College Found to Discriminate on Mental Health

Applicants at New College of Florida who wrote about their mental health issues were subject to a second read -- even if they met the standards.

August 27, 2019
 

An investigation by the inspector general of Florida's university system has found that the admissions policies of New College of Florida probably discriminated against applicants with mental health issues.

Colleges may not ask if students have a mental health issue, but it is common for students to write about them -- including on their college applications. Under federal and state antibias laws, mental illness may not be ground for discrimination.

In the case of New College, the dean of enrollment management (replaced last week) had admissions readers flag those applicants who wrote about mental health issues for a special review, the inspector general found. Some of them were rejected -- even if they met the requirements for admission.

President Donal O'Shea, in a posted video, said, "I'm deeply embarrassed" by the findings and pledged "to set a new standard" for inclusiveness.

Whatever O'Shea's feelings about the admissions process now, they were not his feelings when students -- Maria Simmerling, Eugenia Quintanilla and Dwight Mann -- complained about the system. In fact, New College conducted its own investigation of admissions last year and concluded that nothing was wrong. (He's praising the students now.)

New College is a public institution in Florida, and it stands out for having the size and approach of a liberal arts college in a state where public universities tend to be large with many graduate and professional programs. The college has a strong academic reputation.

The students have posted a copy of their complaint online. They describe working in admissions out of their love for the college, but also their dismay on discovering in 2017 that there was a new policy to place red flags on the applications of people with disabilities for the purpose of "weeding out" such applicants.

They write that they tried to discuss the issue in the admissions office and filed a formal complaint with the college only when they were shut down.

What the Investigation Found

The inspector general's report started with some basics. New College uses the Common Application and divides candidates into five categories: deny, hold, misconduct, committee and admit. The candidates are placed in the categories based on numerical scores on the Common Application given by New College.

"All of the readers for the 2018 admissions cycle provided testimony indicating that Dr. [Joy] Hamm expressed to admissions staff, during meetings held in preparation for that admissions cycle, that she wanted them to 'red-flag' admissions applications if the applicant disclosed certain information in their application file," said the report of the inspector general. "Some witnesses stated Dr. Hamm wanted them to 'red-flag' applications for any mention of mental or physical disability, or mental illness; while others noted that references to a history of abuse, violence perpetrated against or by the applicant, or anything that might lead the reader to believe the applicant is difficult or has problems with respecting others could also be 'red-flagged.'"

Hamm was dean of enrollment management until Friday. She was not reachable to discuss the report's findings, but she provided a very different explanation to the inspector general.

"Dr. Hamm emphatically denied providing the alleged instructions," the report said. "She indicated she came into a broken system wrought with student conduct issues, wasteful or inefficient admissions recruitment practices, unclear admissions decision processes, and unprofessional behavior and policy violations by various admissions staff. She indicated she had to make changes quickly, in terms of stricter policies and oversight, physical reorganization of staff, and increased accountability, which were not well accepted by staff and earned her 'fast hatred.'"

In one year reviewed, 22 applications with a score judged worthy of admission were instead screened because they had included mention of a mental illness. Thirteen were admitted; nine were denied admission.

"Despite Dr. Hamm’s denial, witness testimony indicated the admissions staff, particularly the readers, received instructions and/or guidance from Dr. Hamm to 'red-flag' application files that contained disclosures related to a mental health issue or a disability so that the Admissions Review Committee could review the files and make an admissions decision," the inspector general said.

Included in the report is a letter from O'Shea.

"The draft report has been a significant catalyst for institutional self-reflection and change," O'Shea said. "New College has already taken action to change the leadership of the enrollment management department. Further, college officials are implementing a comprehensive review of the admissions process to ensure that all applicants, including those who disclose a disability or mental illness, are treated fairly and equitably in accordance with transparent admissions criteria."

Guidance for College and Students

The U.S. Education Department, during the Obama administration, published guidance for students and colleges on transitions to postsecondary education for students with disabilities.

The guidance says that disability status cannot be the reason for rejection. "If you meet the essential requirements for admission, a postsecondary school may not deny your admission simply because you have a disability," says the guidance. It goes on to say that there is no obligation by an applicant to inform a college of a disability unless it is part of a request for an academic adjustment related to the disability.

The ethics code of the National Association for College Admission Counseling states, "We believe our members have a responsibility to treat one another and students in a fundamentally fair and equitable manner. Our institutional and individual members strive to eliminate from the education system bias based on race, ethnicity, creed, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, age, political affiliation, national origin or disability. We view this as fundamental to our responsibility as educators."

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