We know it doesn’t feel like it, but it’s been less than 6 months since the Justice Department announced the indictments resulting from Operation Varsity Blues, so it’s no surprise that few universities have announced any substantial policy changes in their admissions procedures. If most big institutions move slowly, universities look at them and wonder, “What’s the big rush there?”  There are still committees to be convened in order to create sub-committees that can issue memos that can be circulated in order to be approved as official reports by committees who can then move items forward for approval by the faculty and/or Board of Trustees. In other words, don’t expect big changes in how colleges admit students anytime soon.

Changes and disruptions 2016 – 2020

The truth is that the majority of bachelor’s granting institutions admit more applicants than they reject, so no one is going to be bribing or cheating their way in.  Those schools do not need to make admissions fairer (paying for college is a whole other issue, but that’s for another day). For the vast majority of American high school graduates finding a good college to admit them is as easy as finding a good restaurant in NYC. There are fewer than three hundred colleges that reject more students than they admit, but, yes, many of them could and should change their admissions processes in order to make them fairer. Here’s how.

To start with, cheating’s not the problem.  Despite the salaciousness of the Varsity Blues scandal it doesn’t actually represent a major concern for higher education. Cheating is wrong and cheaters should be punished, but the federal financial aid verification process denies thousands more people access to college than Lori Loughlin ever did.  Verification is not, however, going to get a television series or a book deal. In much the same way that Bernie Madoff became the face of the Great Recession, rather than the big banks, Rick Singer and his clients threaten to become not just the symbol but the explanation for everything wrong with college admissions. Don’t be distracted.

Let’s leave the perpetual whack-a-mole of catching cheaters to the testing companies and colleges. Some of the colleges involved in the Varsity Blues scandal have already announced that they will be more thorough in checking the credentials of applicants who claim to be athletes, but little more than this promise to check jocks has materialized.

So, how should we fix it?  And what does that even mean?  The most we can likely hope for in the near future is an admissions system that, even if it doesn’t halt the advantages that wealth creates, doesn’t expressly create disadvantage for those who can’t afford to spend tens of thousands of dollars getting into college.

A more equitable admissions system would remove the secrecy, side doors, trap doors, and quid pro quo from the process. If we’re to create an American system in which what’s in a student’s brain is more important than what’s in their bank account, there must be aggressive intentional balancing of opportunity and radical changes to the current way in which we evaluate ability and reward achievement.

The biggest change that could occur among selective schools might just be a willingness to take more risks.  Schools like Notre Dame and Vanderbilt sometimes look like insurance companies that only insure the healthy and young. Their high graduation rates are the product of who they admit, not what they do with them there. Because they only admit those with the greatest probability of graduating, their admission process discriminates against low income students since being low income greatly increases the probability that some seemingly minor hiccup will derail a promising college career. This is also further compounded by a conflation of metrics and merit. The hyper-focus on metrics such as GPA and standardized tests scores gives an advantage to privileged students whose parents have spent years purchasing all the right experiences to produce a perfect artisanal, small batch, if not quite bespoke, applicant. In addition to addressing the demands on applicants, universities should work to recruit more responsibly and equitably.

Universities, especially those who attract the most recruiters, collaborate with regional partners to expose students to career outcomes, this would be especially useful to reduce the impact of obsession with rankings, if the same opportunities can be captured at different institutions. High schools should work to deescalate the growing continuing “arms race” in which the demands placed on students are no longer about preparation but instead about accumulation of the greatest number of trophies. While these theoretical long-term solutions are being worked on there are several immediate fixes that can reduce inequities in the system. Here are a few:

  1. Eliminate complexity of admission deadlines
  2. Eliminate consideration demonstrated interested
  3. Institute ACT/SAT optional policy
  4. Make all application components required or optional cease “recommending” submissions
  5. Standardized all GPAs (stop weighted GPA)
  6. Decouple aid from metrics that advantage the wealthy
  7. Value work as much as, if not more than, volunteering
  8. End legacy preference
  9. End athletic preference
  10. Discourage the curricular arms race (most students do not need calculus or 4 years of a language to succeed in college)
  11. Lobby politicians to fix the verification (and tax) policies (which are federal and not college created) to put more focus on the wealthy than the poor.

And while these reforms might whack the latest mole, they aren’t going to solve the real problems of preventing anxious and brand-obsessed individuals from seeking ways to get ahead. Real reform will only take place if those in power, from college presidents to high school counselors, acknowledge and actively work to dismantle the systemic cumulative advantages that many policies give to families with wealth and influence, but these changes will make it more difficult for those with wealth to purchase access and hoard opportunity.

Further reading:

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