Ethical College Admissions: Trust and Verify

Operation Varsity Blues raises questions about why college admissions officers don't review every application, writes Jim Jump.

August 19, 2019
 
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"Can I just make something up?" A number of years ago one of my students asked that question about his college essay. He had what he thought was a great essay topic about how he had saved someone's life. The only problem was that the incident hadn't actually happened.

I responding by suggesting that he call the dean of admissions at his first-choice college and ask him the same question. His reluctance to do so showed that he already knew the answer. I hammered home the point that misrepresenting himself was wrong and an honor offense, and that colleges are interested in authenticity rather than heroism. I told him that any college admissions officer would detect instantly that the story was not genuine.

I'm not as confident of that last assertion today. Most students applying to college would be appalled to learn how little time is spent reading their applications compared with how much time they spend preparing them. The demands of reading more applications without significantly adding reading staff means that something has to give, and that something is the depth to which an admission officer can carefully read and evaluate an individual application.

Recognizing that reality has made many college counselors change to bullet-point college recommendations for fear that admission officers don't have time to do more than skim an old-fashioned recommendation letter. I have heard the arguments for committee-based evaluation, where readers work in teams, but I am unconvinced that it makes for a more thorough or better reading process.

Exhibit #2 is the Operation Varsity Blues scandal. As we enter a new admissions cycle one, of the challenges for our profession is mitigating the damage done by that criminal conspiracy and trying to restore public confidence in the college admissions process.

I have several times made the point that no college admission professionals have been implicated in the wrong-doing and that Operation Varsity Blues therefore shouldn't be referred to as an "admissions scandal." That's a good thing. But it's also the case that no admission officers were involved in exposing the fraud. A couple of school-college counselors performed heroic service for the profession and for society, calling colleges upon noticing that their students were being admitted as recruited athletes in sports they had never played, but would the fraud have been discovered by admission officers without the calls?

Is that even a reasonable expectation? Should admission officers be expected to be able to discern what is true and what is fiction, or at least embellishment?

A recent Wall Street Journal article concluded that Operation Varsity Blues isn't likely to change admission practices. While a number of institutions have conducted investigations into their procedures for admitting athletic recruits as a result of the scandal, the selective colleges contacted by the WSJ indicated that there will be few changes to the evaluation of applications. By and large, colleges will trust that the information provided by applicants is accurate. A spokesperson for Dartmouth College stated, "It is not our policy to suspect every student of falsifying records," while a spokesperson for Brown University added, "You have to trust people at some point."

Those responses are both realistic and unsatisfying. There is no way that admission offices have the time or the ability to fact-check every part of every student's application. At the same time, arguing in the wake of Operation Varsity Blues that the admissions process must be an honor system will not reassure a public that wants to believe that the college admissions process is fundamentally fair and can't understand how kids from wealthy families can receive scarce admissions slots to elite colleges as water polo recruits when they've never played water polo.

"Trust, but verify" is a line often credited to President Reagan regarding nuclear disarmament, but is actually an old Russian proverb most recently cited in an episode of HBO's Chernobyl miniseries. "Trust, but verify" implies a balancing act between an optimistic view that others have principles and will try to do the right thing and a realistic determination not to be so naïve as to be taken advantage of.

How can colleges be trusting without being naïve? The keys are making sure that a student's application has integrity and that decisions are made on information that hasn't necessarily been verified, but is verifiable.

In talking about the integrity of an application, we are not making a judgment about the student's personal integrity, but rather whether the application tells a story that is consistent and supported by the student's experiences and choices. We would expect a nursing applicant to have had academic training and extracurricular choices that support a desire to help others. A student who highlights their love of community service but has only one or two short-term service opportunities is probably not as committed as he or she wants to claim.

The distinction between information that is verified and verifiable is more subtle, but more important. There are more colleges that extend trust to applicants by allowing them to self-report grades and test scores rather than requiring an official transcript and score reports when they apply. But grades and scores are verifiable by having students submit final transcripts and test scores once the student enrolls. Multiple admission officers from institutions with self-reporting have told me that in any given year they might encounter a handful of discrepancies between what the student reports and what a transcript shows, and that most of those are inadvertent rather than an attempt to deceive.

What is harder to verify is the information that comes through the "voice" part of the application. Is the student really the founder of a club or service organization and is the commitment genuine and deep or a way to pad one's college resume? Is the student truly an "independent child-care provider" or the client of an independent consultant trying to make babysitting look more impressive? Can admission officers tell the difference between genuine accomplishment and embellishment? I applaud colleges that have reduced the number of spaces for activities on their application, because most students feel the need to fill every line, and I hope that colleges aren't rewarding students and adults who are more adept at packaging.

Then there is ethnicity. The attention given to affirmative action in college admission has convinced the public that ethnicity is a huge "plus-factor" in admission. Certainly ethnicity is one of the many forms of diversity essential for building an educational community. The Wall Street Journal article reported that college admission offices tend not to verify the ethnicity an applicant lists on the application. I think that's appropriate, but colleges need to be able to distinguish between students whose cultural heritage is an important part of their identity and those who happen to have ethnicity somewhere in the family background.

Last year's Operation Varsity Blues scandal means that college admissions can't return to business as usual. We need to ensure that the admissions process is fair and equitable, that we don't allow those with money to cut in line and that we don't reward those who make things up or embellish their credentials. We shouldn't abandon a process based on trust, but we also need to make decisions based on information that is verifiable.

 

Bio

Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Virginia. He has been at St. Christopher's since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women's basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

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