To Reform Admissions, End Obsession With Prestige

It's time to focus on the root cause of the scandal, writes W. Kent Barnds.

March 25, 2019
 

The past week has been pretty awful for college admissions professionals across the country. The so-called admissions scandal -- which by the way hasn’t implicated any admissions professionals -- has unleashed a barrage of criticism of the college admissions process.

The outrage is palatable and the calls for reform are loud and clear.

Among the ideas I heard or read are: eliminate the Common Application. Make college free. Make admissions a meritocracy again (as if it ever was). Introduce a lottery. Eliminate athletic “tips.” Consider grades only. Abandon the mythology of fit. Scrap standardized test scores. Eliminate legacy preferences. Hold out a certain number of spots for the traditionally underserved. Get rid of essays, letters of recommendation and everything else but the transcript. Get rid of independent counselors. Eliminate early decision. Eliminate “demonstrated interest.” Offer greater transparency into the process. Require every college to be need blind. Eliminate any preference whatsoever.

You are welcome to add to the list. I am sure I missed a number of things.

Don’t get me wrong, after 25-plus years in this business, I have seen enough to know there is room for improvement. But the college admissions process is nowhere near as broken as those calling for reform believe it is -- that is, unless we continue to believe college admissions in this country is defined exclusively by the practices, good and bad, of the super-selective, elite colleges, at which the privileged are perceived to be “stealing” seats of otherwise qualified candidates.

Let’s get real about this scandal. It’s not about college admissions at all. And while it may have more to do with elite colleges, it’s not altogether about them, either.

This scandal is about a disgusting and unhealthy obsession with prestige when it comes to higher education in this country. And this obsession with prestige leads certain colleges and certain college admissions leaders, school counselors and families to do foolish things.

One of the great ironies of this whole affair is that many (not all) of those screaming loudest about reform seek reform in order to make the same set of super-elite colleges more accessible to deserving students.

As an admissions professional, I am ready for a serious discussion of reform in college admissions. But I sure hope that at the same time we also have a serious discussion about the scandalous obsession with prestige and the elites, which leads trustees, alumni, presidents, bond raters, administrations, faculty, students and parents to chase measures and pedigrees that are in no one student’s interests.

I am not sure how to make reform happen. But I do know what will make it more likely.

  • Reform is more likely when the media begins to focus on higher education as a whole and not just the Ivy League and R-1s.
  • Reform is more likely when college night panels and case study evenings include someone from an open-access or moderately selective university, rather than panelists from only the elite.
  • Reform is more likely when high schools stop publishing high school profiles that include the names of institutions to which their students were admitted.
  • Reform is more likely when high schools stop promoting the astronomical amounts of scholarship dollars their graduates accumulate through all of their offers of admission.
  • Reform is more likely when more information, rather than less, is available to an admissions office.
  • Reform is more likely when the explosion of rankings -- paid and unpaid -- are discounted as the garbage they are.
  • Reform is more likely when membership organizations don’t defer to the loudest voices and worry about the elites walking away.
  • Reform is more likely when an emphasis on from where a degree is earned does not immediately translate to some unrealistic perception of greatness.
  • Reform is more likely when the chase to be admitted is less important than earning a degree.

You may feel free to add to this list, too.

It’s easy to call for reform and point the finger at admissions professionals at all colleges and universities across the nation as the culprits who created the conditions that led to this scandal. But there’s more to it. And there is plenty of responsibility to go around. For all of those taking a look under the hood of the college admissions process, it might be time to recall that famous old Walt Kelly Pogo cartoon: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Bio

W. Kent Barnds is executive vice president for external relations at Augustana College in Illinois.

Read more by

Back to Top