In the context of a pandemic that has killed about 190,000 Americans and economically devastated many millions more, getting into the college of your dreams is a boutique concern. But for many teenagers who have organized their school years around that goal, it’s everything.
And it’s going to be different this admission season. It may well be different forevermore.
That was what I concluded after a recent series of conversations with Jeffrey Selingo, whose widely anticipated new book, “Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions,” will be published on Sept. 15.
Selingo was given extraordinary access to the selection process and the selectors at Emory University, Davidson College and the University of Washington. He uses it in his book to present one of the most nuanced, coolheaded examinations of the admission process that I’ve read. He explodes certain myths — for example, that SAT and ACT scores are absolutely pivotal — and confirms other suspicions, such as the ridiculous advantage conferred on middling students who play arcane sports.
But his knowledge and insights also put him in an excellent position to speculate on matters beyond the book’s bounds: specifically, the little, big, temporary and permanent ways in which the coronavirus pandemic, which dawned after his research was done, will change the way colleges evaluate students and vice versa.
“College admissions is never going to be the same,” he told me.
He was focusing on selective schools, which educate a small minority of Americans in college but loom monstrously large in the psyches of many high school students, who intricately game out how to breach these exclusive sanctums. Well, the rules of that game just changed.
Selingo predicts that many schools that allow “early decision” applications, with which a student sets his or her sights on one preferred institution and commits to attending it if accepted, will fill more of their slots that way than ever, meaning that these applications will have better odds of success than ones submitted later. Schools leaned extra hard on early decision in the shadow of the Great Recession, he said, and now face the same economic anxiety, the same motivation to figure out as soon as possible which new students will be arriving and how much financial aid they’ll need.
But a more broadly consequential change involves standardized tests. Because the pandemic prevented students last spring from gathering to take the SAT and ACT exams, many selective schools are not requiring them for the time being. That will force them to focus more than ever on the toughness of the high school courses that students took and the grades they got.
Which students will benefit from that? It’s complicated. On one hand, affluent students who are coached for these exams and usually take them repeatedly won’t get to flaunt their high scores. On the other hand, less privileged students from high schools whose academic rigor is a question mark in screeners’ minds won’t have impressive scores to prove their mettle.
While these exams have been blamed for perpetuating inequality, they in some cases play the opposite role. In fact, a special committee of educators in the University of California system produced an exhaustively detailed report this year that determined that the use of SAT’s in admissions had not lessened diversity and that SAT scores were useful predictors of college success. (University leaders elected to switch to test-optional admissions for a few years anyway.)
The SAT’s downgrade won’t be fleeting, Selingo said. “We’re going to have a whole admissions year with scores of places going test-optional,” he said. “Once their world doesn’t come crashing down and they still recruit a class, those colleges are not going to flock back to the test. I think it’s been knocked off the pedestal permanently.”
He makes the same guess about what he calls “application bloat,” referring to the flamboyant multiplicity of clubs, causes, hobbies and other materials that applicants assemble and showcase. The pandemic put many of those activities on hold, creating a pause in which he believes that some schools and some students will recognize the lunacy of this overkill.
“It’s going to be difficult for students to fill in 10 spaces for extracurricular activities, flag down teachers for recommendations or take six A.P. courses and exams,” he said. “Admissions officers are going to have to focus on what matters. That means in the future they can pare back the application and reduce our collective anxiety about what it takes to get into college.”
Apart from the increased early-decision emphasis, which can favor in-the-know kids from in-clover families, the changes that Selingo predicts represent a back-to-basics streamlining of the process. It may have been born of terrible circumstances, but it’s also sensible and overdue.
That streamlining extends to how students will choose schools during the coming admission cycle. For epidemiological and economic reasons, many of them will forgo all the campus tours and all the assessments of how comfy the dormitories seem, how tasty the food is, how high the spires rise and how lushly the trees grow. They’ll perhaps look more closely at the course catalog, the roster of professors.
Selingo noted that many colleges based a big part of their sales pitch on their physical setting and even on lifestyle and social perks that are less relevant than ever, given pandemic-related restrictions. “That’s forcing parents and students to ask, ‘What are we really paying for?,’” he said.
The answer is, or should be, an education, and students may come to realize that excellent ones can be obtained at colleges that are less expensive than others in their sights and closer to home. The lure of going far away to college may diminish.
What I suspect will happen, at least in the short term, is that students’ thinking about colleges will be less emotional and more practical. The pandemic has soured the romance.
Colleges had previously presented themselves to students as nurturing homes away from home, then had to send those students packing when the virus spread. Colleges were endless parties, then the partying stopped. They touted the intimacies of classroom instruction, then had to defend the tuition-worthy effectiveness of remote learning. How can students not feel some skepticism in the wake of all that?
“This morning I listened to a Planet Money podcast called ‘The Old Rules Were Dumb Anyway,’” Selingo said. “It talked about the rules that went out the window because of the pandemic and which changes might be here to stay: alcohol takeout from restaurants, telemedicine, using nursing credentials across state lines.”
“It got me to thinking about the old rules that were dumb in admissions,” he added. And it got him to wondering how many were gone for good.
Yale law professor Daniel Markovits says the system that values hard work and promotes the American dream is in itself a sham. He is taking aim at the very structure that made him a success in his latest book, “The Meritocracy Trap.” He joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss.
The average ivy lead student receives a $100,000 subsidy (through tax advantages).
Douglas Hodge, the former chief executive of bond giant Pacific Investment Management Co., is scheduled to be sentenced Friday for his role in the sprawling college-admissions cheating scandal that has ensnared more than 50 parents, coaches and others.
Federal prosecutors say Mr. Hodge paid a total of $850,000 to the
- company and charity of the scheme’s ringleader, William “Rick” Singer, as well as to
- Georgetown’s former tennis coach and
- a University of Southern California account controlled by an administrator who was also charged in the case. His tab was the largest of any parent charged.William “Rick” Singer used his network to recruit parents and coaches, often by word of mouth from clients who used his legitimate college-counseling services and through more formal referrals by financial advisers and others.
Mr. Hodge pleaded guilty in October to charges of fraud conspiracy and money-laundering conspiracy and admitted to working with Mr. Singer over the course of more than a decade to slot four children into colleges as purported athletic recruits, even when they weren’t competitive players. He was in talks with Mr. Singer about a fifth child as well.
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Mr. Hodge apologized for his behavior in a letter to the judge ahead of his sentencing. “I have made serious mistakes in judgment, and, in the process I have violated the law. For these actions, I take full responsibility and I am truly sorry,” he wrote.
Prosecutors have asked for Mr. Hodge to be sentenced to two years in prison, three years of supervised release, a $200,000 fine and 300 hours of community service.
Mr. Hodge’s attorneys have asked for a prison term at the low end of the sentencing guideline range, which the probation office determined was between zero and six months, as well as supervised release and community service. They also requested the sentence be split between home detention and incarceration.
Thirteen parents have been sentenced so far, by three different judges. The longest prison term handed down was six months, by the same judge overseeing Mr. Hodge’s case.
The Wall Street Journal obtained the list, and it offers a glimpse of the effects on test scores
Among the findings by the data scientist:• More than half of the 50 high schools with the highest SAT scores are private.• Top public magnet schools performed exceptionally well in adjusted SAT scores.• Of the 10% of high schools with the highest SAT scores, a total of 1,035, just 64 had an adversity score of 50 or higher on the College Board’s scale.• Some of the poorest schools punched well above their weight while some of the wealthiest performed poorly.At the nation’s wealthiest high schools, students score an average of 441 points higher on the SAT than students at the poorest high schools, according to a Journal analysis of College Board data. On average, white boys whose parents earned college and graduate degrees outperform others, according to the analysis.
Years ago, Occidental College opted not to use admissions to chase money. The decision came with a cost.
One day in 2012, an admissions director at Occidental College got a surprising email. William “Rick” Singer proposed that the school reconsider an application from an academically challenged daughter of a wealthy family.
He wanted the school to overturn her rejection, and he suggested the parents would give the school money above and beyond tuition.
“Are you kidding?” an incredulous Mr. Singer wrote about her not being admitted. “We can create a win-win for both of us.”
Vince Cuseo, the admissions official at the small California liberal-arts school, gave a simple response: No.
Mr. Singer, the admitted mastermind of what federal prosecutors have called the largest admissions-cheating scandal in the country, had reason to be hopeful. He had made inroads into brand-name colleges and universities around the country scores of times, exploiting higher education’s focus on
Mr. Singer’s illegal operation has spawned criminal charges against 52 people, 29 of whom have pleaded guilty or plan to. It has also further highlighted the role of money in admissions, and the often wide gulf between high ideals of meritocracy and mercenary business practices.
Occidental, a small, private liberal-arts college in Los Angeles, has charted a different path. Two generations ago, it opted out of the chase for well-heeled students and put its money into scholarships for less well-off minorities.
Those decisions, however, have come at a cost. Occidental’s $434 million endowment is roughly $70 million smaller than what it might have been had the school prioritized prestige and wealth, according to Amos Himmelstein, the school’s vice president for planning and finance. While the school boasts beautiful beaux arts architecture and is building a new aquatic center, the infrastructure hasn’t kept up with improvements made by its peers, he says.
The question, Mr. Cuseo says, is at what price “are you willing to sell your soul”?
The once-booming age-old business model of higher education faces tremendous pressure due to demographic changes, disruptive technology and the tightest labor market in half a century.
As a result, colleges and universities face rising incentives to cut corners or outright lie to boost rankings. They are also under pressure to use legal backdoor strategies to attract affluent students and donations to boost bottom lines.
Mr. Singer exploited these forces to create what he called his side door strategy, in which he bribed college coaches to tag clients’ children as walk-on athletes even though they didn’t play the sport. He also rigged SAT and ACT scores.
Occidental has largely resisted these temptations. A turning point for the school came in the 1980s, as Los Angeles transformed into one of the nation’s most diverse cities. Occidental trustees, many local business owners themselves, felt there weren’t enough educated minorities to fill jobs. Occidental reworked its curriculum and enrollment practices to draw more black and Latino students, said Eric Newhall, a retired Occidental English professor who headed the school’s faculty council at the time.
The school emerged as one of the nation’s most racially and socioeconomically integrated private schools, long before many universities were prioritizing diversity.
One concern across the school quickly arose: If it turned away wealthy white students, who would pay the bills? The question divided the school, said Mary Weismantel, a young professor at Occidental in the 1980s who now teaches at Northwestern University.
Today, Occidental is 49% nonwhite and attracts fewer wealthy students than the vast majority of its peers. It also boasts one of the highest percentage of poor and working-class students receiving Pell Grants and has one of the highest rates of economic mobility of its peers, according to Harvard economist Raj Chetty and Occidental.
But financial stress has followed. In 1995 Occidental’s endowment ranked 120th in the nation. By last year it was 208th.
The school has lost ground partly because of its commitment to enroll poor and working-class students who need grants. Occidental’s need-blind enrollment program climbed from 11% of the budget in the mid-1980s to 24% by 1993. That December, then-President John Slaughter said the increase in financial spending “has escaped the boundaries of reasonableness,” according to an alumni publication.
The school eventually had to dip into its endowment to pay the bills. And today, while it maintains a strong reputation and a middling $434 million endowment, it still faces underlying fiscal issues. In September, Moody’s Investors Service revised the outlook on Occidental’s $84 million in debt outstanding to negative from stable, citing the school’s “commitment to affordability” and lagging fundraising.
These headwinds mean dormitories are cramped and nearly half are without air conditioning. The steel lawn-irrigation system installed in the 1930s is thoroughly rusted out. The campus is pretty and tranquil, but amenities pale when compared with those offered elsewhere: lazy rivers, palatial fitness centers, climbing gyms, high-tech libraries and swanky apartment-style dorms.
“Does that influence incoming freshman? I think it does,” said one prominent alumni, who has been active in fundraising. “The sad reality is that colleges that have leveraged white wealthy students have really prospered.”
Unlike other schools, it doesn’t heavily prioritize athletes or legacies in admissions.
Occidental fields 21 varsity teams but offers little credit in the admissions process for athletic prowess, according to school officials. The idea isn’t to be the best but to stay competitive, said Mr. Cuseo, now the vice president for enrollment and dean of admissions. In 2017 the school had to cancel the last four games of the football season because there weren’t enough healthy players. The team has since rebuilt.
In September, a study analyzing admission data at Harvard showed 43% of white students are either athletes, legacies or were children of donors or faculty. A similar count at Occidental was 18%, school spokesman Jim Tranquada said.
Occidental also resists gaming the rankings. Perhaps the most widespread strategy to manufacture an appearance of selectivity is lowering the bar for applicants in order to attract more. That generates more rejections, making a school appear more selective. Occidental hasn’t done this.
“There are a lot of things you can do that are pretty simple, and I’ve been in faculty meetings where it’s been discussed,” said Occidental Professor John McCormack. “But it’s just not who we are.”
In 2004, Mr. Singer assembled an advisory board for his then company CollegeSource, which at the time had a legitimate division. The board included five prominent higher-education figures, including Ted Mitchell, then president of Occidental.
Mr. Mitchell, who left Occidental in 2005, has said he was an unpaid adviser to Mr. Singer’s venture 15 years ago to provide counseling to low-income students.
The prominent Occidental alumnus who also knew Mr. Singer recalls hearing Mr. Singer call Occidental “dumb” for having what he portrayed as too thick of a wall between admissions and fundraising departments.
Mr. Cuseo says he has never felt pressure to take any of the students if they don’t meet school standards. Five years ago, the development office recommended he look at an applicant whose prominent and widely known name made his “eyes kind of open up,” he says.
Yet, “it was pretty darn clear that the student didn’t deserve to be admitted to Occidental,” he says. The school rejected the teen.
Mr. Cuseo said the email from Mr. Singer in 2012 was extremely unusual. An upset Mr. Singer requested a meeting to discuss helping his client’s child “find her way to becoming a student at Occidental” after she had been rejected. Mr. Singer also criticized Occidental’s admission policies.
“You are off base,” Mr. Cuseo replied.
The College Board, the New York based nonprofit that oversees the SAT, said it has worried about income inequality influencing test results for years. White students scored an average of 177 points higher than black students and 133 points higher than Hispanic students in 2018 results. Asian students scored 100 points higher than white students. The children of wealthy and college-educated parents outperformed their classmates.
“There are a number of amazing students who may have scored less [on the SAT] but have accomplished more,” said David Coleman, chief executive of the College Board. “We can’t sit on our hands and ignore the disparities of wealth reflected in the SAT.”
.. Yale University is one of the schools that has tried using applicants’ adversity scores. Yale has pushed to increase socioeconomic diversity and, over several years, has nearly doubled the number of low-income and first-generation-to-attend-college students to about 20% of newly admitted students, said Jeremiah Quinlan, the dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale.
.. The new score—which falls on a scale of one through 100—will pop up on something called the Environmental Context Dashboard, which shows several indicators of relative poverty, wealth and opportunity as well as a student’s SAT score compared with those of their classmates. On the dashboard, the score is called “Overall Disadvantage Level.”
An adversity score of 50 is average. Anything above it designates hardship, below it privilege.
The College Board declined to say how it calculates the adversity score or weighs the factors that go into it. The data that informs the score comes from public records such as the U.S. Census as well as some sources proprietary to the College Board, Mr. Coleman said.
In one instance, prosecutors said, the head women’s soccer coach at Yale accepted a $400,000 bribe in exchange for admitting a candidate as a recruited athlete. The student didn’t even play competitive soccer, according to prosecutors. After the student was admitted, her parents paid a college admissions consultant $1.2 million.
The consultant, William Singer, is expected to plead guilty to racketeering and other crimes Tuesday afternoon. He allegedly facilitated the fraud through Newport Beach, Calif.-based the Edge College & Career Network LLC.
Mr. Singer allegedly accepted payments in exchange for arranging that some of the teens could sit for the SAT or ACT college-entrance exams with extra time by getting doctor’s notes detailing learning disabilities or other issues, and that they take the tests with proctors who had been bribed to either correct wrong answers or take the test on the student’s behalf. Parents paid Mr. Singer between $15,000 and $75,000 for the test help, according to prosecutors.
Mr. Singer also allegedly helped parents work with coaches to claim admission spots reserved for recruited athletes, staging photos of the teens playing sports or photo-shopping images of the teens’ faces onto stock photos of young athletes.
Prosecutors alleged that charitable organizations were used as fronts for the bribery payments, which figured into the tens or hundreds of thousands in certain cases. Parents made the payments in the form of donations to his nonprofit organization, Key Worldwide Foundation
Other high-profile parents named in the case include Gordon Caplan, co-chairman of New York City law firm Willkie Farr.
Also charged was Bill McGlashan, founder and managing partner of TPG Growth, the arm of the private-equity firm that invests in fast-growing companies, including Airbnb Inc. and Uber Technologies Inc. With $13.2 billion in assets, TPG’s growth business has played a prominent role in the firm’s strategy since the financial crisis, and Mr. McGlashan’s star has risen at the firm.