Program costs $75 to apply, $100 for insurance, and $4,600 for tuition);
  • SAT prep courses (according to costhelper education, that’s $10-$50 for a self-guided course, $75-$1,000 for an instructor-led course, and $75-$250 an hour for private SAT tutoring);
  • high-quality public schools (because of the continuing practice in many states of funding schools partially or entirely from local property taxes, being able to afford to buy a home in an expensive area probably means having one of the best public schools available, with far higher per-pupil spending than normal);
  • selective private schools (costs vary enormously; Private School Review says the average tuition for a private school is $14,575 per year (not including board if the school is a boarding school); prices from the top private schools, as listed by Niche, are mind-blowing–$43,300 for Phillips Academy (Andover), $39,700 for Harvard-Westlake; $38,740 for Phillips-Exeter; $47,965 for Trinity (New York); only $29,496 for St. Mark’s of Texas.
(copyrighted by Syda Productions and licensed from Shutterstock)

Nor are these the only advantages students from affluent families could be getting. Consider family vacations, for example. I hardly ever got through the unit on Greek mythology at Beverly Hills High School without at least one student sharing details from his or her family trip to Greece or Italy. The same could be said for the biblical literature unit and trips to Israel. It’s easier to connect to that kind of literary material when you’ve seen some of the locations in which it developed, as well as some of the art and architecture that developed around the same time. That kind of firsthand experience is far harder to come by in less affluent circumstances.

One of my colleagues used to say that SAT scores were a measure of how many books parents could afford to buy their kids for Christmas. Though she was being facetious, there is some truth in that observation. It would be hard to list all of the ways in which an affluent background can give students an educational advantage. And there’s nothing wrong with parents giving their sons and daughters every educational benefit they can afford. However, we have to consider the advantages of an affluent background in assessing the impact of unethical practices. 

In that respect, college admissions is like a race in which some students get an earlier start than others. The idea that the early starters, who are already more likely to cross the finish-line ahead of their less advantaged fellow students, should be given an even bigger advantage through unethical means is morally repugnant. I don’t see any gray area nor any possible justification.

The Broader Problem of College Admissions

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One of the impacts of the unfolding scandal was to raise questions about the legal (but perhaps ethically dubious practice) of giving preference to legacies (students who had members of their family attend the college), with the possibility that in some cases parental donations to the college (either during the process or after it) might influence admissions.

It’s hard to assess how much of a problem in equity or ethics legacy admissions represent, mostly because it’s hard to find accurate statistics. Even if we knew how much higher the admission rate was for legacy students than for others, that wouldn’t necessarily answer the question. Legacy students are often from affluent backgrounds with built-in advantages having nothing to do with their legacy status. And many of them might have been admitted anyway. I wrote a recommendation for a student who got into Harvard. He was admitted, and he was a legacy–but he was also one of the strongest students I’d ever had, stronger than some non-legacy students who’d been admitted to Harvard in earlier years. On the other hand, I wrote a recommendation for a Stanford applicant who was a legacy four times over–and he didn’t get in. He got in everywhere else, including Yale, where he subsequently went, so there was some speculation he might have sabotaged his Stanford application on purpose. Either way, however, this incident demonstrates that legacy students are not always admitted.

However, legacy admissions do sometimes allow students to get in who otherwise would not–we just don’t know how many or how far below the admissions norm these students are. Joe Pinsker, writing in The Atlantic, cites the estimate that legacy status gives a student somewhere between double and quadruple the chance of getting into a highly selective school.

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Why do colleges continue to give preference to legacy students? According to The Atlantic article cited above, one of the primary reasons is financial. The reasoning is that such admissions encourage alumni donations. Such donations, it is said, help to preserve the academic excellence of the institutions involved and also make it easier for these institutions to provide more financial aid for those in need. However, as Josh Freedman points out in Forbes, such gifts, since they are tax-deductible, are in effect being financed by the rest of society. So are the universities involved–to a larger extent than is generally realized. As non-profits, their income is generally untaxed, and they also receive state and federal funding in a number of ways, such as federal student loans (some of which are repaid slowly or not at all, according to statistics on Nerdwallet). In other words, not only are students who have already had every advantage based on potential gifts their parents may give to universities–but we’re paying for them to have that extra boost.

What about Affirmative Action?

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As you know, the practice of giving preference to historically underrepresented groups has long been controversial. It seems to be one of those issues that people have a hard time with. Jim Jump, writing in Inside Higher Ed, points out that 60% of those surveyed in a February, 2019 Gallup poll supported affirmative action, including a majority of white respondents, and that support for affirmative action was increasing. On the other hand, when asked by Pew in a poll released not long after what factors should be considered in college admission, only 7% said that race should be a major factor. Looking at the findings in greater depth, every demographic group in the Pew survey opposed using race as a criterion at all–even groups theoretically advantaged by it. The only three factors that did get majority support were high school grades, standardized test scores, and community service involvement, in that order. Much less popular were being the first person in the family to go to college (53% opposed), athletic ability (57%), legacy status (68%), race (71%) and gender (80%).

It surprises me a little that legacy status isn’t on the very bottom, but it also surprises me the result differs so far from the Gallup result at about the same time. There are probably many ways to explain the discrepancy, but the way in which the questions were framed may account for at least part of the discrepancy. The Gallup question asks about attitudes toward affirmative action with no context.   The Pew survey narrowed the context to college admissions and asked how affirmative action should stack up in relation to other factors.  In the latter case, I think the term, “major factor” is ambiguous. People who responded to Gallup’s general question were probably thinking in terms of supporting traditionally disadvantaged groups by leveling the playing field. On the other hand, “major factor” might have conjured up images of unqualified applicants being admitted solely on the basis of race.

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Just to add to the confusion, AP News polled at the end of April and got a third kind of reaction. AP asked respondents whether they thought colleges gave particular factors weight in the admissions process and whether or not they thought colleges should give those factors weight. In terms of whether or not each criterion should be considered, grades and test scores were again on top. These were followed by high school extracurricular activities, special talent in the arts (which overlaps with extracurricular activities), and special talent in sports. The bottom factors were those that related to personal circumstances rather than talents: racial background to ensure diversity (27%), gender to ensure diversity (27%), financial background (ability to pay tuition (23%), financial donation made to the college by the applicant’s family (13%), legacy status (11%).

Notice how context again makes a difference. More people supported the idea of affirmative action with respect to race or gender if those factors were used to ensure a more diverse student body. Interestingly, this was one of the key points in the Supreme Court’s decisions in the University of Michigan affirmative action cases. (For more information, see A Black and White Case, by Greg Stohr.) Teaching in an extremely diverse high school, I can say that having a student popular with varied backgrounds does indeed make for a better educational environment. The AP poll got people thinking about that issue. The Pew Survey instead conjured up instead the image of unqualified students getting into college–or so I believe, anyway.

If I had to guess, I’d say the varying poll results come from an only partially successful attempt to grapple with fundamental issues of fairness. Is fairness best served by color-blind admissions or by a conscious attempt to level the playing field? As the inconsistent poll results demonstrate, Americans don’t have an answer to that question yet.

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There are potentially good arguments on both sides of the question. However, seen against the backdrop of the affirmative action controversy, legacy admissions seem even less justifiable. In essence, using legacy status as a factor in admissions is like having affirmative action for rich white people. Try as I might, I can’t see how such a practice could possibly be considered fair. Affirmative action at least tried to level the play field for historically disadvantaged groups. By contrast, legacy admissions create an additional advantage for historically advantaged groups, thus making the playing field less level.

Possible Improvements in the College Admissions Process

There are ways to reduce or eliminate some of these problems, and these solutions should be attempted sooner rather than later.

Students and Parents Need To Research College Choices More

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This first suggestion is one that anyone involved on the applicant side of the process can do to make the process is less painful and potentially produce a better outcome.

One of the reasons that elite schools reject such a high percentage of applicants is that the applicant pool for those schools keeps growing even as the overall number of applicants declines.

How does researching choices make that situation any better? Because a lot of people apply to elite schools not because they’re really the best choice for those students, but simply because they are elite schools. I’ve known students whose entire research process was looking at the lists of best colleges and then applying to all of the schools that ranked at the top.

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The psychology behind this kind of selection process is easy to understand–who wouldn’t want to say they graduated from Harvard? The problem with using that desire as the primary factor driving application decisions is that even the most elite schools don’t necessarily have the strongest program in every single subject area. If an Ivy League school is a good fit for a particular student, that student should apply–but there are a lot of people applying for whom the school wouldn’t be a good fit. It’s necessary to research specific programs of interest and the nature of the school community to know whether it would be a good fit or not–and you aren’t going to find that kind of information in a simple ranking list.

Some years ago, one of my students applied to a few well-known colleges and a great number I’d never heard of. When I talked to him about his choices, he had a detailed rationale for each of them. Every place to which he applied, despite the obscurity of some, was a leader in some area of interest to him. He got into a lesser known school where he was happy and successful. Applying to the top ten colleges in the country would have gotten him a pile of rejections, and if he had gotten in, his educational experience might not have been as good.

There are tools that students and their parents can use to help with this process. The one my school subscribed to was Naviance, but I’m sure there are other alternatives. Services like that aggregate a large amount of information about colleges in one place, making some parts of the research much faster.

One of my former students had very specific requirements for the school he wanted to attend. It needed to have a strong pre-med program. Because he also wanted to continue his work in instrumental music, the school needed to have an orchestra in which students who were not music majors could participate. In addition, he wanted a school with a strong tennis team. Finally, he wanted a school that was near a fairly large city but not actually in one. Through Naviance, he found four schools that met his criteria. None of them were big-name schools, but he was accepted to all of them and attended one of them, where he was happy and successful.

(copyrighted by Who is Danny and licensed from Shutterstock)

Even worse in some ways than the poorly researched choices are the ones driven entirely by ego. I’ve known many students who applied to elite schools they had no intention of attending just to see if they could get in. That kind of application puts more strain on an already overloaded system, possibly reducing the time admissions officers have to consider the serious applicants, and can affect outcomes for other students if such a student is accepted. (There’s no guarantee that the person taken off the waiting list after the non-serious applicant declines will be the same person who would have gotten the space if the non-serious applicant hadn’t applied in the first place.)

Of course, applicants can do only so much to make the system work better. The major problems are at the other side of the process.

Consideration of Legacy Status Needs To Be Eliminated

Such a ban would be difficult to enforce, but we need to try. Basic equity demands that we do so.

However, we also need to address one of the major arguments offered in favor of legacy admissions: that they encourage alumni donations that maintain educational quality and make possible lower tuition and/or more scholarships.

This is a powerful argument, one that could conceivably shift the balance in favor of legacy admissions if it balanced the advantaging of a few legacies by getting far more underprivileged students into the system and making it more affordable in general.

However, there is considerable dispute about whether assumptions about legacy admissions are really accurate. Howard Gold points out in MarketWatch that a study by three economists could find no statistical significant evidence that legacy admissions had a significant effect on alumni giving. 

Princeton’s annual alumni P-rade (copyrighted by EQRoy and licensed from Shutterstock)

The Atlantic article previously referred to also shows the lack of support for this contention. Legacy admissions are a rarity outside the United States, yet universities in other countries continue to function at high levels and offer scholarships. In addition, the same study quoted by Gold makes the point that seven schools dropped legacy admissions without seeing a drop in alumni giving. During the same period of time, Yale didn’t drop legacy admissions but reduced their numbers, and alumni donations actually increased.

Another compelling argument for doing away with legacy admissions is an ethical one. If it is unethical to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to get falsified data accepted into the admissions process, why is it any more ethical to pay a college directly in the hope of getting a son or daughter admitted? The former is illegal, while the latter is not, but in ethical terms, the difference is not as clear. Both are attempts to gain advantages for students who have already had every conceivable advantage. Both end up excluding at least some students without equally affluent parents.

There is an ethical difference to the extent that one practice comes with a guarantee of admission while the other does not. But it’s hard not to see both as forms of bribery. It’s one thing for an alumnus who’s been donating steadily to keep donating. It’s quite another for an alumnus to lay a few million on a university right before a child without obvious qualifications applies. (And yes, that does happen.)

Create More Alumni-Independent Funding Sources 

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Suppose we eliminate legacy admissions, and some schools are adversely affected financially. We’d be better off in terms of equity if we found ways to provide more government funding. I’m not convinced this would be necessary, but since alumni donations are tax-deductible, taxpayers are already subsidizing them, anyway. I’d rather have the government send more money to colleges and cut out the alumni middlemen, some of whom have their own agendas.

In an ideal world, college would be free, as some presidential candidates have suggested. The price tag for that might be impractical, but that doesn’t mean federal and state governments can’t provide some additional funding, perhaps in the form of more scholarships for deserving students without enough money to go any other way. It’s clear from the 1.6 trillion in student loan debt, some of which will never be repaid, that student loans by themselves aren’t enough to address the problem. Arguably, they may be creating a worse one.

Level the K-12 Playing Field

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This last suggestion isn’t going to be possible in the short-term, but it is something society needs to work on in the long-run, particularly if we don’t want to continue relying on affirmative action, which is at best a band-aid.

What we’re doing right now is allowing enormous educational inequality during the pre-college years. I’m not talking about the fact that some students can afford to attend expensive private schools, as mentioned earlier. I’m talking about the enormous discrepancies in public schools, often rooted in the dependence on local property taxes as a significant funding mechanism. This pattern virtually guarantees that students living in poverty, instead of getting the resources needed to keep up with their middle-class peers, will receive an inferior education that causes them to fall further behind. There’s a huge amount of information available in this area. Here’s an article from The Nation to get you started if you’re not familiar with the issue.

Trying to admit more students in that situation into college after the damage has already been done is a backward way to address the problem. The need to make that kind of adjustment would diminish substantially if we worked toward equalizing educational opportunities in the public school system.

That doesn’t mean that such change will be easy. It will be expensive, time-consuming, and conflict-creating. In particular, the shift away from local property tax will raise all kinds of issues about how to retain the desired degree of local control when most of the funding is state and/or federal. We’ll need to completely reimagine the financial and decision-making structures in order to create a viable system.

However, almost anything would be better than what we have now. The current system works to amplify disadvantages in much the same way legacy admissions do. If we want true equality of opportunity, we need to make the hard choices to bring it about.

(copyrighted by Monkey Business Images and licensed from Shutterstock)

(Use of images from University of Texas Austin and Princeton University is not intended to imply that either institution is more involved in or responsible for the issues discussed in this blog post. Also, the use of data from particular schools, such as Harvard, Stanford, and UCLA, is not intended to imply greater involvement and responsibility on the part of those institutions. I used the most readily available data as examples. The same issues exist in a large number of other places.)

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