A Retired College Admission Administrator Speaks Out
Quick Intro by Valerie
This past week wealthy parents were indicted for trying to game the system of college admission. Their admission consultant was making millions in a scheme to cheat for the money. Fred Zuker, having been in college admissions for much of his academic career, had this to say about the scandal. This essay is a version of the letter to the editor of the Dallas Morning News that was printed on March 17, 2019. ~~Valerie
A Retired College Admission Administrator Speaks Out
As recently reported, efforts were allegedly made by some wealthy parents to influence the process of admission for their children to some of the most selective colleges in America. This was a gut shot to those of us who have worked in college admission. These alleged abuses raise the specter of the super wealthy gaming the college admissions system, a system that is meant to open the doors of prestigeous institutions to a cross-section of American youth, rich and poor.
The college admission process is designed to prevent even the most elite universities from becoming the preserve solely of the well-connected and affluent.
After a forty-five-year career in higher education working largely in college admission and financial aid, I recognize this scandal as a telling blow for the women and men who work in admissions. Admission professionals are doing their best to serve the interests of the student applicants, their families, and the institutions that employ them.
The scandal raises the issue again that excellent students who applied to the colleges named in the allegations and were not admitted were treated unfairly. The scandal is an equally savage blow to the students who expect to be considered for honest effort.
The allegation that college coaches were complicit in this situation is especially disappointing.
College admission work is a thankless job because the elite institutions named in this expose–and all the other highly-selective institutions–all have thousands of applicants who would be admissible. The task of the admission professional is to decide who are accepted and who are wait-listed or denied. For the thousands of highly-qualified students who are not selected, even the normal process is bound to appear unfair. Add overt cheating and bribery to the process and the disappointment becomes even more painful for those students not admitted.
The application review and decision-making processes are tedious and demanding. Admission decision makers are under constant pressure from parents, high school counselors, college coaches, alumni, politicians, and the college office of Institutional Advancement/Development to admit students that they are supporting. In addition, many academic departments are determined to see that students are admitted that want to study in their areas and that only the most academically talented applicants are admitted.
Admission officers are charged to consider the merit of each applicant, taking into consideration all the personal information and academic credentials the student presents and match those with the needs of the institution. It is a difficult balancing act that never makes everyone happy. The highly selective colleges that admit fewer than ten percent of their applicants are going to disappoint a huge number of applicants, most of whom are more than competitive with those students who are selected for admission. Making those final decisions is never easy.
The process of college admission has checks and balances which are designed to identify efforts to unduly influence those making the decisions. Standardized test scores that are significantly inconsistent with the student’s curriculum or GPA will be noted. High School counselor and teacher recommenders are asked to provide first-hand evidence of the student’s ability and personal qualities. Student essays and personal interviews may also belie a student who presents an application that shows discrepancies that are not easily explained away. These files are routinely flagged for follow-up evaluation.
We know there are many techniques that can be used to give some applicants an edge. What is being alleged in this scandal goes way over the line of what is legal and would probably disqualify an applicant if such behaviors were discovered.
One of the most disconcerting aspects of this scandal is the underscoring of the neurotic over-involvement of some parents in the process of college admission. It is most often the parent’s desire for their student to be admitted to a specific college. This institution is the only choice for their child to attend that will satisfy their ego-driven desire so they can say, “Got them in.” These are the type of parents that may go so far as to use their resources to break the law to satisfy their need for approval. The lesson this teaches the children does no good for the individual or society.
Parents should know that any educational consultant or adviser who advertises or claims to be able to gain admission for a client by using “back doors” or “side doors” is not to be trusted and will probably cross ethical lines, some as egregious as those alleged in the case at hand.
Every selective college/university and all the professional organizations that touch the admission process, including the College Board and the American College Testing program that provide the SAT and ACT examinations, are certainly going to be performing internal audits and soul searching to address this scandal. They must know how to recognize and stop attempts to defraud and debase the college admission evaluation and selection process.
Applicants and their families must be able to count on the colleges and universities to do their application sorting without illegal and unethical interference. These institutions make decisions that affect the lives of those who want to become one of their students. These institutions must do their business professionally and honorably. Only then will the students feel their applications were given a just evaluation.
Students must not feel that the decisions they receive were tainted by those who will try to subvert the process to their own selfish ends.
The trust the people have in higher education will continue to erode if the process is not fixed and the guilty caught quickly and effectively. The goal of education is not to teach students to get their way by any means possible but to help them become caring, conscientious citizens.
R. Fred Zuker