Eight Fixes for the College Admissions Scandal

If you Google ‘College Admissions Scandal’, you’ll get 157 MILLION citations.  That’s how it is dominating our conversations.  It is absorbing stuff, the story of rich people getting yet another advantage in gaining access to the top shelf–but this time getting caught in the act.   Some of the pieces I have read include thoughtful suggestions about how to make the admissions process more fair, but most are largely salacious details and hot air/outrage.   I’d like to suggest EIGHT changes that could make the process a little bit more fair.

My bona fides: I recorded the process at four elite private institutions–Williams in 1986, Amherst in 2004, and Middlebury in 1990 for PBS and Dartmouth for NPR in the late 1970’s.  In every instance, some applicants had been ‘flagged’ by athletic coaches or heads of the music and drama departments.  Some applicants were flagged as ‘legacies,’ meaning a close relative had graduated from the college, and others were noted because their families had the capacity to make a major gift (or had already made one).  That’s standard operating procedure at elite institutions; the central question is, of course, how low would an institution go to accepted a ‘flagged’ applicant?  As a reporter, I could only ask that question.  At the end of the day, it depended upon the integrity of the process and of the individual members of the admissions committee.

Producer Tim Smith and I were the first television journalists to get access to college admissions, at Williams in the spring of 1986. We spent three days videotaping everything that moved, and of course the Committee talked about ‘flagged’ applicants, including athletes, musicians, and children of alumni, but it never occurred to me that the ‘flags’ could have been fabricated.  I assumed that the coaches, orchestra leaders, and other flaggers were putting their team/orchestra’s interests first and saw nothing that made me suspect otherwise.   Now we have to question EVERYTHING.

Those institutions tried to be ‘need blind,’ that is, to accept the most deserving students without considering their ability to pay, and, as far as I can recall, their conversations never touched upon whether a student would need financial aid  However, I am also certain that they could tell from the applications who would need to be supported, and who could pay.  A good admissions officer doesn’t need a completed FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form to separate the “haves” from the “have nots.”

Regarding the current scandal, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised because we know that money talks.  However, I am disappointed in the coaches, who I assumed were putting their team first.  I knew that coaches could ‘flag’ athletes, but it never occurred to me that the flags might be for sale.  Now I am disappointed in myself because I failed to ‘follow the money’ when I was doing my reporting.

Here are EIGHT changes that I believe would make the admissions process better:

1) Elite colleges should stop participating in the annual US News & World Report college rankings process.  Just stop!  Because US News uses a college’s rate of rejection as an important measure of its quality, many colleges have stepped up their efforts to recruit applicants–just so they can turn them down.  After all, the more a college turns down, the better US News says it must be.  If Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Princeton, MIT, Stanford et alia just said NO to US News, that would be a step in the right direction.

2) Cap the common application at four, the number of applications that are free of charge for those who qualify.  It’s now too easy for high school students with well-off parents to apply to dozens of colleges with one keystroke, and many kids do just that. This is another loophole that favors the wealthy, and we need to close as many of them as possible.  However, if we want to level the playing field, then colleges should do more reaching out to high schools in low- and moderate-income schools and help students apply.

By the way, the US News frenzy and the common application changed the admission process dramatically between our coverage of Williams in 1986 and Amherst in 2004.  In 1986 prior to the common application, every application was read by at least two members of the committee, and the entire committee met as a whole for days (often arguing passionately about particular candidates). However, by 2004 the flood of applications had forced Amherst to establish a SAT/ACT cutoff point; applicants below a certain number were rejected without a reading.  In 2004 Amherst had what amounted to two committees, which met and admitted and rejected candidates separately.

3) Administer–free of charge–the PSAT to all high school sophomores and juniors in low income schools.  If not the PSAT, then some test that is a good an indicator of talent and potential.  It might be an eye-opener for many kids in low income areas, because now many of them don’t even try to apply to “elite” colleges because they feel they don’t or won’t qualify; their scores might help change their minds.   Always remember that talent is randomly distributed, while test scores are closely related to parental income.  

4) Stop requiring the SAT and/or the ACT scores on college applications.  As many as 1,000 colleges and universities have already done this.   What might replace those standardized exams?  Here’s one intriguing possibility, reported by Bloomberg Business Week.

5) Fund public schools equitably so that every student has access to a counselor, who can guide them toward colleges that seem to be a good fit, and modern physical facilities like physics labs, and advanced curricula.   Since education is a state responsibility, state governments must put up the dollars.

6) As national policy, let’s pay for at least two years of higher education (or career training) in return for two years of National Service.  While I think the ‘free college’ talk is bogus, I am all in favor of a return to JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”   I believe a lot of idealistic and pragmatic young people would jump at the idea of spending two years in a branch of our military, the Peace Corps, the National Park Service, Americorps, the University of Notre Dame’s ACE Teaching Fellows Program, Teach for America, a qualified NGO, or other service programs.  Before Ronald Reagan’s presidency, most higher education aid was in the form of grants; today, of course, it is all loans and more loans: 71% of those who graduate owe money, and their average debt approaches $30,000.

If we as a nation invested in the post-secondary education of our young people, that would have a ripple effect: colleges and universities would be less dependent upon the largess of wealthy people, corporations, and foundations.  In time, that would change the dynamic in the admissions process by reducing the advantage that rich people now have.

7) In truth, we do not have to wait for Congress and the Administration to create National Service.  Our richest colleges could strike that deal themselves, because their endowments are staggering.  Our ten richest universities–Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton, MIT, the University of Pennsylvania, Texas A&M, the University of Michigan, Columbia, and Notre Dame–control close to $200,000,000,000 in endowment funds.  They could offer every student they admit a ‘full ride’ in return for a commitment to give back two years of service.

(By the way, Berea College in Kentucky has been providing tuition-free college for over 125 years. Berea doesn’t require service in return, but Berea graduates certainly learn to serve.)

For another example of “education for service,” consider the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg. Since 2008 it has provided–at no cost–two years at a boarding high school and four years at an elite college or university in the US or Europe to talented young people from every African country. In return they must pledge to return to their native countries to work for an NGO or a public service agency for five years.

8) For that matter, states could stem their ‘brain drain’ by paying the tuition for residents who attend a state college or university and also pledge to remain in the state for a set period of time (five years?) after graduating.  The list of states that are losing young graduates probably includes Michigan, North Dakota, Montana, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Maine, for openers.

Perhaps public shaming will prevent wealthy and entitled families from behaving as if the world (and Yale) owe them, but parents treating their kids as trophies is not a new phenomenon. When John Tulenko and I reported on Attention Deficit Disorder in 1995, we found parents who actually wanted their children to be labeled ADD because they seemed to believe that the diagnosis absolved them (the parents) of any responsibility for their child’s not being on track to get into Princeton or Notre Dame.  That’s a close cousin to what’s happening now in college admissions, in my opinion.

Doing more to level the playing field, to make our society more egalitarian and to make college admissions more fair, is in the national interest.  If we want to remain competitive on the world stage, we must do more to find and nurture talent, wherever we find it.

Those are my eight suggestions.  Please share yours on the blog at Themerrowreport.com



6 thoughts on “Eight Fixes for the College Admissions Scandal

  1. Worse than all this were the egregious tuition increases by higher education when government loans permitted more borrowing. We are all the losers.

    Sent from Tom King’s iPhone



  2. Long a believer in National Service. The worst thing that’s happened to our culture is the end of the draft and the creation of a ‘professional’ army. Not terribly different from rich boys buying their way out of the Civil War for $300

    Service brings otherwise separate groups into a mix they’d otherwise never experience


  3. Hey John, great piece. I do have some thoughts, though, posted after the basic “fix” you posted. All worthy of discussion.

    1. Elite colleges should stop participating in the annual US News & World Report college rankings process.

    Yes, this would help, for sure. I wrote a piece on this for the AACRAO Journal a few years back. (http://www.educationalpolicy.org/publications/pubpdf/AACRAO_SWAIL.pdf).

    2. Get rid of the common application.

    I don’t agree. I think the common app is a great thing because the apps are very difficult to complete for a lot of students. One place. I think they simply give you three places for free and anything else they charge a few to send. Getting rid of the common app only benefits the affluent. It is the other students that would be hurt by this. I would rather have this: if you are a Title IV institution, you MUST be part of the common app. I would rather have ALL IN. To the argument that at least two members read every application, there are too many students enrolling in higher education to do this, unfortunately. Applying an SAT cutoff is not a bad thing, unless it is so high that it rejects too many applicants. There is a need for an academic measure for admissions. It is college, we must remember. This is coming from a very “average” student who did very well, first by a relatively open admissions University of Manitoba, then a relatively open admissions Old Dominion University, then a selective George Washington University for my Ed.D. Let’s just say I let the system work for me as a c+ high school student.

    3. Administer–free of charge–the PSAT to all high school sophomores and juniors

    You just made big friends with the College Board, my former employer (eons ago). They would love that. Talent is randomly distributed, but the training of talent is not. College is about those best trained. You can’t catch kids up in the twelfth grade. But I agree to have this measure. That stated, if the SAT isn’t good enough for some, then neither is the PSAT. Same basic test.

    4. Stop requiring the SAT and/or the ACT scores on college applications.

    Disagree. I think there needs to be a nationally-normed academic measure as long as there are other academic measures, too. We need to know about course rigor and completion. People talk a lot about non-cognitive measures, but they don’t hold together, analytically. In 2016, 10.3 million students applied to a selective institution in the US. Of those, only 56 percent were admitted but only 15 percent enrolled. The sheer number of applications (and this is only non-selected institutions) forces certain measures to be used. SAT and ACT should be used. Absolutely. (http://www.educationalpolicy.org/publications/EPIGraph/171019_EPIGraph.html).

    5. Fund public schools equitably so that every student has access to a counselor, who can guide them toward colleges that seem to be a good fit.

    This is an important piece, but unfortunately, political as hell. Members of Congress argue about how much DCPS gets, for instance, and they are not necessarily wrong. You and I know that equity is a tough issue and isn’t just about dollars. And the reality is that some places may need double the average Per Pupil Funding (PPF) than others to lift them out of very compromising problems in their communities and at home. But a tough political argument.

    6. As national policy, let’s pay for at least two years of higher education (or career training) in return for two years of National Service.

    This is interesting. I do not believe in free college. Everyone should have a piece of it, even low-income students. It just shouldn’t be an impediment to going to college, let alone completing it. But this is an interesting issue that you bring up. I think I like it.

    7. For that matter, states could stem their ‘brain drain’ by paying the tuition for residents who attend a state college or university and also pledge to remain in the state for a set period of time (five years?) after graduating.

    The challenge with this is the transiency of people, especially spouses. They have done similar programs for special areas, like nursing, for instance, but the spouse often “has” to leave because of a transfer. So they end up in debt paying back the forgivable loan (that’s what it is). I just finished a five-year eval of a OSEP project which forgave two years of college for two years of work. We had to create a database to track students through work. Not an easy thing to do. A lot of person hours tracking people. Easier said than done.


  4. Get rid of the bonus point for taking an AP class. In California, the AP frenzy to game the grade point average is so bad that students are literally and tragically losing their minds because of the workload. They are taking AP classes in subjects for which they have little interest or aptitude. Subject is taught to the test, a mile wide and an inch deep. There is no guarantee that passing the test translates to college credit (many schools require a 4 or 5), and the AP class is in no way equivalent to the actual college class. But, this rush to AP makes tons of $$$ for the College Board, at $90 per test. And, charters love to market their schools by requiring that students enroll in AP courses. Cherry-picking at its finest.

    Liked by 1 person

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