Oct 9, 2019

Students vote ‘no confidence’ in college admissions

More than a simple distraction or a salacious news story featuring lots of celebs, the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal is definitely having an impact on the way students view college admissions. In high schools across the country, they are voting ‘no confidence’ in colleges and the college admissions process.

According to a recent Kaplan survey of over 300 “aspiring” college students polled over email, 57% say they are concerned they won’t be treated fairly in the admissions process. Specifically, they believe their spots at top colleges might be given to less qualified applicants because of personal connections to the institution.

In fact, nearly a quarter of these students claims they know someone they think is less qualified than they are, but who received “preferential treatment” in admissions because of family wealth or connections.

For those who have somehow been shielded from the daily tabloid-style updates on who is going to which jail, the Varsity Blues scandal involved a handful of very wealthy families with enough disposable income to cheat their way into elite colleges by manipulating applications, fixing text scores and otherwise using influence to ensure admission for their children.

And the story clearly hit a nerve, as what students applying to highly-selective schools thought they knew turned into fact—some families of privilege exercise that privilege to obtain positive admissions outcomes. 

One student who planned to apply to only “top” colleges explained in his survey response, “I know numerous people that have connections to my top school, whereas I do not. I am especially concerned because I have a greater SAT score than them [sic], but they will have an upper hand and be admitted.”

Another student was more circumspect and remarked, “In light of the admission scandals, colleges will be more attentive and aware of these types of schemes. Also, considering a number of the parents who were caught and punished, I don’t believe that this will be a large problem in the future.”
The second student may be right.

In a separate Kaplan survey of 322 top colleges and universities (as defined by USNWR), admissions reps suggest that the corrupt practices exposed in the scandal are relatively rare. Less than a quarter (24%) describes the activities as common. 

And only 11% say they were ever pressured to accept an applicant who didn’t meet admissions requirements because of who that applicant was or to whom they were connected—a significant drop from the 25% who suggested they were pressured to do so in a Kaplan survey just five years ago.

Nevertheless, colleges are worried about perceptions—their image among students making the decision whether or not to apply. Of the group surveyed, 49% think the scandal may have done long-term harm to the public image of the college admission process, while 37% don’t think it has and 14% aren’t sure.

When asked how colleges can convince families that the admissions process is not “rigged” against them, admissions officers were “largely unable to provide any specific policy prescriptions, but the theme of transparency was mentioned often.”

While the call for transparency seems like a logical, albeit a little disingenuous, response to the scandal, not everyone is so sure how it can be achieved.

And so it wasn’t surprising that the issue of how to achieve greater transparency in admissions lurked just below the surface of many discussions taking place during the 2019 NACAC Conference, in Louisville. 

At a session dedicated to the Varsity Blues scandal moderated by Jeffrey Selingo, a DC-based journalist currently with The Atlantic, panelists wrestled with the idea of transparency—whether transparency was possible or even a good idea—when at the end of the day college admissions “is actually not a fair system” (Sacha Thieme, Indiana University).

Tongue in cheek, Jim Jump, of St. Christopher’s School in Virginia, added, “I’m not sure we want people to know how the sausage is made.”

Although several panelists suggested that the complexity of admissions works against complete transparency, they agreed that colleges can and should do more to help the public understand how applicants are selected, especially in context of competing institutional goals and the very real financial pressures institutions face. 

And the question was raised as to how to be transparent in a constantly evolving process, when even enrollment managers can’t predict what their processes will look like over time. Several panelists pointed out that applicant pools and other factors change each year rendering these processes anything but static.

“Mystery creates mistrust, and in the absence of a narrative, the public creates their own,” said Angel B. Pérez, vice president for enrollment and student success at Trinity College, in Connecticut.
And as a result, the public has created a narrative of a system rigged against the average college applicant. 

Summing up the recent survey findings, Sam Prichard, Kaplan’s director of college prep programs, concludes, “Applicants deserve better.”

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