The College Admissions Scandal

This week we were presented with a story of marvelous proportions that could well lead to significant changes in admissions to higher education.   While there have been numerous comments on how to “solve” the problem, most don’t seem to offer anything but rehashed bromides.

Let me state at the outset, that I believe that every person involved in this scheme should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.  They found holes in the admissions process and exploited them.

But that should not allow a wholesale destruction of the admissions process.  Here are a couple of comments from someone who worked closely with two of the institutions involved and who also holds a couple of degrees from one of them.

#1 – The College Admissions process is divided into at least two classes.  The first are the ones where the problem happened – places that have tons of applicants to available spaces.   Stanford in the most recent admissions cycle had 44,000 applicants for a freshman class of 1500.  Their admit rate was less than one in twenty.  USC had both a larger pool (64,256) and a higher admit rate (13%).   But in each case the number of applicants far exceeded the number of spaces.   The other class are places like where I went as an undergraduate.  University of the Pacific had 13,545 applicants for first year admissions and admitted 64% of those who applied.   Of those 8800 admits only 954 finally enrolled.   There is greater melt (students accepted but who decline to attend) for the second type of institutions so the admissions process is a lot different for them.

Even among the most selective institutions there are variations in how students are evaluated. Institutions have different goals and cultures.  One of the best part of American higher education is its variety of educational approaches and options.

#2 – Each college or university has an idea of the types of students they want to attract, and the goals are not the same.   In the case of public institutions there is an additional limitation that the public expects a percentage of students will come from the state.  With that modifier, UCLA had an admit rate slightly lower than Pacific’s.  But the key point is that each institution tries to mold its’ student body with sometimes conflicting demographics.   Each tries to offer spaces to students who could not normally not be able to afford to go to college.  Of the first year students at Pacific 872 of the 954 admits got a scholarship.  In the independent institutions, especially those that are less well endowed the increasing costs of those scholarships are drivers of the escalating rate of tuition.

#3 – A third driver for many institutions is college athletics.  The three California institutions snared in the scandal are all Division One programs – which means that many students in the athletic programs are there on scholarships – but as we found out as the story developed – there are many athletes who don’t get athletic aid.   Athletic scholarships were first offered by the University of Chicago, when Amos Alonzo Stagg was the football coach, to allow Stagg to recruit students who could not afford to attend Chicago without a scholarship.   Since then athletic scholarships are significantly less tied to ability to pay.

College athletics are a diversion that distorts many institutions.  Only a small handful of universities have athletic programs that are self supporting (based on outside support and gate receipts). The rest are a drain on the educational enterprise.  When Pacific dropped Division One football they were losing something in the range of $2 million per year between what it cost to run a Division One program and what the program brought in in support.

A good deal of the chicanery involved manipulating minor sports to game admissions.

#4 – When a resource is limited there are always bound to be disappointments  – In the most selective institutions, which many parents believe is akin to an E ticket at Disneyland (the best rides) there will always be disappointments.  For the last two decades a lot of higher education critics (cranks, pundits) have searched for a way to explain why their little darling did not get into their dream school.  Their proposed remedies have often been worse than the problem.

#5 – In the selective class of institutions most could fill their class with 4.0 students and never look back.  But the institutions want to create a climate which reflects their values and aspirations.  One criticism that came up this week is the relatively smaller numbers of Asian students at Harvard – 22.9% versus a place like CalTech – 44%.   CalTech’s undergraduates focus on a narrow range of subjects where Asian students excel – Harvard and indeed the other selective institutions have a much broader set of educational aspirations.

There are all sorts of things which go into the admissions mix.   But in the years that I worked with independent colleges I had talks with Admissions deans in places like Stanford and Claremont McKenna (a very selective liberal arts college) who claimed to me that the personally read every file for the admitted class to discover whether the right mix of students had been formed.   There is some justifiable push back on that trend.  A suit against Harvard (sponsored by Students for Fair Admissions) claims that Harvard systematically discriminates against Asian students.  (I suspect that at least some of the claims in that action will be affirmed.)  But the variety of educational institutions should allow some variation in what each institution values.

The system is far from perfect in allocating very scare resources and some of the goals of admissions professionals may not conform to broader views of society.  It may be time to re-evaluate how to publicly express those goals.  The problem is that if those goals are articulated too clearly the most wealthy will try to game the system.

#6 – By the numbers – Some pundits including Heather McDonald of the Manhattan Institute have suggested that we go to an exclusive merit based system for all admissions.  The simplicity of that proposal belies its treachery.   Just how would such a system work?   Use standardized tests – even though there is some evidence the Singer and his co-conspirators gamed results? Standardized tests have also proven to be lousy predictors of much more than ability to take tests.  Use GPA – is a 4.0 GPA in one high school the same as another?  Use class rank – in Stanford’s case about 50% of the High School Valedictorians were denied admission.   In the case of both GPA rankings and class rank – the differences in what the numbers mean are troubling at best.  If we want to maintain the variety of options in the selective institutions – there needs to be some variety on assumptions.

#7 – Balancing opportunities – The fundamental decision about who should be admitted is whether the prospective student can actually do the work.  But the college admissions filters and the critics have always assumed that definition is pretty simple – it is not.  Tests and GPAs are not good predictors of much.  Course patterns are better – if you go through a full math sequence in high school – it should be assumed that you are pretty capable in math.   But then you get the social overlays – does the institution believe that geographic diversity helps to create a better educational environment?

Accomplishing other broader social goals is something which a lot of society thinks colleges should do but there is not a lot of agreement about how to do that.  Racial preferences, for example, especially quota like structures are not well accepted.  I believe they should not be.  That being said we need to assure that the broadest range of students who meet the first criteria (being able to do college level work) should have the broadest range of options.

The scandal (and that word is overused but no so in this case!) has caused us to again look at the complexity of the admissions problem.  One hopes that the solutions that are considered will not be worse than the problem.

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