The only significant difference between the tumult of college admissions this year and every admissions season since the establishment of the first American university in 1693 (College of William and Mary) is that Division I coaches were paid to add applicants with no appreciable skill in water polo or crew or soccer or tennis or sailing (sailing?) to the list of recruited athletes at Yale, Stanford, Texas, USC, UCLA, Wake Forest, and Georgetown. Some of the manipulation was unremarkable; a name appeared on a list of students to be given a place as requested by a coach. Other schemes were bizarre, including the photoshopping of applicants’ faces on the torsos of real athletes. Yeah, and I have a picture of myself stepping out of the Saturn V on the surface of the moon. That ploy just seems sadly embarrassing. To be clear, the recruitment of athletes to Division I athletic programs has long been problematic, witness the FBI’s current and vigorous investigation of NCAA basketball. The celebrity admission scandal breaks new ground in that coaches may have been (have been) paying recruits for generations, but applicants have not been paying coaches.
Well, not directly.
Creepy celebrity malefactions include buying or manufacturing diagnoses of particular sorts of disabilities that demanded special, and thus vulnerable, testing and the even creepier hiring of stand-in test takers to wallop an SAT or SAT score notably more impressive than the testing of the actual applicant would have been. Test proctors were bought off, test sites may have been compromised, faked applications were certainly purchased and presented.
I’m just a simple consumer of popular culture, but photos of William Singer, founder and president of The Edge College and Career Network ought to have tipped folks off from the start. Seriously, in every shot the slime shines from every pore. Ok, maybe it’s just the haircut, but, come on, folks, this guy’s a bookie, a fixer, or a not-very-slick con man. His appearance aside, the enterprise he established looked a lot like a number of entirely legit consulting services offering parents and students assistance in negotiating the college admissions process.
I was a college counselor for most of my career in secondary schools, advised thousands of students, occasionally worked as a consultant to families that did not have access to the sorts of counseling opportunities my schools provided. I loved that work and have remained an observer of college admissions, now preparing the fourth edition of my quirky college guide, America’s Best Kept College Secrets: An Affectionate Guide to Outstanding Colleges and Universities.
I considered college counselling a privileged opportunity in that I met students, usually in their junior year, just as the school, colleges, parents, and the universe came at them with what were essentially impossible tasks. All they had to do, aside from take on demanding course work, prepare for SATs ACTs, AP tests, and rigorous coursework, was to imagine themselves five years in the future, assess the sorts of qualities that reflected their capacity for intensive work in whatever hypothetical futurescape they imagined, touch the truest elements in their character, write with originality and unforced brilliance about themselves (in a page or less) conveying an appealing blend of modesty and self-assurance.
All of this, of course, directed in an application to colleges that appeared on sweatshirts of the coolest kids, that had a name parents and grandparents immediately recognized, staffed by counselors reading essays by the hundreds.
Simply put, the instructions were clear: Give a compelling and comprehensive account of yourself, (in a page or less), address it to a nameless, faceless panel of judges who hold your future (and your family’s standing in the community) in their paws, and prepare to sit with increasing anxiety until decisions come your way in March or April, at which time, you will have something like three weeks to decide which of the remaining options are likely to match your sense of future self.
I worked in academically ambitious private schools which hired me to give individual attention to each of the students in my care. I had the time to work through many of these challenges with students, to make sure that their applications were completed on time and sent to an appropriate range of colleges so that, in March or April, they actually had some good options to consider. Most high school counselors do not have the resources that I did.
Every single kid I worked with started way ahead of the curve.
Then, to return to the subject at hand, while all of my students were smart and worked hard, some came from families that had the ability to pay tuition in full; about 50% did not. It’s an oversimplification to note that full pay applicants are at an advantage in the admissions process, but, at the risk of oversimplification, a student not belonging to one of the special categories particularly sought by the institution, when all other qualities are equal, is less likely to be admitted than an entirely similar student whose family can cough up the full cost of attending. Without naming names, a prominent liberal arts college in New England admits about fifteen percent of roughly eight thousand applicants. Of the admitted group, about forty-eight percent will enroll. Of those who enroll, about forty percent will pay the entire seventy-three thousand dollars a year. Equally noteworthy – almost twenty percent will pay nothing.
I don’t know how the percentage of full pay applicants admitted compares to the percentage of recruited athletes admitted, or first generation college students admitted, or Native Americans admitted, but I can report that roughly fifty percent of enrolled students are students of color, and at the same time, the percentage of “legacy” students admitted is easily twice that of non-legacy students.
To be fair, children of graduates of this institution are likely to have been advantaged in a number of ways. The statistic that is NEVER published, however, has to do with the relationship between what are known as “impact donors” and preferred admission. The most prestigious colleges and universities are prestigious because they have trotted out highly successful and financially advantaged graduates for generations. Without regard to a huge gift given in expectation of special consideration in admission, alumni have tossed fortunes into the coffers of a privileged few institutions of highest repute.
How much dough do these colleges have in the kitty?
Harvard – thirty-six BILLION dollars in endowment funds, Yale – twentyseven BILLION, Stanford – twenty-four BILLION, Princeton – twenty-three BILLION. There’s a big drop-off after these megaliths as MIT, Penn, Michigan, and Northwestern are only in the teens.
Even by those standards a relatively modest endowment, such as Duke’s – seven billion, or Notre Dame’s – nine billion, is still sitting relatively pretty when it comes to day-to-day expenses. I’m no expert at donating millions, but the rule of thumb I heard back in my college admissions days was that, in order for an otherwise less than equally qualified candidate to rise above the ordinary preference of a legacy application, we had to be talking “New Building Donor”. That’s a lot of donation; by comparison, “ordinary” largesse seems mildly affordable, to some I’m sure. Yale is remarkably up front about the endowment gifting procedure, allowing prospective donors to size up their gift before selling stock.
For example, currently donors may support financial aid for students in Yale College or the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences by creating an endowed fund with a minimum gift of $100,000. A named visiting professorship in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences or athletic coach’s position may be endowed with a gift of $1,500,000, an existing professorship with a gift of $3,000,000, or an incremental professorship, dean’s, or director’s position with a gift of $6,000,000.
Pretty heady stuff, this endowing a coach’s salary with a gift of a million five, but still waaaaay short of New Building impact. I’ve had two New Building applicants in my forty years of counseling, each of which was admitted to programs ordinarily ignoring candidates with their academic profile. In each case, some notably more prepared students were not admitted; they got it. One later transferred and sent me an email with a picture of a new building named after her former classmate’s father.
So, nothing really new as rich get richer and continue to find advantage on almost every playing field.
Honest conversation about college admission has to begin with the bottom line: It isn’t about the applicant; it’s about what the college needs. Snappy New England college profiled above takes care of alumni, brings about twenty percent of the class in as recruited athletes, wants very much to bring diversity to a rural campus, has to keep the male/female balance close to 50/50, and guarantees a stable admissions season by taking roughly forty percent of applicants by Early Decision.
Oh, and a new building or two is always welcome.
So, take some comfort, achingly hopeful junior or senior – Four years from now, you’ll be living the life that has come to you, happily spending your last weeks in your dormitory, no matter whose name is on the building.