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The Lies, Myths and Fears Fueling the College Admissions Scandal

Gordon Caplan

I co-authored the best-selling book on college admissions, Getting In. And I regularly weigh in on public policy issues—often about education—as an op-ed contributor to leading publications. Today, my perspective on the current college admission scandal is informed by a few insights on how the system really works, a second career as an attorney and a willingness to look at the policy questions through a non-partisan lens.

An old friend, now retired, who spent years as an admissions dean and athletic director at top colleges, understands what's fueling the anxiety underlying college admissions. His quote, while discomforting and controversial, is absolutely on target.

“It is the curse of the middle-class white girl. There are thousands of young women with A-averages, near-1400 SAT scores, with earnest extracurricular activities trying to get into elite universities. And almost none of them will.”

There is a gambler’s tell in that statement, which I will return to later. My friend is also quick to add that most of these young women will attend terrific colleges. But the reality of their desire to attend an Ivy League or another elite college—and their near-zero chance of actually getting in—is an important insight into understanding selective college admissions today.

Myth #1: The College Admissions System Is Broken

The college admissions system may be corrupt and corrupting but it isn’t broken. It is working exactly as those who oversee it want it to work. Put aside, for a moment, all the ranting about the unfairness of—fill in the blank: legacy admissions, affirmative action, athletic recruiting. And accept that colleges admissions offices are tasked with putting together an entering class—a mosaic—that serves a variety of constituencies.

When we published the first edition of Getting In in 1983, one of the most oft-quoted revelations was “Good colleges are not looking for well-rounded kids; they’re looking for the well-rounded class.” That is equally true today. The president of Georgetown told my friend (and occasional collaborator) John Katzman, the founder of the Princeton Review, that he had to fill 140 “buckets” to reflect the diversity of interests and backgrounds necessary to create a vibrant community.

The most powerful constituency on campus is the faculty. Tenured teachers are there for the long-haul. And the admissions office has to be sensitive to sending bright, promising students to every department every year. About 50% of every freshman class is comprised of kids who will make professors happy about teaching them. But that is the easiest—and the first and last segment—of the class to be filled. The first are the kids who won the national science fair, got published or were the winning Mathlete; they get accepted in the early decision round. The bulk of this group, however, is admitted in the regular round, and often trigger the most debate in the admissions committee.

That’s because admissions officers don’t simply use GPA and standardized test scores to assess the most promising academic prospects. Instead, colleges have committed publicly to using a “holistic” approach to evaluating applicants. And that can mean anything they want it to.

In 1982, I interviewed Bill Fitzsimons, then (and still) the dean of admissions at Harvard. He said then: “I can fill an entire freshman class three times over with kids who have straight 800 SAT scores. We don’t.”

Myth 2: The Admissions Playing Field Is Tilted to the Wealthy

The alleged ringleader of the current scandal, William “Rick” Singer (who has pleaded guilty to the charges) bragged to prospective clients that only fools and knaves used the “front door” (admission on one’s merits) or the “back door” (giving a large contribution). He had a special side door that was less costly and more certain. Because, he argued, giving a substantial donation only ensured a second look at an applicant.

He was right about there being no guarantee. But development officers at universities exercise a great deal of persuasion if parents come up with the requisite number. A dozen years ago I made inquiries on behalf of parents whose kids were very much in the running for admission to elite universities. But they wanted to be sure. A donation of $2 million to a “lesser” Ivy would be looked at very favorably. At Harvard, that number was $3.4 million.

Is the admissions playing field tilted in favor of the wealthy? Absolutely. But that is not the only direction it tilts.

The admissions playing is certainly tilted against those who don’t know how the system works. Most often, those are kids and parents from lower-income families and school districts. Sometimes, it is not a question of funding but funding allocation.

Stuyvesant High School is considered one of the best public schools in America. Spending per pupil is the highest in the nation among large cities: $24,109 in 2016. (As a comparison, Huntington, Long Island spent just about the same amount per student.) Several years ago, I interviewed the head of college guidance at Stuyvesant. She told me she had a total of three counselors to serve the graduating seniors—virtually all of whom had good grades, lots of AP courses and terrific SAT scores. Unfortunately, with more than 900 kids in the class, a counselor could spend only about thirty minutes one-on-one with a student during the entire senior year.

Knowing how the system works—or how to work the system—is not limited to academic counseling realm. It can also involve athletics. I recently interviewed a young man, “Jose" who was a freshman at a local university. He had been a top baseball player at a New York City high school and had three professional tryouts coming up in the next month. Yet he didn’t play for his college team and I asked him why. “I wasn’t recruited. I didn’t know to start the process in my sophomore or junior year. My family didn’t know and I guess my coaches didn’t know.”

And almost every highly selective college believes that racial diversity is an important and worthy objective and use different criteria to assess applicants. The Supreme Court affirmed that objective in its 2003 landmark case Grutter v. Bollinger, but also said that while a race-conscious admissions process can favor "underrepresented minority groups," it couldn’t be a quota system. Thus the so-called holistic approach.

Fisher v. University of Texas in 2016 upheld the goal of racial diversity being good for the institution. But the court said the university should regularly evaluate available data and "tailor its approach in light of changing circumstances, ensuring that race plays no greater role than is necessary to meet its compelling interest."

We heard, however, a great deal about the realities of the holistic criteria utilized by Harvard during the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard trial. Admissions officers rate applicants’ “personal” qualities—and typically assigned lower grades to Asian American students on traits like “positive personality,” likability, courage, kindness and being “widely respected” than non-Asians. And as a result, Asian Americans needed SAT scores at least 250 points higher than African American or Hispanic applicants. Asian Americans understandably believe that the playing field is tilted against them.

Did a holistic process under Grutter and Fisher mean more using a “whole person” approach to assess candidates? Or did it allow having different standards for different racial groups?

So is the admissions field tilted? Absolutely. But in so many different directions that navigating it is like walking atop a coral reef.

Myth 3: There Is a Common Measure for Merit: The SAT/ACT Standardized Tests

Highly selective colleges still rely heavily on standardized test scores: the SAT and ACT. They have to despite their rhetoric that GPA and course-load are far more important in the admissions equation. Unfortunately, because of rampant grade inflation and vastly different levels of rigor in course work across tens-of-thousands of high schools, a student’s grades are an insufficient measure of either potential or performance.

Despite their flaws—and there are many—the SAT/ACT exams are the one common denominator a college can (mostly) rely upon. (For a smart, interesting, though a bit heavy-handed explanation of the flaws, see Michael Davis Arlen’s recent film, The Test. Full disclosure: I hit the cutting room floor because I disagreed with his thesis.)

Remember that “tell” I referred to earlier involving the middle-class kid? I said that despite the A-average and near-1400 SAT scores, he wasn’t getting into an Ivy or another top school. The tell was the below-1400 SAT score. Colleges never admit publicly that there is a minimum score needed for admission. But there is, and that is almost always a 700 on both sections. With thousands of applications flooding the admissions office each year, using that unofficial cut-off is simply an efficient triage.

One might think that lower-income kids have less access to tutoring services that can bolster scores on the still-very-important SAT exam. Surprisingly, that is not the case. A study by Noodle Education (run by John Katzman) found that Asian Americans are the highest per-capita users of test-prep services. But they are the lowest per-capita income group in New York.

One of the more brazen parts of Mr. Singer’s scheme was his alleged use of a mid-thirties Harvard graduate to substitute for students taking the SAT—or just correct their answers. But to make his scheme work, Mr. Singer not only needed a smart test-taker, he needed a corrupt proctor. He allegedly found two: one in Texas and another in Los Angeles. But, you ask, how does a 35-year-old pass for a high school student in a room full of 17 year-olds taking the test?

He didn’t and he didn’t have to. The Singer scheme exploited a loophole in the administration of the test that is available only to the knowledgeable and wealthy: extra time. By getting a psychologist’s note saying the student suffered from some disability—usually ADHD—the student would be allowed accommodations of extra time and the option of taking the test alone in a room.

This accommodation—or gambit, take your pick—is used by an untold-number of students every year. And the colleges don’t know if an applicant has received that extra time. Does it undercut the validity of the standardized test as a common measure? Absolutely.

Myth 4: Legacies and Athletes Are the Real Problem

While many conservatives decry the advantages provided to black applicants, many liberals vent their anger at unfairness favoring legacies. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out this past summer:

At the University of Notre Dame, the University of Virginia and Georgetown University, the admission rate for legacies is about double the rate for the overall applicant pool, according to data from the schools. At Princeton University, legacies are admitted at four times the general rate, or roughly 30% compared with about 7% overall over the past five years.

The WSJ also pointed out that at Harvard, legacy applicants were about five times as likely to be admitted as non-legacies.

Let’s be clear: alumni donations (and thus endowment) are an important part of almost every college’s financial cushion and in many cases its operating budget. According to U.S. News—and more on its “contribution” to the craziness below—the most loyal alumni are from Princeton (59.1% participation), closely followed by Thomas Aquinas College (58.9% participation). And schools as diverse as Carleton College (46.8%) and Alice Lloyd College (45.4%) in Kentucky are in the top ten.

Contributions from alumni, foundations and corporations account for about 10% of colleges’ operating budgets, and a far higher percentage of capital expenditures.

Given the importance of alumni contributions, is giving some consideration to the children of alumni a rational decision? Can a college president afford to ignore or alienate potential donors?

Also important to many alumni—and to alumni giving—is the success of a school’s football and basketball teams. Perhaps more salient is the increase in applications colleges see when they get a slot in the NCAA (March Madness) basketball tournament. “Cinderella” teams routinely see not only more kids applying but a bump in their brand value.

It appears that much of the Singer scandal focused on bribing coaches to allocate one of their recruiting slots to kids with fictitious sports resumes. It was never a secret that college coaches had considerable clout with admissions offices. Even in this sordid affair, it doesn’t appear that their clout was absolute: at USC, a senior athletic administrator—allegedly also on the take—smoothed over potential bumps when questions arose about a kid’s fiction. Happily, it doesn’t appear that any of the faux athletes also received athletic scholarships.

In the Ivy League, there is one more hurdle that recruited athletes have to get over: the academic Index: a calculation of an applicant’s GPA and SAT score. Recruited athletes, by team, cannot have an AI one standard deviation lower than the rest of the admitted class. That means coaches were known to save a recruiting slot for a mediocre athlete who had a high AI—to pull up the rest of the team.

Such tactics seem child’s play when compared to the high-powered and high-profile excesses of some Division 1 basketball and football teams. One could argue—indeed, I will—that the scandal that rocked the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was more egregious than the Singer scandal. UNC was found to have run a network of 200 of fake and laxly-graded classes in order to keep athletes eligible for competition. As disturbing, the NCAA concluded in 2017 that there was nothing they could do to punish UNC for such behavior. It also undercuts the NCAA’s claim that graduation rates among athletes has never been higher.

Juxtaposed with the NCAA’s rose-colored glasses is the Oakland, California Federal District Court Judge Claudia Wilken’s recent decision two weeks ago. She said that college athletes should perhaps receive more compensation and that the NCAA’s rules on amateurism limiting scholarships might be a violation of anti-trust law.

As we enter the March Madness tournament, I am torn between my appreciation for the athleticism and my cynicism that this has much to do with a college degree.

Myth 5: College Rankings Are the Root of Most Evil

Talk to parents in the throes of the admissions process, and they can usually cite the rankings of the colleges their kids are applying to. Long after U.S. News ceased to be a viable news magazine, its grip on ratings leadership is still intact but is being challenged by deep-pocketed competitors.

I’m not against rankings. I just think most of them are misleading. They reflect criteria that the editors think important, not what may be important to students or their parents. (In contrast, the Wall Street Journal’s online tool allows users to create customized rankings based on the criteria important to the user, not the criteria weightings utilized by the editors.)

Concern about a school’s ranking is not misplaced. A ranking is a pretty reasonable proxy for a school’s brand value. And for a family about to spend—colleges much prefer and push the word "invest"—$250,000 for a private college and more than $80,000 for a public university, that is a rational concern.

But too many families’ obsession with getting into the highest-ranked school possible—often at the expense of finding a good fit—is simply unhealthy. One elite university president told John Katzman that fully one-third of his freshman class could be diagnosed as clinically depressed at some point in the year. Another elite-college provost said, seriously, that the average emotional age of his entering class was 14.

Did these forces contribute to the Singer scandal? I believe so. But so did greed, perhaps a sense of entitlement, and a broken moral compass. It is now rumored than Singer’s schemes were not limited to the 35-odd families named in the current indictment and might reach 750. It will be an even sadder day for America and our higher education system if that is true.

Steve Cohen is a partner at Pollock Cohen and the co-author of Getting In!