With 52 defendants charged in the “Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal, it seems applicants’ faith in the admissions process has declined.
A new study by Kaplan Test Prep of more than 300 aspiring college students finds that 57% are concerned that their spot at their top college choice might be given to a less qualified applicant because of who that applicant is connected to. Some 23% say they personally know a college applicant who they believed was less qualified but received preferential treatment in admissions due to family wealth or connections.
“The acts exposed and headlines generated — often sensationalized — have understandably created an elevated level of cynicism about the process among teens,” Sam Pritchard, director of College Prep Programs at Kaplan Test Prep, says. “Among admissions officers, who talk to thousands of their peers, parents, and students every year, many feel that Varsity Blues has caused long term damage to the public view of the admissions process.”
ONLY ONE IN 10 COLLEGE ADMISSIONS COUNSELORS SAY THEY’VE BEEN PRESSURED TO ACCEPT AN UNQUALIFIED APPLICANT
While the Varsity Blues scandal made national headlines, experts say, a scandal of this scale is rare.
In a separate survey of admissions counselors at more than 300 colleges and universities, just about one in 10 respondents said they’ve been pressured to accept an unqualified applicant because of who that applicant was connected to.
“The important thing for students and their parents to know is that the illegal and unethical behavior outlined in the Varsity Blues investigation is uncommon, according to our research,” Pritchard says. “In almost all circumstances, your admissions chances are going to be determined by the same factors that have determined them for decades: your GPA, scores on the SAT and ACT, personal essays, letters of recommendation, your extracurriculars, and leadership qualities. Nobody should change their admissions strategy based upon the isolated, terrible behaviors exposed in the Varsity Blues investigation.”
COLLEGE ADMISSION PROCESS WAS ‘UNFAIR DECADES AGO’
The scandal, if anything, highlights just how unfair the college admissions process may be. But, Brian Taylor, managing director of Ivy Coach — a college admissions consultancy — says the process has always been unfair.
“It was unfair decades ago when highly selective colleges set quotas for Jewish applicants,” Taylor says. “It’s unfair now that these schools discriminate against Asian American applicants. It’s unfair that students who have access to great, often expensive SAT/ACT tutoring and private college counseling can get a major leg up in this process.”
Taylor raises an interesting point. Despite just how unfair the college admissions process may seem, it’s unfair to just about everyone, he points out.
“The college admissions process is also a process that offers advantages to low-income students, to underrepresented minorities, to students who will be the first in their immediate families to attend college,” Taylor says. “So while much attention is paid to the children of major donors to universities, the college admissions process has a way of upsetting just about everyone. Rich, poor, black, white…who doesn’t have a gripe with the process?”
And while colleges and those involved in the scandal are facing scrutiny right now, experts also say that colleges involved probably won’t suffer any serious harm.
“Will kids stop applying to the schools caught in the scandal? Almost certainly, the applicant pool will not decrease despite reservations about fairness,” Akbar Rahel, Esq., admissions director at Prep Expert, says. “This is the reality of the hypercompetitive environment relating to admissions and the premium placed upon name brand colleges.”
A TOTALLY REVAMPED SYSTEM NECESSARY?
The Varsity Blues Scandal highlighted an important lesson for all those involved in the admissions process: factors beyond test scores and grades, such as wealth and privilege, can impact an applicant’s chance of admission.
Many experts say that if the admissions process is truly going to become fairer, there will have to be a level of checks and balances implemented.
“More colleges need to hire and train experienced admissions officers who can ‘spot’ irregularities in an application,” Rahel says. “If an applicant is claiming to be a star athlete, for example, evidence of such accomplishments should be demonstrated in other parts of the application, either in a counselor report or teacher recommendations.”
Taylor suggests a similar approach. He says colleges’ athletic offices need to have a dedicated official whose sole role is to verify the athletic credentials of athletes.
“These checks and balances can go a long way to rooting out any corruption in college athletic recruitment,” Taylor believes.
The reality of the Varsity Blues scandal, while disheartening, shows that wealthy and privileged applicants can gain a leg up in admissions. But, experts say, this shouldn’t sway applicants from how they approach the admissions process going forward.
“I regularly advise applicants to focus on their own path and to not worry about fairness in the admissions process,” Rahel says. “Worrying about something that is generally not in their control can bring down morale.”