Before Varsity Blues

Lessons the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign learned from its own admissions scandal a decade ago are still relevant today, write Kevin Pitts and Andy Borst.

April 15, 2019
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, we know what it’s like when people lose trust in the admissions process. A decade ago, an investigation here found that high-level administrators were providing special treatment for relatives of legislators, trustees and other influential individuals. The integrity of our processes was undermined. It brought down our most senior leaders, including the majority of our Board of Trustees.

But it also led us to rethink and redesign our process to offer every applicant a fairer, more equitable chance to earn a spot at Illinois.

Recently, news stories about the FBI’s Varsity Blues investigation that tarnished several highly competitive universities raised many questions. Families of potential applicants are asking if the college admissions process can ever be trusted again. Senior administrators, faculty members and staff at other colleges and universities are asking if they can take steps to reassure their own constituents that everyone will have a fair chance.

Our hard-earned experience and the steps we took in the aftermath let us say that the answer to both questions is an absolute and resounding yes. We’ve had to face those questions, and the lessons we learned might be helpful to other institutions.

An Impassable Line

We knew that restoring trust meant blocking any outside interference into our admissions decisions. That was the foundation of what we call our “admissions firewall.” Admissions officers and those performing application reviews are inside the firewall. All others -- including presidents, provosts, donors and lawmakers -- are firmly outside it. This is a bright and impassable line. Any attempts to cross that line are logged and reviewed by the university’s ethics office. The log itself is public record.

For example, a donor emails a high-level administrator about their child’s application. The administrator then forwards the email to an admissions officer inside the firewall. The admissions officer can’t know if the administrator was intending to influence the decision or simply demonstrating good customer service by following up on the donor’s request. Such an interaction would be logged as a potential breach of the admissions firewall. By prohibiting that exchange between the administrator and the admissions officer, the firewall framework enables the admissions officer to use the academic parameters determined by the faculty without regard to either well-intentioned inquiries or potentially scandalous interventions to change an admissions decision.

This process protects applicants in a way that does not limit their own access to information. Applicants and their parents still may contact our admissions office to ask questions about the application process and about their own application, and our staff can give them open and accurate answers.

This system does not limit contact with prospective students or inhibit the recruiting of great applicants. It is designed with the sole purpose of protecting the integrity of the application-review process. Advisers, faculty members and administrators outside the firewall are free to contact prospective students, answer questions about the process and talk to everyone about academic programs.

Cross-Checks and Transparency

Our system also includes numerous redundancies and cross-checks. For example, multiple people in both athletics and admissions must verify a student athlete. Students in fine arts disciplines that require an audition are evaluated by multiple faculty members. Applicants from a single high school are cross-checked to ensure that there are no “outliers.” And no admissions decision at Illinois is ever made by a single individual.

After each decision release date, our admissions staff answer questions from denied or wait-listed students. We go deeper than “the pool was really competitive this year.” Instead, we share with them the specific areas in which their application wasn’t as competitive as those who were admitted. This involves many telephone conversations with students who were denied admission, but we feel it is an important part of the process, and we staff the phones accordingly. The transparency of our process helps to ensure the integrity of our decisions and helps families understand with greater clarity all of the factors that are considered in a holistic application review. The response from students and families denied admission ranges from outrage to understanding. Most frequently, however, their reactions reflect a desire to understand how and why the decision was made.

We do not consider legacy or donor status, financial need, demonstrated interest, social media presence, counselor/teacher recommendations, or third-party advocate statements. We are a public land-grant university that was founded on the promise of putting a college education within reach of anyone who was willing to earn it. It doesn’t matter what an applicant’s parents do for a living or the size of their bank account. Favoring children, grandchildren or even the great-grandchildren of alumni, donors or people who are politically connected breaks that promise.

A decade ago, we lost the trust of those we serve. But then we did the right things to start earning it back. We learned and we changed. We established a system that ensures a fair, equitable and independent application and review process.

But the most important thing this process gave us was the ability to honestly and confidently make this simple statement to every person who is considering Illinois for college: “If you choose to apply here, you can be sure that your admissions decision will be made on the merits of your work and your achievement in the high school you attended.”

As a state institution with a land-grant mission, our admissions process is geared toward fairness and opportunity. We understand that students from different backgrounds often have very different opportunities. Our primary goal is to evaluate students based on the degree to which they maximized the opportunities available to them. With this mind-set, a student who attended a high school with no advanced placement courses is not placed at a competitive disadvantage to a student who attended a high school with many AP courses. Our holistic application review process identifies students with tremendous potential -- and this is confirmed by our high retention and graduation rates -- while accounting for differences in opportunity.

That’s how we rebuilt trust. And it is a method any institution can duplicate.


Kevin Pitts is vice provost for undergraduate education, and Andy Borst is director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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