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The revolution has arrived in college admissions

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The “Varsity Blues” scandal involving actress Felicity Huffman and other celebrities is just a sideshow in the world of college admissions. A revolution has been triggered in collegiate admissions practices by three forces: the effects of a major Justice Department antitrust investigation of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC); this week’s ruling in a lawsuit against Harvard University that alleged discrimination against Asians; and a grassroots push for eliminating so-called legacy admissions for children and other descendants of college alumni. 

Most of the criticism has involved elite institutions of higher education — Ivy League schools and their cousins — that employ hard deadlines and restrictive commitment agreements to build their classes of entering undergraduate students.

In a recent 211-3 vote, delegates to the annual NACAC Assembly eliminated four key provisions from the organization’s Code of Ethics and Professional Practices that were leading the organization into the jaws of Justice.

These changes eliminated the traditional May 1 commitment deadline for admitted students to finalize their college choices, voided the prohibitions on other colleges recruiting already-committed students (including recruitment of such students into transfer programs), and abolished rules that kept colleges from offering incentives such as special scholarships for students admitted under early decision application plans.  

Assembly delegates were made aware only in September that the federal government was close to officially filing an antitrust suit, and that repeal of certain code provisions was the only path that would allow NACAC to enter into an anticipated settlement agreement with the Department of Justice (DOJ). Stephanie Niles, NACAC’s president, told Inside Higher Ed that the vote taken reflected “a desire to preserve this organization.” 

For some reason, the DOJ antitrust investigation did not seem to probe NACAC’s membership rules that prohibit for-profit colleges and universities from joining the organization, arguably contributing to the stigmatizing of the for-profit sector.

Another action — the civil rights lawsuit accusing Harvard of discriminating against Asian Americans — came to an end in November 2018. On Tuesday, District Judge Allison D. Burroughs rejected claims by the plaintiffs, Students for Fair Admissions, that Asian American applicants had to systematically achieve higher scores on the SAT and other admissions tests to gain admission to Harvard. The ruling came nearly 11 months after a three-week trial, and an appeal is likely.

A third issue that has come to public notice is the practice among 42 percent of private colleges and universities and 6 percent of public institutions to grant admissions preferences to descendants of alumni. Last month, the New York Times editorialized against this practice, noting, “A country struggling with deeply rooted inequality need not continue an affirmative action program for successful families.” 

The Times said the practice began in the 1920s to help screen out growing numbers of Jewish and Catholic applicants. The newspaper cited research showing that legacy applicants from 30 elite colleges had a 23 percent higher chance of admission — 45 percent higher for children of alumni. Jim Jump, a past president of NACAC, also has criticized the practice, observing that “legacy privilege serves as a form of property transfer from one generation to another.” 

Taken together, the federal antitrust and civil rights actions, the legacy admissions issue and the loss of public trust in ethical collegiate admissions practices brought on by the Varsity Blues scandal, have created a perfect storm. These all serve to build pressure on Congress as it struggles to move forward with the long overdue reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA).  

On Sept. 26, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) introduced the Student Aid Improvement Act (S. 2557), a simplified set of provisions that represents a gambit to gain legislative approval of those HEA changes that have attracted bipartisan support, given the longstanding impasse between Republicans and Democrats on passing a full reauthorization bill. 

Nothing in Alexander’s bill addresses college admissions. Perhaps that is best. The disruptive changes occurring in higher education admissions may need the gift of time for legislators to see how colleges and their stakeholders work through this revolution.

C. Ronald Kimberling, Ph.D., a research fellow with the Independent Institute, was the U.S. assistant secretary for postsecondary education during the Reagan administration and has been a chancellor at several colleges and universities.

Tags Education Lamar Alexander Legacy admissions Operation Varsity Blues University and college admissions

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