Time to be honest: College admissions not a level playing field

Time to be honest: College admissions not a level playing field
© Getty Images

The last of the celebrity defendants have been criminally sentenced in the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal. The timing couldn’t be more ironic.

Schools are struggling with how to get students safely back on campus, while a new crop of high school seniors earnestly prepare their college applications. Yet the college admissions system is as corrupt and corrupting as before. It is not, however, broken. It is working exactly as colleges want it to: unfairly, opaquely, and guaranteed to induce the frenzied anxiety that drives outrageously inflated tuition costs. I know this because I unintentionally helped create it.

Some 37 years ago, I co-authored "Getting In," a book that not only revealed the inner workings of the college admissions system, but spelled out how a student could improve his or her chances of getting in. The book became a national best-seller. My co-author, Paulo DeOliveira — who had spent five years working in admissions at our alma mater, Brown University — and I appeared on scores of TV shows, radio programs, and in newspapers and magazines across the country.


Ours wasn’t the first book on the subject, but it struck a chord with college-bound families. We explained that selective colleges weren’t looking for the well-rounded kid, but instead, were seeking to assemble the well-rounded class. To get in, you needed a hook. So we introduced the then-hot advertising words — packaging and positioning — to the college admissions lexicon.

In 1983, when the first edition appeared, admission to top schools was already highly competitive — but not insanely so. The most selective school in the country that year was Harvard, which accepted nearly 15 percent of applicants. Last year it was 4.5 percent. Columbia University — then suffering from the collapse of New York City — was barely able to attract 3,400 applicants and accepted 49 percent of them. Last year, Columbia accepted just 6 percent of the 42,000 who applied. Back then, great state schools like Michigan and UC Berkeley were not “reaches” but “possibles” and “safeties” (other terms we didn’t invent but helped popularize) and accepted 55 percent and 80 percent respectively. In 2019, they accepted only 23 percent and 17 percent.

What happened to change the admissions scene was a confluence of four forces. The most important and disruptive was that U.S. News published its first-ever college rankings. Parents — and to a lesser extent, kids — quickly began to obsess over where a school appeared on the list.

The second big event was the publication of "The New York Times Selective Guide to College" by the then-education editor of the paper, Edward Fiske. It was an anecdotal and subjective guide to 350-odd colleges that illuminated the real differences among “name” schools. Families learned that Dartmouth was nothing like Brown; Wesleyan was different from Williams; and Bowdoin was not Bates.

The third game changer was a lawsuit by the College Board — owner of the SAT exams — that unsuccessfully tried to shut down the Princeton Review. The College Board had long proclaimed that one couldn’t study for the test — that it was an aptitude test, not a subject matter or skills exam. John Katzman, The Princeton Review’s founder and CEO, proved them wrong, and tens of thousands thronged to the Princeton Review’s centers not just for group tutoring, but for the social scene. Suddenly SAT tutoring was cool, and many more kids were meeting colleges’ minimum cut-off scores.


And the fourth force was the digital revolution: the proliferation of the personal computers and colleges’ use of the Common Application. Suddenly it was way easier for students to increase the number of schools they applied to. And they did: in 1990 only 9 percent of students applied to seven or more colleges. By 2015, that number was 36 percent.

Universities themselves saw opportunity in this increased competition: They strategically plotted how to raise their U.S. News ranking — and more than a few were caught cheating. And they raised the cost of attendance faster and far beyond what logic would suggest. Between 1978 and 2015, the cost of attending college rose 1,225 percent — nearly twice the rate of the rise in health care costs.

Brand names have value. And however flawed rankings may be, they are a rough and simple proxy for that value. As long as it costs upward of $100,000 for four years at public universities and $200,000 for private colleges, the race for return-on-investment will continue — even in the post-COVID-19 environment. In short, getting into the "right" school (at least perceptually) has become more fevered, costly and competitive than ever.

As a result, it is estimated that more than a quarter of “high achieving” high school students utilize the services of private college counselors. The vast majority don’t engage in the criminal “side doors” — read bribes — that the Varsity Blues mastermind Rick Singer engaged in. But many — and I include myself in this group — have gone right up to the ethical line. Have we “crafted” — really invented — a kid’s positioning or held a student’s hand while they wrote every word of their application essay? Yes. And, yes, we’ve arranged seven-figure donations to ensure that a child would be considered a “development prospect.”

Jack DeGioia, the president of Georgetown, told Katzman and me several years ago that in order to create a vibrant student body, his school has to fill more than 140 separate student categories or “buckets” to reflect the diversity of interests and backgrounds a well-rounded class needs. Of the 19,500 applicants in 2016, Mr. DeGioia estimated that about half were academically qualified for admission. Only these 10,000 really then competed for slots in the various buckets.

Mr. DeGioia’s revelation might provide a solution to the ever-escalating admissions anxiety. The simplest change that would have the most impact would be colleges being candid about their cut-off GPA/SAT requirements. Different buckets will naturally have different minimum scores: It is no secret that recruited athletes’ minimum grades are far lower than those of kids competing for a slot in biology or engineering department. So let’s stop pretending students are being evaluated against a single standard.

We can reduce some of the anxiety and unfairness — both perceived and real — by allowing kids to apply within the segment they’re really competing in. Schools should simplify the buckets and publish the minimum qualifications for each. I propose four buckets: academic, extracurricular, grit, and a lottery. Colleges would also publish what percentage of the entering class would be allocated to each bucket.

Kids would then be required to apply to only one of the four buckets. The most academically-gifted high school students would be encouraged to apply to the academic bucket. Kids would more likely be realistic about their chances and colleges wouldn’t have to go through the disingenuous charade of trying to explain why African American applicants were being admitted with much lower test-scores than Asian Americans.

A second bucket would seek kids with particularly strong extracurricular achievements — athletes and musicians, for example. A third bucket would be open to students who are minorities or who grew up in poor neighborhoods but who showed real grit in overcoming adversity. Let’s be clear: Colleges don’t want to abandon affirmative action. With this approach, they won’t have to; they’ll just be more candid about it.

The fourth bucket – the lottery – was triggered by something admissions deans and college presidents have regularly admitted over the last 40 years: They could fill an entering class many times over with high-scoring kids other than the ones they accepted, and it wouldn’t make any difference in the nature or quality of the class. There is already a significant component of randomness and luck in the selection process. So, let’s embrace it. If a student has the minimal (published) academic credentials, let them decide whether they want to enter a lottery. Hey, you never know.

College admissions is not a level playing field. Given the revelations that have emerged from the dozens of wealthy families who tried to beat the system, and the COVID-19-triggered changes to academics and campus life, the system is teetering. Let’s not waste a good crisis: We can make college admissions fairer, more transparent, less angst-ridden, and far less prone to corruption.

Steve Cohen is an attorney at Pollock Cohen in New York and the co-author of “Getting In.”