Last week, the U.S. college admissions scandal that tarnished the reputation of the country’s most elite colleges culminated in a vote that significantly changes how schools are able to recruit students. It was the 2019 National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) National Conference, and in many ways, it represented the end of an era for college admissions.
The conference, which saw people representing around 1,700 national colleges and universities gather to deliberate on issuing relating to college admissions, garnered much attention in the lead-up. After a year fraught with scandal, following an FBI sting that revealed wealthy parents are buying their children a place in top universities across the U.S., the media and the public were eager to know of the outcome of the annual conference and whether any meaningful changes would be made to eliminate the possibility of the country’s most privileged families guaranteeing their children a spot at college moving forward.
The scandal saw dozens of people, including well-known celebrities, college coaches, and one university administrator, charged by federal prosecutors for their alleged roles in a wide-ranging admissions-bribery scheme involving Yale, Stanford, and six other elite college institutions. A total of $5.9 million was allegedly paid, either directly or indirectly to college employees, by privileged, wealthy parents seeking to help their children get to college. But not just any college: the country’s best. The scheme was an elaborate and well thought out one: it involved a company known as “The Key” that illegally secured the admission of clients’ children to some of the U.S.’s most elite universities, by bribing officials at college-entrance examination companies to allow third parties to take the students’ tests for them. It also in some cases bribed college coaches to tell admissions that the applicant was a gifted athlete – even if they didn’t play sport – recommending they be given preferential treatment due to the potential success they could one day bring to the college through sport. The parents simply needed to hand over large sums of money over a number of years to those working within ‘the ring’ via a third party. The scandal was unsettling, uncomfortable and well-publicised, especially considering it involved some of the most well-known Hollywood actresses of today, including Desperate Housewives star Lori Loughlin.
The bribery scandal inevitably led to wider discussions about just how fair the college admissions process is and whether there is a better way of doing things. Beyond the recently exposed bribery scheme, much of what goes on in college admissions many not be illegal, but it is immoral. In what ways do donations made out to colleges differ from bribery? Is it because they are transparent? Recorded? Permitted? In 2017, it was widely reported that applicants whose families make a sizeable donation to America’s top colleges are put onto a “VIP applicant” watch list. On their file, beside their name, is a note simply saying “$500k. Must be on WL (wait list)”.
Legacy preferences aren’t much better. Having a parent who previously attended boosts the admissions chances of the children of alumni. Apparently, the acceptance rate for legacy applicants at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Georgetown and Stanford is two to three times higher than the general admission rate. In fact. One Princeton study found that being a legacy applicant has the same impact as adding 160 SAT points to a student’s application.
In the wake of this year’s bribery scandal, as well as increasingly reported inconsistencies in the admissions process, the American public has become increasingly hostile toward higher education and its admissions processes.
Last week’s conference certainly attacked the college admissions process, but the most meaningful change to have resulted from the conference was the removal of a handful of rules from NACAC’s Code of Ethics and Professional Practices. The new rules restrict the ability to offer early-decision incentives, recruit first-year undergraduates and recruit transfer students. Those working in admissions believe that the ruling out of early-decision incentives is a step in the wrong direction, and that those incentives make it easier for students embarking on a whole new journey to prepare themselves for the changes ahead. Having a firm date by which they will know if they have been accepted into a college makes it easier, not harder.
“My college counseling friends are very nervous about the fact that although the public believes this may give young people more choice, the reality of the matter is young people also need structure, and they really function well under some of these guidelines,” said Angel Pérez, vice president for enrollment at Connecticut’s Trinity College. “We’re a little nervous about what this actually will mean for students and the public.”