The scrutiny of admissions, athletics and fund-raising continues to raise tough questions for leading colleges and universities.
The Boston Globe reported Sunday on a pattern in which donors to Yale University and other top colleges endow coaching positions. That's a trend about which many colleges have been very open. But not known is what the Globe reported about the children of donors then applying to and being admitted to those colleges, and in many cases playing on the teams of the coaches whose positions have been endowed.
The gifts aren't small. It takes $2 million to endow a coaching position at Yale. The Globe story found cases of children of donors being admitted at a number of colleges, including other Ivy League institutions and Stanford University. But the article said the Yale appeared to be the leader in this practice. The Globe identified six cases in which donors' children were subsequently admitted with ties to the program that had just benefited from parental gifts.
Among the cases at Yale documented in the article:
- One couple endowed the women’s soccer coaching position in 2013. That year, their daughter transferred from Georgetown University and made the Yale team.
- Another couple helped endow the men’s lacrosse coach position. A few years later, their son enrolled at Yale and played for the team.
- Another family endowed a fund for the Yale men’s golf team. Subsequently, their son enrolled at Yale and joined the team.
A Yale spokesman told the Globe that all of the students involved were admitted on their own merits. “Admissions officers will never vote to admit a student who is not believed to be qualified to succeed in both the academic and nonacademic life of Yale,” said the spokesman.
The admissions scandal that broke this spring didn't involve actual athletes, but applicants who pretended to be athletes. Their parents are accused of (and in some cases have now admitted to) bribing coaches to place the applicants' names on lists of recruited athletes. At top colleges like Yale, being on such a list can significantly improve the odds of admissions.
Since the scandal broke, scrutiny has increased of the admissions advantages of actual athletes, and of potential conflicts of interest in such admissions decisions.
In April, another Globe report prompted an investigation at Harvard University. In that case, a wealthy man bought the fencing coach's house, apparently overpaying significantly. Then the man's son was admitted to Harvard and joined the fencing team. The man then sold the house, taking a loss on his investment and never living in the house.
The Council for Advancement and Support of Education, the primary group of college fund-raisers, when asked about the Globe article, released a statement that said in part, "Philanthropic support is a vital resource for colleges and universities worldwide. Philanthropic contributions provide scholarships for students, support the research and scholarly activities of faculty members, and otherwise contribute to the ability of each institution to meet its goals and fulfill its responsibilities to individuals and society. As a conversation between a prospective donor and institutional representative(s) -- often the advancement professional -- goes forward, the goal of the dialogue is to find the intersection between the donor’s interests and the institution’s needs: the latter as determined by the strategic goals and gift acceptance policies of the institution."
CASE has ethics guidelines that stress the importance of identifying and being transparent about conflicts of interest. "Clear institutional policies regarding conflicts of interest and conflicts of commitment should be in place and should identify for faculty, staff, officers and trustees their fiduciary and ethical responsibilities with regard to the interests of the institution and its primary constituents," the guidelines state. "Those institutional policies should include a process for disclosing conflicts at least annually, as well as a process for reviewing and acting upon those disclosures."
Some have argued that the admissions scandal should prompt some changes in the tax law about gifts to colleges in cases where a donor's child may benefit in the admissions process.
U.S. senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, has said he is drafting legislation to end the tax break for donations given "before or during the enrollment of children of the donor’s family." Such a measure, if enacted, would not bar donations such as those documented in Sunday's article. But all the gifts mentioned in that article, under current law, entitle the donors to tax breaks, which Wyden seeks to end. CASE is opposing the legislation.
Doug White, an expert on fund-raising ethics and former director of the Columbia University master's in nonprofit management program, said that he thought there was nothing wrong with colleges seeking to endow coaching positions. But that doesn't mean that real issues aren't raised when those donors' children apply to those colleges and end up being coached by those whose programs are stronger because of the gifts.
"The issue is the connection between gift and acceptance," White said. "Admissions departments should have always been aware of the perception -- but especially in today's environment -- of a conflict of interest. Just because officials at a school can say there is no connection, that doesn't mean there isn't one and that certainly doesn't alleviate the perception problem. The answer lies in policies that are adhered to. It's possible the kid would be admitted anyway, would play on the varsity team anyway and be the best player in the history of the school anyway. Fine, just don't take money in advance to tarnish the process."
Who Gets In? And Why?
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 reports about Yale and other academically elite institutions should remind people that admissions odds are not equal at these top institutions, but favor athletes. It is a long shot for just about any applicant -- including those with great grades and test scores -- to get into Yale. But that's not true to the same degree for athletes, he said.
"I think we tend to believe because these are elite private schools that are really hard to get into that there are no preferential slots for athletes," he said. "We know there are preferential slots for athletes." And Hossler noted that this is hardly something that just became clear. He cited the 2002 book The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values (Princeton University Press), in which James L. Shulman and William G. Bowen showed that some of the largest edges in admissions for athletes are at colleges that are highly competitive in academics.
Michael Dannenberg, director for strategic initiatives at the think tank Education Reform Now, said via email that the report on donations to sports programs raises questions about the way Yale and other institutions where coaches were bribed have portrayed themselves.
"Yale should recognize just how complicit it is in a corrupt admissions system," Dannenberg said. "Yale and other elite schools implicated in the national college admission scandal want to portray themselves as victims, but really they’re co-conspirators. These implicit quid pro quo arrangements and tilted playing field admissions policies like the legacy preference and early decision don’t reward achievement, don’t promote diversity and are profoundly unfair. If just one member of Congress would force a vote on this issue, we could clean up a lot of the underlying corruption in elite college admissions."
Akil Bello, an educational access consultant who works with low-income students and who is co-founder of Bell Curves, said that he was sadly "not surprised" by the news about Yale. "America as a society loves to conflate the benefits of wealth and privilege with merit," he said via email. "These latest tales of 'soft bribery' are only interesting in that they are additional evidence, along with the Varsity Blues case, of how often the wealthy bolster the academic achievements of their children in order to ensure access to certain institutions."
Bello said there is a real impact of these incidents on low-income students and how they perceive access to higher education. "The most unfortunate outcome of all of this might be that it further confirms for high-achieving lower-income students that they are unlikely to be able to access these universities. It is becoming overwhelmingly clear that the majority of the seats are being taken bought and paid for," he said. "This may be even worse for black and Latinx students as the attacks on affirmative action increase, who are … receiving messages on multiple fronts that they have little to no chance of accessing these spaces."