The Black Box of College Admissions

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State legislators and the U.S. Education Department are scrutinizing college admissions practices.

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A recent federal case indicting dozens of wealthy parents for college admissions fraud has sparked a national conversation about the opportunity gap between wealthy and low-income applicants to U.S. colleges and universities.

But the problem goes much deeper than wealth disparity. The college admissions process is a largely unregulated black box, and schools provide little transparency about how they decide who receives an acceptance letter.

Past federal litigation and legislation have clarified some of the impermissible reasons for colleges to deny admission to students: sex, race, age, and disability, for example. But now, some lawmakers want to specify impermissible reasons for colleges to grant admission to students.

Just weeks after the admissions fraud case was alleged, members of the California State Assembly introduced several proposals to regulate college admissions within the state.

The legislation would require any “admission by exception”—a student admitted primarily for athletic ability, special talent, or other special reason—to be reviewed by three university administrators before receiving final approval.

Another bill would ban preferential treatment for legacy applicants who are “related to the institution’s donors or alumni.” If the bill passes, schools that fail to comply with its provisions would lose their eligibility for Cal grants—tuition grants paid by the state for students who attend certain California colleges and universities.

Although the public University of California and California State University systems do not consider legacy status in admissions decisions, reportedly many private colleges and universities in California—such as Stanford University—do weigh it as a factor in the admissions process. Schools that consider legacy status would need to alter their admissions process to remove any preference for applicants who are family members of donors and alumni, or risk all of their students no longer receiving Cal grants.

California state legislators also proposed that college admissions consultants—private individuals or firms that offer assistance to students in the application process—should register their businesses with the state and comply with applicable regulations. California State Assembly member Evan Low (D-Silicon Valley), who put forth the proposal, criticized the “utter lack of oversight” in the admissions consulting industry and stated that “legitimate firms” will still be able to conduct their businesses under the new regulations.

Some states—including California—already have regulations that set minimum academic standards for applicants to public state colleges and universities. But they also offer exceptions to these requirements for admission.

For example, the University of Kansas admissions regulations specify that students must have a minimum grade point average or ACT score to be admitted. They carve out an exception, however, for students who do not meet the minimum standards but are “recommended for admission by the university’s admission review committee.” The admission review committee is permitted to consider additional factors such as “outstanding talent,” the potential to contribute to “cultural, economic, or geographic diversity,” and “any other factors” that the university admissions committee “deems appropriate.” These additional factors include athletic ability, for example.

Special preference for recruited athletes is a widely acknowledged part of the admissions process, not only at the University of Kansas, but at colleges and universities across the country. It was also one of the routes allegedly used to secure fraudulent admission for some students in the ongoing admissions fraud case. Prosecutors allege that some parents used an admissions consultant to bribe college coaches, who then vouched for students in the admissions process even though those students were not, in fact, talented athletes.

The U.S. Department of Education reportedly sent letters to eight universities implicated in the admissions fraud scandal, requesting information about their admissions practices. Yale University’s President Peter Salovey stated that the letter informed him of a “preliminary investigation” into whether the schools have adhered to the “regulations and requirements pertaining to the federal student aid program.” But the letter did not specify what regulations could be at issue.

In addition to the recent admissions fraud case, another college admissions case is working its way through the federal court system. Students for Fair Admissions—a national group dedicated to eliminating race as an admissions factor—alleges that Harvard’s consideration of race in the admissions process unfairly discriminates against Asian-American applicants, in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

These admissions cases may indicate a broader shift in the regulation of the college admissions process. Expanding on its past efforts to prevent the denial of admission to minority students, perhaps the government will soon regulate how schools grant admission to everyone.