Northwestern's President Makes Admissions Decisions

He reviews hundreds of applications a year, including some of those who are children of donors or alumni or people he knows.

April 29, 2019
 
Morton Schapiro

When admissions leaders gathered last month to discuss the admissions scandal, one topic that came up was proposed legislation in California that 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. When the idea came up at the meeting last month, one senior admissions official (to what looked like wide audience agreement) said that the last thing you want is for presidents or chancellors making admissions decisions.

"Good practice would keep admissions and athletics away from chancellors," said the admissions leader.

It turns out that one university president is directly involved in admissions decisions. Morton Schapiro of Northwestern University personally makes decisions on hundreds of applicants a year. The applications on which he makes decisions include some children of donors or alumni, and also children of faculty and staff members at Northwestern.

The Daily Northwestern first reported on its president's role in admissions decisions. A Northwestern spokesman confirmed the accuracy of the report in the student newspaper.

While the newspaper article stressed that Schapiro was reviewing some applications linked to donors, a university statement released to Inside Higher Ed stressed that the president "often reads files from Evanston Township High School and Chicago Public Schools applicants. NU enrolled 20 and 128 of their graduates, respectively, in the entering class, up from a combined total of less than 40 a decade ago." Northwestern is highly competitive in admissions and received more than 40,000 applications this year.

The university statement also said Northwestern has strong protections against fund-raising concerns playing a role in admissions decisions.

"Northwestern works to preserve the independence of its admissions office and to ensure that fund-raising units or personnel do not exert direct influence upon its decisions," the statement said. "As a courtesy, university officials give consideration to applications endorsed by people who have a strong connection to the Northwestern community. This can include alumni, trustees, donors, longtime staff members and civic leaders. The ultimate acceptance rate for these cases is comparable to that of the larger student body."

As to why a president would review hundreds of application files a year, the statement said that Schapiro "works actively in the admissions process in order to shape a student body that reflects the quality and breadth that the university seeks. President Schapiro has annually reviewed hundreds of applications at Northwestern (and previously at Williams College), because it represents a major aspect of his scholarly work and because he has established targets for dramatically increasing diversity and enrollment from low-income families."

Schapiro is an economist by training, focused on higher education, and has written widely on access to higher education.

A university spokesman provided this quote that Schapiro gave to the student journalists who first reported on his role in admissions.

“[For] every kid who gets in, 11 get rejected. So I have to think with every kid who gets in, ‘Why is this kid getting in when 11 kids are getting turned down?’ I’m pretty tough on those decisions, but I feel at the end of the day I am the one who should make them. I’ve been working on this my whole career. Very few presidents or chancellors are directly involved with admissions -- that’s why, if a kid doesn’t get in, they can say, ‘Ah well, I don’t know.’ I can never say that, because in sensitive cases I was the one who made the decision myself and I’d admit that and say, ‘I’m sorry, the kid wasn’t good enough. If you’re unhappy, you’re unhappy. Some of those kids get in, most of them don’t. I’m pretty tough on those things because I’ve got to teach them, you know. I’m going to make sure that the kid can contribute broadly. It’s not what the parents can contribute to our budget, it’s what a kid can contribute to the community.”

In the statement to Inside Higher Ed, the spokesman said that the president added "for clarification" that "on rare occasions when there is a strong difference of opinion between the president and the admissions director on a candidate’s admissibility, I would never overrule admissions."

When Presidents Get Involved in Admissions

There is no doubt that presidents play a major role in admissions -- and are expected to do so. Some of this may be clear to the public. When a president takes a stand, for instance, on affirmative action, that's an admissions policy. When a president backs or abandons efforts to stay need-blind in admissions, that can have a major impact. At many colleges that are need-aware in admissions, a president's decision on the budget allocation for financial aid effectively has a strong influence on admissions.

But the role Schapiro is playing -- making decisions on individual applicants -- is unusual.

In recent years when presidents have been found to have been involved in individual admissions decisions, they have been widely criticized. But these cases -- at the University of Texas at Austin and at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign -- the issue has been intervening in the admissions process on behalf of politically connected applicants, not a general role of reviewing hundreds of applications.

David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said via email on Sunday, "NACAC doesn't have a policy statement on this practice. We are aware that presidents do often review prominent applications. Based on what I have heard from our members, there are often protocols or policies that lay out the parameters under which these types of reviews take place and what may result from the review."

Don Hossler, a senior scholar at the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice at the University of Southern California, said via email that the involvement of a president in making admissions decisions was "consistent with the narrative that has emerged in recent weeks -- that there are side doors to admission to elite universities."

Hossler added, "There is also no transparency as to how admission through these side doors works, so we don’t know the extent to which presidents are directly involved in the decision making. I commend Northwestern for confirming this story -- at least we have a sense as to how things work at one elite university. I continue to think that we are after the inflection point,  the demand for more transparency will continue."

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