admissions

New Turning the Tide report calls for better parent and high school behavior in college admissions process

Harvard scholars release a new "Turning the Tide" report on admissions at the height of a scandal over alleged misbehavior by those who should know better.

A look at how indictments shook college admissions

New details on scandal emerge. Coaches lose jobs. Universities hint that some admitted applicants may lose their places. And a few colleges sense a recruiting opportunity.

Five arrested for scheme to have people take TOEFL for others

Those arrested were charged with posing as others to take the test and earn scores to be admitted to colleges.

Cornell and Harvard English departments drop GRE as requirement

Move goes against the norm for top-ranked doctoral programs.

Colleges should let internal auditors loose on admissions offices in wake of scandal (opinion)

The most amazing thing about last week’s admissions bribery fiasco isn’t that shortsighted rich parents will do anything to get their child “into a school other than ASU” (America’s most innovative research university) or that Yale’s women’s soccer coach managed to win the Ivy League championship and make the NCAA tournament for the first time while reserving an admissions spot for a (highly remunerative) nonplayer, but rather that it took so long for “side doors” to elite universities to become a national story.

Twenty-five years ago, Yale’s new tabloid newspaper, amid crack reporting like “22-inch Curly Fry Found in Calhoun Dining Hall,” somehow produced a thoroughly sourced investigative report on the admission of an applicant who was rejected in the spring but subsequently admitted in the summer as a result of connections and direct intervention in the admissions process by Yale president Benno Schmidt.

Actress Felicity Huffman (Desperate Housewives) is the most famous of the 33 parents charged with felony conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. In a letter defending his friend, playwright David Mamet, a man who knows a thing or two about the profane, damned the entire college admissions process, stating, “I worked for very many years in and around our Elite Universities. I am able to report that their admissions policies are an unfortunate and corrupt joke.”

My reaction was less profane than technical: Where are the auditors?

To maintain and enhance trust, institutions and companies rely on auditors to confirm to the public that what they say is true. External auditors play an essential role in verifying financial statements. Lesser known but equally important are internal auditors, which serve institutions by evaluating internal controls to ensure financial information is correct, and that all parts of the organization are complying with policies and procedures, as well as all laws and regulations. To ensure independence, internal audit generally reports directly to the audit committee of the board. If internal audit is unable to validate controls over any of hundreds of processes across dozens of areas of material risk to the institution, the board is alerted.

Presumably, admissions would be an area of great interest to boards, audit committees and internal auditors. In response to this week’s scandal, the executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers suggested that members “review all of their admissions processes … to ensure they are transparent, fair and abide by the long-standing ethical expectations of our profession.”

But a review is to an internal audit as Desperate Housewives is to Glengarry Glen Ross. And in a telephone interview, Terah Brown, executive director of the Association of College and University Auditors, representing the internal audit function at 500 colleges and universities, was not aware of any university report or statement indicating that thorough audits of the admissions function are typical or have ever occurred. According to Brown, “the board sets the path for audit review.”

A process allowing coaches to reserve slots for bribes is exactly the kind of material weakness that would be caught by an internal audit and that would need to be remedied by implementing a new control. Likewise, because of the importance of standardized test scores to admissions, appropriately focused auditors might insist on reports from College Board and ACT demonstrating their controls, which -- according to reports this week -- either failed or didn’t exist in the first place.

Why would boards of trustees fail to focus internal audit on admissions? I suspect it’s less naïveté than hypocrisy, because closing the side door would probably mean closing the back door. And a lot of money has been pouring through the back door.

The back door explains how Jared Kushner was admitted to Harvard. With no family connections to the university, Jared’s father, real estate developer Charles Kushner, pledged $2.5 million to Harvard in 1998. Shortly thereafter, Jared was admitted despite the fact that, according to a former official at his high school, “there was no way anybody in the administrative office of the school thought he would on the merits get into Harvard.”

The back door is more expensive than the side door, which explains why social impact investor Bill McGlashan of TPG’s the Rise Fund allegedly opted for a $50,000 bribe in order to falsify his son’s ACT test results -- a new and unpalatable flavor of “impact investing.” Regardless, there’s no way the back door would stand up to a proper internal audit because there’s no way any elite college or university has clear policies or procedures on it. How big does a donation have to be in order to guarantee admission, or even to move an applicant from one pile to another? The back door is the product of discreet conversations and back-room deals between the advancement function and admissions office. And because there are no controls, by definition the back door to elite colleges and universities is out of control.

***

Twenty-five years ago, Yale didn’t respond to the tabloid’s report on the side door -- the story elicited no reaction from the university. And true to form, Yale didn’t really respond to this week’s revelations. In an email to alumni, Yale claimed it had “been the victim of a crime perpetrated by a former coach who no longer works at the university.” Yale’s response overlooks that the soccer coach left suddenly in November -- coincident with disclosure to the university of the FBI’s Operation Varsity Blues -- and, more important, fails to acknowledge any institutional responsibility or systemic failure.

Trustees have no choice but to let internal audit into the admissions office. This will allow colleges and universities to close any side doors, and will provide two options with regard to back doors. The first is to establish clear policies and procedures. Admissions should be able to report to the board that children of $10,000 donors are admitted at a 10 percent rate, children of $100,000 donors are admitted at a 20 percent rate, while 50 percent of children of $1 million donors are admitted. Meanwhile, internal audit should be in a position to verify these reports and confirm adequate controls.

But because such reports are likely to make trustees squeamish, the second and more likely outcome is to close the back door. And while potentially painful to the current capital campaign, it’s probably worth it. Any universities that believe that public trust in their institutions is less valuable than the present discounted value of annual quid pro quo donations are more shortsighted than the dumb parents who are bribing them.

What’s clear is that the status quo is no longer an option. Between Republicans seeking to tax the endowments of elite universities and limit financial aid and research funding unless conservative speech is protected, and Democrats on the verge of a war on privilege, we’re in a new era. As David Friedman, professor at Willamette Law School, noted, Congress didn’t like it when game shows were rigged.

If colleges don’t clean up their own act, it will be done for them. This could come via the admissions lottery proposed by New America (students who meet minimum admissions criteria could be entered, all other factors such as donations would be irrelevant), or it could be aggrieved Gen Z applicants shunning universities that aren’t aggressively seeking to “redistribute … away from the affluent.”

Ryan Craig is author of College Disrupted (2015) and A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College (2018). He is a managing director at University Ventures.

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Elite colleges need to be less elitist (opinion)

The federal investigation exposing illegal scams to gain admission to elite colleges is troubling on many levels. For one, it is a reminder that many families regard colleges as luxury brands to be purchased for validation and to advance their personal brand rather than place for transformative intellectual and personal development. Students and their families in search of the substantive values of education and not just status can avoid the competitive admissions frenzy by casting a wider net to consider nonelite colleges. In doing so, they will find gems in their backyards.

Unfortunately, even experts who want to improve access to quality higher education sometimes unintentionally reinforce the myth that only a certain subset of elite colleges offer students a quality education and a promising future. In a recent address, Catharine Bond Hill, president of Ithaka S+R and former president of Vassar College, proposed that elite private colleges should accept more students. In her estimation, increasing access to these colleges would better serve the public good by letting “more students benefit from the resources of the wealthiest colleges -- not just their endowments and their physical assets, but their academic programs and alumni networks.” Increased access, according to this line of thinking, shifts the focus from the good of individual institutions to the good of society, a value central to liberal arts education.

Hill acknowledges that increasing the size of the student body may diminish the prestige of these institutions by diminishing “the amount of endowment per student.” It may also affect their “ability to compete with other institutions on quality.” It follows that more students on campus would affect campus climate and culture.

Hill appropriately recognizes the responsibility of higher education to contribute to public good in conjunction with our interest in maximizing the well-being of our institutions. Her solution, however, may perpetuate the problem she is trying to fix. Bringing more students interested in liberal arts institutions to a select few colleges diminishes the pool of students available to nonelite private liberal arts colleges. Some of these institutions perform extremely well with a fraction of the resources of elite colleges. A small dip in their enrollment could be devastating to the colleges and their local communities.

The call for elite colleges to accept more students implies that these colleges are the only ones capable of providing an excellent liberal arts education. Those of us who work at nonelite private colleges and universities know otherwise. In fact, nonelite private liberal arts colleges often have a bigger impact. Most students at elite colleges are highly credentialed, driven and bright. Those accepted on merit would likely succeed regardless of the school they attend. Students at nonelite colleges often have the same potential for development, but they may lack the experiences of students at elite colleges.

Transylvania University, my institution, is a good example of a highly effective nonelite college. Ninety-eight percent of our graduates who apply are accepted to medical school and law school. Those schools include Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Vanderbilt, Johns Hopkins, Columbia, Brown and Duke Universities. The student loan default rate among our graduates is 2 percent. Like our elite colleagues, we provide personalized education with a 10.5-to-one student-faculty ratio. Yet our tuition and fees amount to approximately $20,000 less than the elite privates. While the average endowment at the top 10 liberal arts colleges is $1.36 billion, ours is approximately $170 million. Between 2007 and 2017 the average endowment per student among the top 10 liberal arts colleges increased from $654,414 to $810,433. We could operate four of our colleges off the interest of a Williams or Amherst College endowment. Over the past 10 years, the top 25 liberal arts colleges have increased their net revenue by approximately 30 percent. Most of this increase is attributable to the interest on their endowments. Over the same time period, with a fraction of their endowment, we also have seen a 30 percent increase in net revenue. Hence, the assumption that students can only get an elite education at an elite school or that elite colleges are managed more effectively is misguided.

While Hill is prepared to sacrifice educational quality at elite colleges for the sake of the public good, she seems to dismiss nonelite colleges, which are often pillars of their communities. We have been in Lexington, Ky., for 240 years. Our surrounding neighborhood is among the poorest in the nation. Our employees use their wages to support their families and generate economic activity in the community. Our students integrate learning into tens of thousands of volunteer hours at organizations that serve those in our community who are struggling, such as the homeless and abused women. We hold college-prep programs for underresourced high school students and host the YMCA Black Achievers program on campus. We distribute fresh food to residents who live in a nearby food desert and provide tutoring to elementary school children.

In the interest of the public good, we should want more high-performing liberal arts colleges, not fewer. The reallocation we need is not more students at fewer colleges, but more support for highly functioning nonelite colleges. It has been demonstrated that there is no correlation between the prestige of a university and what a student learns, their happiness at college or how satisfied they are with their life after graduation. Therefore, higher education needs to stop promoting elitism in a world where wealthy parents are accused of breaking the law to get their children into elite colleges.

We are fortunate. We have a generous donor base, and our leading donors happen to be graduates of elite colleges. They choose to support us because they recognize the importance of what we do for our students and for our community. They understand that their gifts to us have a much bigger impact than yet another donation to the bloated endowments of their alma maters. Instead of flooding elite colleges with more students and diminishing the pool of students who can attend excellent nonelite colleges, we should educate the public about the substantive goods of higher education. This would lay the groundwork to expand upon the insight of our lead donors to create partnerships among elite colleges and qualified nonelite colleges to ensure the flourishing of both. In this way, all of the highly functioning colleges continue to educate students effectively while serving the broader public good.

As a graduate of Hill’s former school, I know that my fellow alumni are passionate about our alma mater. We are also passionate about contributing to the public good. By harnessing this passion, we can build support for liberal arts education beyond our individual institutions, many of which have more resources than they can use well. Like our lead donors, we should encourage support for highly functioning, geographically diverse liberal arts colleges that fulfill the same mission as elite colleges. The alternative is to see excellent nonelite colleges threatened with extinction -- and the communities they serve threatened with blight.

Seamus Carey is the president of Transylvania University.

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U Southern California will bar applicants affiliated with company under scrutiny

U of Southern California also says it will review current students with ties.

Massachusetts Won't Pursue Case Against Mount Ida

Massachusetts attorney general Maura Healey said Wednesday investigators have found that Mount Ida College officials had “ample notice” of the college’s precarious financial condition -- and that they failed to develop backup plans for students even as they reasonably knew the college might close.

But Healey’s office said it won’t take legal action against the college or its Board of Trustees. Pursuing litigation “would not be in the public interest,” wrote Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Green and Arwen Thoman, who directs the office's Student Loan Assistance Unit.

In a detailed, 21-page letter to Carlos Santiago, the state’s higher education commissioner, they said an investigation found that Mount Ida’s board and senior leadership, including President Barry Brown, failed to alert the campus of the college’s financial troubles.

But, they concluded, “With Mount Ida now closed and with negligible assets remaining, drawn-out litigation likely would be of limited utility. In addition, with the immediate and problematic financial state of many higher education institutions in the commonwealth, the more important public interest is in the disclosure of these findings -- and related recommendations -- about the harmful and calamitous closure of Mount Ida, with the hope and expectation that the regulators and other higher education institutions will implement safeguards to prevent any similar occurrence.”

Mount Ida last April said it would shut down, with its campus becoming part of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The college had been struggling financially and had been pursuing merger talks with Lasell College.

Healey’s office said its investigation raised “serious questions” about Mount Ida officials’ conduct and communications. “At a minimum, their decision making fell short of what is expected of a charitable board in meeting its obligations to an educational mission,” Green and Thoman wrote.

Investigators also said the college may have violated the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Act by failing to develop a closing plan and transfer opportunities for students -- that would violate state regulations designed to prevent students from being “educationally stranded.”

In a statement, Brown said Wednesday’s decision “speaks volumes,” adding that Mount Ida’s board and officers “complied with the law at all times and did all they could to save the college and help its students.” But in separate statements both he and the board said the letter contains several inaccuracies about the closure.

“The college’s leadership undertook extraordinary efforts to support its students and employees during exceptionally difficult circumstances,” the board said in its statement.

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Wheeling Jesuit Declares Financial Exigency

West Virginia’s Wheeling Jesuit University, which sold its campus in 2017 to help pay down millions in debt, has declared financial exigency, Michael Mihalyo, the university’s president, said Monday.

In a letter to campus, Mihalyo wrote that “continued financial challenges” required the move. The university, he said, doesn’t have the resources “to bridge the gap between highly discounted enrollment, associated academic and athletic programming costs, and the revenue needed to support the institution’s operational expenses.”

Traditionally defined as an “imminent financial crisis which threatens the survival of the institution as a whole,” financial exigency has been used in the past to terminate long-standing, often tenured faculty.

The American Association of University Professors has said institutions should lay off such professors “only as a last resort, after every effort has been made to meet the need in other ways and to find for the teacher other employment in the institution.”

Mihalyo said the Board of Trustees approved the move in a special session held Friday. Board members and others at the university will work with state and government officials, as well as regional leaders and Wheeling’s accreditor, “to determine the best path forward,” he said.

Wheeling in 2017 offered early retirement to about one-tenth of its 400 employees in a bid to balance an estimated $30 million annual budget.

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