Jun 19, 2009

Tempest in a Teapot?

The University of Illinois admissions scandal continues to draw considerable national attention as the Chicago Tribune recently filed suit against university officials who refused to turn over high school grade point averages and standardized test scores to investigators looking into abnormalities in a handful of admissions decisions. Last month the Tribune broke a story uncovering the existence of a list of applicants who most likely received special consideration by the University as candidates for various undergraduate and graduate programs. These students allegedly asked for and got preferential treatment in the admissions process despite gloomy grades and substandard test scores. The scandal took a new turn as university officials refused to provide additional information requested by the paper under the Freedom of Information Act. Citing FERPA (which protects student privacy against release of personal information), the university stood its ground in the face of mounting pressure from the legislature, parents, and students. Presumably, the Tribune wants the data to reinforce allegations of wrong doing among admissions officers and further embarrass the University which is beginning to look pretty bad. For what it's worth, the paper claims that only students and not applicants are covered under FERPA. Interesting distinction.

Over the past month, this story has generated a whole lot of ink and furious discussion in the blogosphere. There's indignity at the unfairness of giving preference to VIP's (of sorts) and/or their children in the admissions process. I, for one, can't get too worked up about any of it. My children have variously gone to school with a president's daughter, the son of a famous talk show host, the daughter of an academy award winning director, several governors' children, superman's daughter, the voice of "Tick Tock," as well as any number of children of the rich and famous. Heck, I went to college with Charlie McCarthy's sister who eventually grew up to be Shirley Schmidt, of Boston Legal's Crane, Pool & Schmidt. My husband had a former president's grandson in his class who was dating the daughter of a sitting president. She attended a nearby women's college. Some of these VIP's got in on their smarts; others didn't. So what's new? With the exception of those needing secret service protection, they were fairly anonymous. They may or may not have asked for special consideration, but you can be pretty sure they received it. But wait, the VIP's at the University of Illinois appear to be lesser lights--the sons and daughters of friends, neighbors, and relatives of legislators. One was even related to...a housekeeper.

In 5 years, 800 applications for the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus were set aside for special consideration as "Category 1" applicants. Not all of these VIP's won admission. In fact, about 77% were accepted as opposed to the running 69% acceptance rate enjoyed by ordinary applicants. At a school that annually enrolls almost 30,400 degree-seeking undergraduates plus another nearly 11,000 graduate students, the numbers are hardly compelling. In his own defense, the Chancellor at the center of the controversy plaintively asked what he was supposed to do if President Obama happened to call on behalf of a nephew? Was that OK? Or is there some kind of distinction between VIP's? Also, please note that athletes, large donors, and others with "clout" haven't been brought into the picture. They represent a whole other category of special consideration.

Lots of the smoke generated around this issue is probably coming from people who feel they or their children were unfairly treated at some time in some college admissions process. Truthfully, college admissions really isn't all that precise or fair at any school I know of. Also, I can't think of any school which doesn't give some kind of preference whether to amazing quarterbacks, daughters of politicians, or friends of politicians for that matter. The only mistake Illinois seems to have made is writing the list down on a piece of paper and keeping it where it could be found.

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