College admissions scandal can drive reform

College admissions scandal can drive reform
© iStock

The latest news from the ongoing college admissions scandal — multi-million-dollar payments and an international web of consulting firms providing access to elite schools — emerged shortly after universities and colleges wrapped up the admissions process for this fall’s incoming freshmen. For most students the road to college did not include blatant cheating on admissions tests, doctored photos of faux athletes and high price tags of deception. 

Even if admissions fraud isn’t the norm, the revelations point to two serious problems.  First is the fact that admissions processes are open to fraud, and several colleges have already said they will be taking steps to prevent it. This is good news, if colleges audit their admissions processes and put controls in place akin to those used to check financial practices. Reforms must go deeper than revoking the unchecked recruitment authority given to athletic coaches.

But what’s even more important — for students themselves, and for a nation that needs all its citizens to have access to opportunity — is that institutional leaders address practices that perpetuate privilege. While the colleges and universities implicated in the scandal enroll a very small fraction of students, less than 5 percent of our nation’s 16 million undergraduates, they also offer outsized opportunity for rewarding careers and leadership positions to those fortunate enough to gain access. And recent research shows that at some of the most selective colleges and universities, as many students come from the top 1 percent of the U.S. income distribution as from the bottom 60 percent.

ADVERTISEMENT

Here are four steps that would help colleges even the playing field:

  1. Set visible, quantifiable access and inclusion goals.

Many college leaders assert that equitable access is a priority. But they don’t always demonstrate that commitment in the ways their schools raise or allocate resources, make admissions decisions and distribute financial aid. By publicly naming specific goals for socioeconomic access and inclusion, as well as reporting on progress annually, college leaders can ensure that the priority is understood and pursued by everyone in the college community: trustees, alumni, administrators, admissions officers, faculty and students.

  1. Recruit new pipelines of students.

Too many elite colleges rely almost exclusively on traditional pipelines of new high school graduates. Meanwhile, more than a third of U.S. undergraduates (6 million students) are enrolled in community college. Most of them aim to transfer to four-year colleges and attain a bachelor's degree — and most are well-equipped to do so, according to research by the Aspen Institute and by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.

Military veterans, too, often seek higher education after completing active service. Research shows that many of these “nontraditional” students wind up in for-profit colleges with low completion rates and high default rates, rather than the colleges and universities that give them a better chance to succeed.

  1. Prioritize need-based financial aid.

For too long, colleges have touted policies of admitting applicants without regard to family income and of meeting the financial needs of low-income students, without actually increasing enrollment of lower-income students. And many still offer so-called merit aid (aren’t all admitted student meritorious?) to families that didn’t ask for it and don’t need it. Colleges must put the money behind their stated priorities and increase the number and amount of need-based awards, by raising funds dedicated to need-based financial aid, reallocating budgets and tapping endowments.

  1. Audit policies and practices for privilege.

As the scandal has brought to light, the admissions preferences most prevalent at elite colleges benefit the wealthy. If colleges are truly committed to equitable access, they need to investigate, each year, the data on each group given admissions preferences — including athletes, children of alumni and donors and early-decision applicants — and assess the extent to which those practices stand in the way of achieving access and inclusion goals. While colleges are unlikely to completely eliminate these preferences, analyzing their implications can help surface the need and opportunities for change. 

Federal and state policymakers are now considering legislation to prevent further scandals and expand access to these schools. But even if they establish minimum standards for equitable access, colleges and universities themselves will continue to control their recruiting and admissions practices and decide how they spend their money. 

It would be insufficient if this scandal prompted only fraud prevention. Instead, the scandal should summon college leaders to a higher purpose: implementing systemic reforms to ensure educational opportunity for all talented students, regardless of privilege. Anything less falls short of higher education’s promise as a public good.

Josh Wyner is executive director of the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute, where he also serves as vice president.