Disruptions in admissions: the scandal and the conversation

In May 2019, Acuity Insights looked at disruption in admissions. As more and more institutions are moving to a holistic approach, many new factors are playing a key role in how admissions professionals assess applicants. But, how are institutions approaching holistic admissions processes, and where is there still work to be done? This series looks at letters of intent and personal statements, demonstrated interest, and new laws surrounding admissions that focus on holistic practices to ensure integrity.

Breaking down all of the news associated with the recent college admissions scandal can be difficult.

On one hand, you have parents who paid Rick Singer thousands (and in at least one case millions) of dollars to get their children into top-tier Universities by any means possible.

On the other hand, you have admissions professionals, from high school counselors and teachers to University admissions teams themselves, saying this issue is not something new. And even though this case was clearly illegal, wealthy families have legal (but still objectionable) methods of getting their way.

To add to the consideration, you have schools like Harvard that have tried to level the admissions playing field through a holistic process, only to have it backfire in the end. In that case, other information came to light that shows their holistic process still had major flaws rooted in an unfair system. But more on that below.

So, what are the problems with the current system that have allowed the wealthy to gain an advantage? How did this lead up to the scandal? And, how are schools starting to change their policies since the fallout?

These are some very big questions, with answers deeply rooted in a flawed process. By breaking down the different aspects of what’s already considered accepted practice, it’s possible to see how the entire admissions scandal started.

There is some good news in all of this. Because of the admissions scandal, many institutions are evaluating their processes. Institutions are actively finding ways to avoid future issues, and open up their admissions pools to a more diverse range of candidates.

What led up to the scandal?

One of the main questions that comes up when discussing the scandal is why many admissions professionals were unsurprised.

In her well circulated article, Caitlin Flanagan discusses her own experiences working as a college admissions counselor, and how it became the worst job ever due to overly demanding, and very wealthy, parents who wanted their children to get Ivey acceptance regardless of the child’s actual merits.

And while her opinion does have its critics, the overall theme rings true for many. For years, wealthy families have been able to take advantage of many exclusive channels to give their children an edge when it came to highly selective institutions. Thanks to a new push for a holistic process that tries to find ways to recognize disadvantaged groups, many wealthy parents feel these backchannels are slowly closing and are scrambling to keep their advantage. The fact is, admissions to Ivey institutions continue to get more competitive, no matter who you are.

So what are these “backchannels” in the admissions system?  NPR’s recent article breaks down how wealthy and well-connected families can get the edge their child needs. You can read the full article here, but these are some of the highlights:

Donations: This relates back to the Harvard admissions lawsuit. During that trial, internal emails surfaced that show there are many discussions surrounding martriculants  and their links to major donors. So, donating to an institution is one way the wealthy can get the edge. And in the admissions scandal, they skipped the nuance of “donations”, which still require applicants to meet the minimum requirements of the institution,  and went directly to “bribes”.

Legacy: A 2018 survey of admissions leaders, conducted by Inside Higher Ed in conjunction with researchers from Gallup, demonstrated that many private universities, and to a much lesser extent some public ones, take into account if an applicant’s family members have attended the institution. Since wealthy families have a history of dominating highly competitive institutions, this legacy consideration does appear to give the wealthy an advantage.

College consulting and test prep: A recent New York Times article highlights how parents pay thousands, or even up to $1.5 million, to have their students enroll in specialized counseling and prep programs, sometimes as early as 8th grade, that are tailored for Ivey school admissions.

And let’s not forget the educational journey that wealthy students are offered. The “best” schools from primary to high school. Private tutors at every level. A carefully mapped out extracurricular program made to appeal to admissions teams.

Wealthy parents spend millions over the course of a child’s life to direct them towards the right University. The fret over details, build the right connections, and donate money to the right places, all in the hopes of landing that Ivey acceptance.

Rick Singer took advantage of this thought process and simply told these parents what they wanted to hear:

“Listen to me. And I will get your child into college”.

The scandal explained

As explained above, the lead up to the scandal came from two distinct, but connected, starting points:

Firstly, for years wealthy parents have used legal, yet objectionable, routes to essentially buy their way into top-tier colleges (Jared Kushner even had his acceptance to Harvard scrutinized since it came shortly after his father donated $2.5 million to the school). Many wealthy parents felt these “traditional advantages” may have been slipping from their grasp. So, they sought other means.

Secondly, the program created by Rick Singer spoke directly to these parents’ biggest concern: is my child good enough to get into a top-tier school?

The way the scandal played out is complicated, it involved multiple approaches, all of which are broken down here,

In some cases, SAT and ACT administrators were bribed to allow someone other than the student to take the test on their behalf. These “ringers” would then ensure the student had high enough scores to impress admissions teams. This part of the scam was so in-depth, that children sometimes were taught how to fake a learning disability so that they could take the test in a specific center where the administrators could be bribed.

In other cases, school administrators and coaches were bribed in order to have students designated as recruited athletes. At this point, most people are aware of how Lori Loughlin’s daughter was admitted as part of the rowing team, even though she had never rowed before.

Starting in 2011, the scam involved Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, the University of Southern California, the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Texas.

In one case, a student’s family paid singer $6.5 million for admissions in Stanford.

What schools are doing

A break down of how all the schools involved in the scandal are approaching the situation is available here, but for the most part, institutions seem to be addressing the specific parts of the problem that affected them, as opposed to addressing the overall issue itself.

For example, the University of Southern California, probably the most affected schools during the scandal, is using any money associated with the scheme to fund programs for underprivileged students.

They are also implementing a three-level review process for any student-athlete candidate where the head coach, the senior sports administrator overseeing the team, and the USC Office of Athletics Compliance all must sign off on the candidate.

The other schools involved are mostly focused on reviewing their internal process to more fully understand how they can prevent the issue from happening again.

Outside of the schools that are at the epicenter of the scandal, the situation has put renewed focus on those schools that are choosing to make the SAT and ACT optional.  However, it’s important to note that the choice to make these tests optional has little to do with the scandal, and much more to do with how some consider the SAT scores highlight inequality and prevent upward mobility.

Even with the admissions scandal at the forefront of discussion, many feel that there is no reform coming anytime soon. Even with the scandal highlighting the academic advantages wealthy students have, and how susceptible standardized tests are to cheating, a recent survey by Pew Research shows that most Americans still considers academic success to be the main factor for the admissions process.

What governments are doing

Since the scandal largely began in California, it makes sense that their government would be one of the first to respond with legal action.

Currently, they are mostly in the auditing stage to fully understand how the admissions process works, study the possibility of phasing out college admissions tests, and try to implement a registration process for all college counselors in the state.

They also now require that at least three college administrators sign off on special-admissions cases. The hope is that this extra step will prevent people from outright bribing their way into schools.

The California government is also banning preferential treatment for applicants who are related to donors or alumni.

You can read more on the new legal changes here. But, it’s interesting to note that during a press conference, the government officials openly stated how there were many legal options to pay your way into these institutions such as “buy a building”. Suggesting that even though governments are addressing the bribery, they are fully aware that there are many legal options wealthy individuals can use to get an unfair advantage.

What experts say still needs to be done

While we cannot fully summarize the articles here, the two pieces below take an in-depth look at what needs to be done, and where major flaws remain, in the admissions process.

Dr. Harold Reiter: an admissions expert’s take on the scandal – The former Chair of Admissions at McMaster University Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine and co-founder of Acuity Insights, gives his take on the admissions scandal, and where the solution can be found.

There is no way to prevent the next cheating scandal – While conducting research for his next book that will look at the inner workings of admissions, Jeffrey Selingo sat down with admissions committees from three colleges as they choose students for the fall semester. Take a read of the full article for his insights, but the main message resonates strongly: Admissions teams are not detectives and the admissions process is still built on trust. Because of the overwhelming number of applicants, there is less and less time for review. Fraud can be missed in these cases, and many admissions officials feel this needs to be addressed.  

What makes a fair college admissions process– This roundtable discussion, curated by Public Books and JSTOR Daily, sits down with scholars Julie J. Park, Christine R. Yano, and Nadirah Farah Foley to ask a simple question: What would constitute a fair college admissions process? A simple question with three very nuanced and in-depth answers.

Reading this article, as part of our disruption series, you may ask the question: Where’s the disruption?

The disruption in this case is the awareness. These problems have circulated the industry for years, and kept many qualified applicants from attending, or even applying to, the institution of their dreams. It’s not just that these hurdles exist for disadvantaged students. There is also the issue that due to these hurdles many candidates who would thrive in an institution never bother applying at all.

The scandal simply brought these flaws to public attention and created a discussion. And perhaps, from this bigger discussion, we may finally see a substantial change.

Photo by Mikael Kristenson on Unsplash