Seeking a Post-Scandal Path Forward

At gathering of admissions leaders, many worry about backlash from lawmakers and pundits. While some note that those arrested aren't typical, one audience member says she and her employees have turned down bribes. No one seemed surprised.

April 8, 2019
 

LOS ANGELES -- At one point here during a discussion of the admissions scandal, all the lights went out. The audience and speakers were left in a pitch-black conference room. The sound system was still working. But perhaps in a sign of the urgency attendees feel about the issue, the panelists continued through the (brief) outage. People had much to say and didn't want to miss the opportunity.

The session was at the annual meeting of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, the program for which was set long before the scandal broke. But AACRAO added the session in light of the intensity of the scandal.

Tammy Aagard, associate vice president for enrollment management at the University of Florida and an AACRAO board member, noted that the scandal has hit Saturday Night Live. She shared that her Uber driver asked about it.

But if everyone here seemed to agree that the scandal poses a major challenge to admissions leaders, there was not much agreement (beyond bribery being wrong) about what to do about it. Many -- in the session and in private discussions -- said that those at the center of the scandal are parents and coaches, not admissions officers. They noted how the admissions process in American higher education helps many students move into college without controversy. They worried that quick fixes and legislative proposals might do more harm than good.

Others, however, said the scandal has drawn attention to the numerous (legal) advantages of the wealthy in college admissions. And many suggested that the U.S. Department of Justice indictments haven't caught all of those who would bend the rules. During the question period, a private counselor said parents have attempted to bribe her to assure success for their students, and that her colleagues have experienced the same. No one gasped.

David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said it was important to push back against some of the narratives being shared about the scandal.

Take as an example the phrase "the admissions system is rigged," he said.

First of all, he said there is no one system of admissions in higher education. Admissions processes vary widely -- by institution, state, sector and other factors. There isn't an "admissions system," he said.

Further, he said this amalgamation of systems is in fact doing a lot of things well. The admissions "ecosystem," he said, helps more than two million people a year move from secondary to postsecondary education. "We do facilitate a lot of transitions that go off without a hitch," he said.

At the same time, he said it was important to recognize the strong anger the scandal has tapped into. Much as people like himself can point to numbers to put the scandal in perspective, "this is not about figures and numbers," he said.

What it has done is focus attention on numerous practices -- many of them legal -- that are widely seen as unfair, Hawkins said. And colleges must now take seriously those criticisms, he said, and consider whether there are policies that need to be changed. "We're going to be made to answer questions," he said.

Hawkins also said it was important to distinguish between issues that can best be solved at the government level and at the institutional level. For example, NACAC and many other groups have pointed out that students who attend high schools in low-income areas have inadequate access to college counseling. That's something states need to address. Other issues -- legacy admissions or early decision were two examples he gave -- are best considered at the college level.

Philip Ballinger, associate vice provost for enrollment management at the University of Washington, said he was concerned that some of the fixes being proposed by lawmakers could make the system worse. For instance, legislation proposed in California would require any admissions decisions at public universities that deviate from standard practices to be approved by three administrators, one of whom would have to be the campus president or chancellor.

Many of these exceptions to standard admissions would likely involve athletes or applicants who are connected to powerful people or donors. Ballinger said that "good practice would keep admissions and athletics away from chancellors," not involve them in direct admissions decisions.

Ballinger also noted the irony of politicians demanding strict rules on admissions when "legislators at both the state and national level have been known to exert influence" in admissions decisions. That remark drew knowing laughter and some applause from the audience here. Ballinger didn't name names. But anyone shocked by the idea that the politically connected -- including state legislators -- have no shame about inserting themselves into admissions decisions may want to read about reports on previous practice at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Texas at Austin.

While most here shied away from endorsing specific reforms, Ballinger endorsed one. If public institutions want to offer a preference for legacies, he said they should be very clear about what those preferences are and how widespread they are. "Whatever they are doing, it should be known and out there," he said. "It should be on the website how they do it and why they do it. It should be plain as day." (Washington does not consider legacy status in admissions decisions.)

Aagard of Florida asked Hawkins and Ballinger how the admissions profession could restore trust that many say has been lost with so much focus on how wealthy parents abuse their advantages.

Hawkins said it was important to challenge the idea that the best college for a student is based on prestige. Harvard University might be best for some, he said, but not because of its prestige. College leaders need to focus on the importance of fit, he said.

Several speakers spoke about the importance of asserting values in admissions decisions. But Ballinger said this isn't always easy. In Washington State, he said, voters have barred public colleges from considering race and ethnicity in admissions decisions. The university (legally) considers socioeconomic status, geography and other factors. Both the state's decision on considering race and the university's consideration of factors that in some cases overlap with race are decisions that reflect values, he said.

Hawkins also noted that even as admissions leaders promote good values (inclusion, diversity, equity), they also confront other realities. Colleges don't talk about the reality that they must "craft a class" within a specified budget, he said. That may not be a value, but it's a reality, he said.

‘I Can Afford a Building’

The reactions from the audience were mixed. Many during the session and in discussions after that they appreciated the efforts to refer to recent events as a "bribery scandal" and not an "admissions scandal."

But others said it was time to focus more on unfairness in how admissions may be influenced by money.

One admissions official who introduced himself as "Biff from Maryland" (attendees were warned this reporter was present and that they might be quoted) said colleges need to admit that "there are two types of bribery" at play. There is the illegal bribery at the center of recent allegations. And "then there are the really wealthy people who buy the wing of a hospital" and assume that the university will admit their children. He described the current times as "twisted" and "corrupt" -- and said that the "legal bribery" was as worrisome as the illegal kind.

Biff specified that he never had accepted a bribe. (A recent poll by YouGov found that plenty of parents, if they could afford it, would use bribes to advance their children's chances of being admitted to top colleges.)

The private counselor who spoke during the question period, and who also said she has never taken a bribe, said, "I've had parents say, 'I can afford a building.'"

Ballinger said these kinds of reports explain why some say that lotteries or even auctions would be more fair than the current system.

What Does ‘Fit’ Mean?

Laura Parson, assistant professor of education at Auburn University, challenged the panelists (and more broadly the profession) to go beyond the issues of the scandal and to think about terms regularly used by admissions leaders that she said may not be as reassuring as they think.

“I feel like we are whitewashing this issue," she said. Parson said the reality that most people who want to attend college can do so isn't a sign that the system works. "If we are defining attending college as working, then it does." But she asked if that was enough.

Parson noted that college admissions leaders are always talking about "fit" -- the idea that admissions counselors should try to match a high school student with a college that will meet various educational and social goals.

But what if colleges are a poor fit not because of the applicants, but because of the colleges, Parson asked. "This idea of who belongs -- we are calling this fit," she said. To many people it seems as if college leaders are saying a poor fit is "a person who doesn't look like us."

Most admissions leaders talk about fit to contrast with the idea that the "best" college is the one with the highest ranking or the most prestige. But Parson's comments appeared to surprise many people here, people used to extolling the value of fit. She received applause.

Tom Green, associate executive director of AACRAO, also spoke of concerns about how admissions discussions look to the disadvantaged. He said he worried that the current scandal -- with all the discussion of wealthy parents finding ways to cheat -- was sending a very specific message to low-income students. Higher education must respond, he said, and not just take comfort in the relatively small number of alleged illegal acts. All the publicity about the scandal "risks crushing hope for a lot of students."

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