Should college admissions offices, like cell phone suppliers and car manufacturers, have a “discount” for family and friends? How important is fairness and consistency in admission decisions? Do public universities have a different set of moral obligations than private universities?
These are the questions raised by a recent audit of the admission process on four University of California campuses. The audit, conducted by the California State Auditor’s Office, Elaine Howle, focused on the risk of undue influence on admissions decisions. It was commissioned by state lawmakers following revelations that UC colleges inappropriately admitted two students and that a former University of California Los Angeles men’s soccer coach had pleaded guilty to accepting bribes in connection with the Operation Varsity Blues scandal. The university had already conducted its own internal review.
Howle’s exam focused on four campuses – UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC San Diego, and UC Santa Barbara. It revealed that from 2013-14 to 2018-19 there were 64 applicants with academic records that made them uncompetitive for admission who were nonetheless admitted due to their personal or family ties to donors or members. university staff. Fifty-five of the 64 took place at UC Berkeley, the flagship campus.
In the Operation Varsity Blues scandal, the “side door” used by brain Rick Singer took advantage of sports recruiting vulnerabilities, largely involving checkpoints in low-profile sports, and that was the point. starting point (but not the end point) for the Howle audit. The investigation was not exhaustive, but Howle’s team looked at student-athlete admissions for at least six sports teams on each of the four campuses and found 22 instances where coaches qualified candidates as students. -Potential athletes who did not have the academic or athletic qualifications required to compete. Thirteen of them were in Berkeley, four in UCLA and Santa Barbara, and one in San Diego.
The report makes it clear that the 22 identified cases are probably only scratching the surface, given that it “only examined athletes for a fraction of the sports teams on each of the campuses.” Even with this limited scope, the audit identified over 400 athletes who had not been on the team rosters for more than a year, some of whom had “limited or no athletic qualifications” and others linked to donors or campus staff.
As with Operation Varsity Blues, cases of improper admission to UC were the result of inadequate monitoring of sports admissions. Admissions offices have trusted coaches and athletic administrators to review and verify athletic recruit credentials, and while the report finds that the majority of athletes admitted meet college eligibility requirements, it is also true that in 2019-2020, the cumulative grade point average for athletes admitted to UCLA was 3.74, well below the average of 4.15 for the bottom quartile of all admitted students. From 2017-18 to 2019-2020, the committee that reviews student-athlete applicants at UCLA approved 98% of cases. According to the report, the director of athletic compliance at Berkeley says checking the references of all athletic rookies would strain the athletic department’s resources. This is much more the case today given the economic consequences of the pandemic.
Incentives to bring unqualified children of the rich into college as recruited athletes are built into the system. Many smaller sports coaches on UC campuses are responsible for fundraising for their teams, and what easier way to raise money than to offer a place to a student whose parents will donate? important to the coach’s program? Of course, this raises broader questions as to whether a donation in exchange for an admission slot is philanthropy or corruption. The home advancement side doesn’t want to touch on this issue, but U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, has proposed legislation that would prohibit donors from deducting donations that are directly or coincidentally related to the admission to university.
The state audit found that inappropriate influence on admission decisions did not come from athletics alone. He found 42 other cases at UC Berkeley where staff members intervened on behalf of applicants based on their relationships with donors, academic staff and personal friends. This went against stated campus policy.
Seventeen of the 42 were linked to donors or potential donors based on referrals from the university’s development office. At least five of them had received the lowest possible ratings from the app’s two readers. A further 11 were admitted due to ties to staff members at Berkeley or in the UC system. At least one of them was the child of a private college admissions dean, while another had served as a babysitter for a colleague. The last 14 were admitted off the waiting list, one having received an “inappropriate letter of support” from a university regent, later identified as the husband of Senator Dianne Feinstein.
I found the involvement of admissions officers in seeking and granting favors the most troubling part of the report, for two reasons. While in Operation Varsity Blues no admissions professional was involved, here you have admissions officers who benefit friends and family members at the expense of their ethical obligations to their institution and the profession.
This behavior is particularly evident in a public university. It is quite reprehensible for a private institution to decide that it will reward applicants who are already privileged for business reasons, but public colleges and universities have a special moral obligation to serve the citizens of their state – all citizens of their state. – with fairness and equity. The behavior is compounded by the fact that UC Berkeley is one of the most selective universities in the country. Bad influence in the admissions process is not a victimless crime. Students admitted despite not being competitive take a place at the university of another more deserving state resident.
The last part of the audit report deals with the lack of a process to ensure fairness and consistency in the reading and scoring of applications. Each of the three campuses evaluated (Santa Barbara was reviewed only for athletic admission) has two readers who rate each freshman candidate, with each campus having a slightly different scale.
These assessments can make a huge difference. The report points out that a UCLA candidate receiving two scores of “Highly Recommended”, the second highest score, has a 93% chance of being admitted, while a score of “Highly Recommended” and ” acceptable for admission ”(the following ranking) drops a student’s odds to 31%.
The problem is that the training and follow-up of readers is uneven. Last year, Berkeley readers collectively correctly rated 60 percent of the practical applications they reviewed. Even with a generous 10-point scale, it’s a D-minus. A three-reader comparison for Berkeley showed huge differences in scoring trends. One reader highly recommended 35 percent of applicants and did not recommend 45 percent, while another highly recommended only 6 percent and did not recommend 80 percent. There is also a potential implicit bias issue, as apps contain personal and demographic information that could influence a reader. The second Berkeley reader can see the first reader’s note.
The audit concludes that the university “cannot claim that every student who applies will receive fair and consistent treatment.” It’s a laudable ambition, but is it realistic or achievable?
It requires moving away from the premise of admitting and creating a class that achieves the strategic goals of an institution rather than admitting individuals. This approach is great for institutions, but it also means that not all applicants are given the same consideration in the admissions process. Should they?
Can an admissions process be fair and objective without being stereotypical? Clearly, a holistic approach to admission allows for a broader view of a student’s strengths, but as long as humans assess, subjectivity will be built in. Many philosophers would argue that objectivity is an outdated concept, that objectivity is ultimately about recognizing its bias and assumptions.
I hope that the California audit will cause serious soul-searching and discussion not only at the University of California, but also within the profession as a whole.