How should college admissions change?

Yale Sterling Library

In the wake of the admissions scandal in which 50 people have been indicted for paying to get their kids into top schools, University Presidents have issued strong disavowals — of their coaches.

Yale’s Peter Salovey sent a letter to all alumni referring to ‘former coach who no longer works at the university.’ Wake Forest’s President Nathan Hatch has put volleyball coach Bill Ferguson on administrative leave, pending the outcome of the indictments. The New York Times reported that the University of Washington implemented a firewall between athletics and admissions ten years ago. A move others are now emulating.

They both, of course, vow to address the issues of fairness with their admissions departments. The question is how? Admissions departments have been struggling with the fairness question for years.

How do admissions departments avoid the cheaters? 

NPR interviewed a former Yale assistant admissions director who said they look for inconsistencies – like a high SAT essay score but low grades in English classes. A few years ago the big news was that admissions departments were checking students’ social media profiles. (I think the kids figured that one out.) Is that diligence?

Admissions philosophies change with Deans, too. Where there was once talk of the “well-rounded” student, now it’s the “well-rounded” class. Meaning not every student has to be an Olympian and a first-chair violinist, but they look to compose a class that will encompass different interests. Which makes standing out just as important as fitting in!

I’m asked questions almost daily about what the Yale requirements for admission are, what a Harvard application essay should be about, how to stand out, whether being from a disadvantaged background can “help.” College planning websites abound, all promising to make it ‘easy’ or at least ‘easier.’

The truth is every school is looking for students who will thrive and be happy at their school.

What are Admission Deans looking for? It’s called ‘fit.’ And many parents don’t want to hear it.

The greatest determinant of whether a student will do well is really, how well suited they are to the school, its teaching style, and any number of factors. To determine whether a given school is a good fit, prospective students should think about things like:

How serious is the student body about academics? (More serious that you are? Less?)

Who’s admired on campus? (Is it a jock culture/greek culture/geek culture?)

Is there a place for students who don’t go along with the crowd? (At some schools, if you’re not in a fraternity, you have few social options.)

How big are the classes? (Do you want to stand out in a small seminar or hide in a crowd?)

What’s the student housing like, and how does it affect the social structure of the school as a whole? Do people have a sense of community where they live?

Is most of the student body from the same place? Or from all over? (And which do you prefer?)

When it comes to fit, many of these factors are social. Because guess what? We’re social creatures. So what does fit look like from the admissions standpoint?

Over the years whenever I would visit my alma mater (Yale), I would notice the same type of students seemed to be there. The faces would be younger, but you could almost say, “Oh there’s someone who reminds me of David. That guy’s just like Matt. That person sounds like Stacy.” What that indicates is that there’s a type of student whom a school chooses. Or perhaps there’s a type of student who chooses a school and thrives there – and it’s consistent. Hard to define, but consistent. If you’ve ever gone on a campus tour with your kid, you know the moment. You get back in the car and say, “Well?” and they say, “Nah, it just didn’t feel right.” Listen to them. They’re talking about fit.

What does “prestige” even mean?

I’m confounded by parents who would push their child into any school – Ivy or otherwise – that wasn’t right for them. I discouraged my kids from applying to Yale, even though I’m an alum. I didn’t think it would be a fit, and they agreed. The one who hates New York is at a small school with 790 trees on campus. The other is in the city and walks from our apartment to class. Both are challenged and encouraged by caring faculty. Both are learning, interested, and growing up. Neither is like me.

It’s also true that ‘prestige’ is regional. For all the news the Ivies get, you might have better job prospects going to Emory if you live in Georgia. Or UNC Chapel Hill if you want to stay in North Carolina. There’s tremendous local pride and connections. Where you go influences who you meet.

4 reasons college admissions got crazy

Let’s play the blame game. Pick one: the Common App? This little miracle changed the game by streamlining the admissions process. As a result, more students apply to more colleges. The College Board, an industry association, recommends 8 to 10 applications per students. For any admissions committee, that’s overwhelming.

But they have to live with it because the US News College Rankings make yield a key factor in where a school is placed in the rankings. That gives colleges little incentive to discourage applications, because it just makes them look choosier.

What that also means is that the college interview has gone the way of the dodo. Some admissions departments have alumni and current students interview by proxy, but that has its own problems. Alumni who dedicate time to the process feel cheated if ‘their’ students don’t get in. Prospects who interview with currently matriculating students have shared with me that they felt cheated: “It wasn’t a real interview. They talked at me and didn’t ask anything.”

Meanwhile, colleges courted International Students for their ability and willingness to pay full tuition. At its high point, the student population of Purdue University was 33% international. That number has dropped across the board for all colleges as visa policies changed under the current presidency, putting budget in crisis.

A little perspective, please

How many people did Rick Singer get into college? Singer claims 800 families over seven years.

According to the government, there are over 3000 4-year colleges in the US.

19.9 million students were projected to enter college in the fall of 2018.

There are approximately 30.4 million people ages 18-24 in the US.

Even assuming he had a 100% success rate, eight hundred families is hardly a tidal wave. And if some of the parents hadn’t been famous, we might have passed this by on page 10 instead of the front page.

USA Today tried to spread comfort with a reassuring article about how little a ‘name’ school really means to employers. And although CBS reported that the median salary for a Yale grad is $135,000 vs. $88,000 for grads of “over 1600” other schools, they didn’t take into account factors like where the grads lived or what fields they went into. Income is irrelevant without the context of location.

Will there continue to be inequities in admissions? Admissions departments work very hard to be fair. But as long as space is limited, someone deserving is going to be left out. Luckily, we live in a country with over 3,000 options.