College Admissions Side Doors

It's time to confront the reality of everyday privilege, write Don Hossler and Jerry Lucido. A failure to act may result in government regulation, they warn.

April 22, 2019

Both print and electronic media have carried numerous stories about schemes that enabled the children of affluent and influential families to be admitted to some of the most elite private and public universities in the United States. To date, these critiques of elite admissions processes fail to grasp the extent that this is a systemic problem that ripples across the admissions processes at many four-year colleges and universities.

There is ample evidence that collectively the college admissions process is at an inflection point. Evidence of the need for change starts with the most recent scandal but goes much further. The additional evidence includes:

At virtually every four-year university that denies admission to some of its applicants there are “side doors” for admission for the children of donors. At less selective public flagship universities and at regional public and private colleges, there are applicants whose parents have made donations, albeit usually smaller amounts, parents who are influential at regional and local levels, parents who are friends with members of the Board of Trustees, and athletes who get admitted through side doors while first-generation and low- and/or moderate-income applicants with similar credentials are denied.

In addition, at many less selective private and public schools, the use of tuition discounting needs to be examined as part of our admissions system. Tuition discounting includes using campus-based financial aid, usually generated by tuition dollars, to recruit students. In such discounting schemes, there is the possibility of yet another inequity; low- and moderate- income students may end up borrowing to pay for scholarships for higher-income students. In a nutshell, this occurs so that colleges can offer merit aid to students who may have no financial need. Universities use this strategy with the hope of climbing the ever-present college ranking schemes.

Certainly, tuition discounts often go to needy students, but it is also possible, in some instances, that some aid goes to students with no need. To the extent that dollars for loans taken out by low- and moderate-income students fund merit aid for students without financial need, this is as least as pernicious as privileged students taking admissions slots at elite schools that might go to low-income students.

Rarely do we look at the array of public and private four-year colleges as a single system. Indeed, Inside Higher Ed recently covered a discussion about the current admissions scandal that took place among enrollment professionals at a national conference. Many in attendance asserted that the recent scandal involved coaches, not admissions professionals; arguments were presented that there is no national system of admissions that needs to be fixed. We profoundly disagree with this conclusion.

Though we do not have a centralized admissions system, the presence of similar side doors is common place. Once this is acknowledged, it becomes possible to see the everyday practice of privilege that advantages students from affluent families, as well as students from upper-middle-class and some middle-class families.

Like elite colleges, less selective and moderately selective colleges often provide advantages to legacy admits, athletes and the children or grandchildren of influential donors, as well as families who are local political or cultural leaders. These examples of invisible everyday privilege do not necessarily take admission slots away from another student -- many of these colleges are happy to have more students. However, these side doors are often not available to low- and moderate-income students.

How to address these inequities is daunting. Admission decisions across the four-year sector are cumulative as a result of several structural barriers.

For most elite four-year institutions, there is an annual feeding frenzy that is propagated as much by parents as students. This provides persuasive evidence of the winner-take-all society we have become. Early decision and early action are easy targets for criticism. Some institutions have more than one early-decision date. Students admitted in early-decision schemes must agree to apply to only one school and to attend if admitted -- and all of this must be done before the student knows if they will receive any institutional financial aid. Most low- and moderate-income students do not know about early decision, and if they did, they could ill afford to commit to enrolling before they had a complete financial aid package.

How to fix these everyday micro-inequities found across our national admissions system is complicated. No state can unilaterally repair this multipart system. Further, a legitimate role for the federal government is unclear, because it lacks a specific mandate through our Constitution.

However, there are some precedents for federal involvement in higher education. The warrants for the federal provision of financial aid rest on these national goals: (1) to promote democracy and (2) to ensure the equality of educational opportunity. This may give the federal government policy levers to address these micro-inequities. Proposals have been made for elite institutions to move to a lottery system for selecting admitted students. Proposals have also been made to eliminate early-decision and early-action admissions.

In 2003, then senator Edward Kennedy proposed legislation to force every college to list the race and income of all legacy admits. Following on Kennedy’s logic, one approach would be to require every four-year institution to report the number of students admitted because of legacy status, family influences, early decision, athletics and so forth. To that list we would add the percentage of funds borrowed by students that went to fund non-need, merit-based scholarships to students having no demonstrated need.

Recently, both the Internal Revenue Service and federal financial aid have been advanced as having the tools to enforce more equitable policies. The IRS could determine that some or all the practices are not consistent with the definition of a charitable organization: "a nonprofit organization whose primary objectives are philanthropy and social well-being (e.g., charitable, educational, religious or other activities serving the public interest or common good)."

Regarding financial aid, as previously noted, none of the micro-inequities we have described promote democracy or ensure the equality of educational opportunity. Could this logic possibly be used to deny an institution’s right to participate in federal financial aid programs? Another approach could be establishing an incentive-based approach, such as a Pell Plus Grant program. Students awarded such funds might be limited in that these grants could only be taken to universities that close all “side doors” or to colleges that openly post information on early decision, donor, loan-funded scholarships for merit aid and so forth.

Government intervention is seldom an attractive option for those in higher education, and we are loath to recommend this. However, what other policy levers might bring about needed changes? Collectively, across a range of institutional selectivity, these systemic acts of everyday privilege become yet another societal barrier that maintains class structures in the United States.

If a tipping point has been reached, and there is a will to act, careful thought is needed to enact appropriate accountability measures. If not, the decentralized admissions system will continue practices that provide everyday privilege, not just for the top 1 percent, but also for the top 10 percent, or perhaps even the top 35 percent of college applicants. We do indeed have an informal national system of college admissions. How should this system work -- will this turn out to be the time to act? We believe the answer is yes. Government levers may or may not prove to be a good solution, but the threat of them may finally move equity to the top of the agenda -- unless intuitions choose to act collectively in order to create a systemically just system.


Don Hossler is senior scholar at the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice at the University of Southern California. Jerome A. Lucido is professor of practice and executive director of the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice at USC.

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