Ethical College Admissions: Presidents as Admission Officers

Northwestern's leader may know more about admissions than many other presidents, writes Jim Jump, but there are still ethical issues raised by his making hundreds of admissions decisions.

May 13, 2019
 
Morton Schapiro

Should college presidents be involved in making admission decisions?

That question is raised by the news that Morton Schapiro, the president of Northwestern University, read application files and made admission decisions on approximately 550 of Northwestern’s 40,000 applicants for admission this year, according to the Daily Northwestern student newspaper. The applications evaluated by Schapiro were apparently not random, but included legacies, children of faculty and employees, applicants related to donors, and students from local schools in Evanston, Ill., and Chicago.

The bigger question is whether Schapiro’s involvement is a good thing or a bad thing. As with almost any question related to college admission, the answer is probably, “It depends.”

This story will not reassure an already-skeptical public that the college admissions process is fair and equitable and based on merit (which we all know is a hard concept to define) rather than designed to reward privilege and wealth. It perpetuates a narrative arising from the Operation Varsity Blues scandal that admission to elite colleges can be bought. Even though admission officers were not among the criminal conspirators in that scandal, all of us in the profession are scarred with the assumption that even if we didn’t open “back doors” and “side doors” to admission, we at least left them unlocked.

Is there anything inherently wrong with Schapiro’s involvement in Northwestern’s admissions process? It is fair to speculate that presidents at a number of colleges and universities exercise influence on the admissions process at the margins. At least Schapiro and Northwestern are being transparent about his involvement.

It is also the case that Schapiro is not a typical college president when it comes to admissions issues. He is an economist by training, and much of his scholarly work has focused on affordability and access within higher education. Both at Northwestern and at Williams College, where he previously served as president, he made reading applications a part of his annual work.

There is certainly an argument to be made that more college presidents should get hands-on admission experience, whether actually reading applications or visiting high schools and staffing college fairs. The argument is that presidents and provosts are already involved in setting enrollment goals, many of them unrealistic. Shouldn’t they have a ground-level understanding of the challenges faced by their admission officers in the current market?

A couple of years ago, the new president at a small liberal arts college visited an independent school that regularly sends students to the college. During a meeting with the director of college counseling at the feeder school, the president announced his goal to attract students from the top decile of the school’s senior class. He was taken aback when the college counselor informed him bluntly that were that to happen, the college counselor would be looking for a new job.

The new generation of college presidents, many of whom come from backgrounds outside academe, are a threat to the practice of ethical college admissions. Many of them are more concerned with ends than means, and they don’t understand the ethical principles that have undergirded our profession. I have heard numerous admission officers and enrollment managers report presidents wanting to pursue some scheme to increase enrollment or yield and asking, “Why can’t we do that?”

Several years ago I suggested that the National Association for College Admission Counseling consider developing a professional development opportunity to educate new bosses, whether presidents, provosts or principals, about the realities of recruiting, admitting and providing financial aid as well as the ethical principles behind best admissions and enrollment management practice. Like so many of my great ideas, it fell on deaf ears. I suspect that while there is a glaring need, there isn’t a market.

There are a number of factors in the Northwestern case that make President Schapiro’s involvement more complicated.

It is one thing for a college president to read applications in an admissions environment where the college is admitting two-thirds or three-quarters of applicants, and another to do so in a highly selective pool like Northwestern’s where only one of every 11 applicants are admitted. The former involves a judgment about whether an applicant is likely to succeed; in the latter fine distinctions are being made among a group of applicants, all of whom “deserve” admission. From a customer service or relationship perspective, colleges have a responsibility to each applicant to ensure fair and thorough consideration, but that obligation is almost always subsumed to institutional needs and priorities.

Given the nature of Northwestern’s applicant pool, it is one thing for President Schapiro to read applications, and another to be making unilateral decisions on 550 applicants. No matter how much experience and expertise he might have, a single reader shouldn’t have the authority in a 9 percent admit environment to make final admission decisions without a second read or committee evaluation. I’m hoping that’s not standard procedure for all admission decisions at Northwestern.

Then there’s the issue of how it’s determined which applications President Schapiro reviews. It’s clearly neither a random nor representative selection of applicants, but rather a collection of special groups and populations -- legacies, locals, faculty kids, development cases. It’s not unusual for a president’s office to have a mechanism to express interest in certain applicants, and that in itself can be controversial, but to have the college president unilaterally making the admissions decision on those applicants is troubling.

President Schapiro told the student journalists who broke the story that it is easier to break bad news to connected families when it comes from the president, and that may be, but no matter how ethical and competent a president is, there is vast potential for conflict of interest. If the admission decisions made by the president are outliers from those made by the admissions staff, that creates an extra level of problem.

It can certainly be argued that a college or university president has ultimate responsibility for every area of the university, including admission. The naturalistic fallacy, however, tells us that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it. That is particularly true for college presidents being actively involved in admission at a time when trust in the college admissions process is in jeopardy.

Bio

Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Va. He has been at St. Christopher's since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women's basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

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