The revelation earlier this month that a few dozen parents may have paid millions to secure their children spots at elite universities sent the higher ed news cycle into overdrive. The alleged national conspiracy — which was met with a mix of shock, validation and perhaps a little bit of pleasure at the prospect of justice being served — threw the spotlight on areas of the admissions process vulnerable to exploitation.
It also raised questions about the degree to which colleges trade on their own selectivity, whether admissions are tamper-proof and how money can legally buy access to higher education, whether through better preparation or donor connections.
"What was surprising was how far-flung and large this scandal was," said Dan Prywes, a partner at Morris, Manning & Martin who represents several universities in the Washington, D.C., area. "Universities need to fortify their admissions processes against fraud and abuse and they need to start thinking like a bank, where every stage of the payment process is monitored and there are internal controls."
As the dust settles, Prywes and other higher ed crisis-management and admissions experts advise colleges across the board to examine and lock down the paths into their institutions while reinforcing to prospective students from all backgrounds that their applications will get a fair review.
Own the conversation
Colleges that weren't implicated in the scandal can choose whether to address the broader questions it raised about who gets admitted, and why.
"One of the hardest questions we have to answer when we're helping schools through a crisis is, 'Should we be proactive or reactive?'" said Philip Hauserman, vice president at The Castle Group, a public relations firm that specializes in crisis management.
The scandal made national news and involved well-known institutions. Given that scale, he said, colleges not affected could benefit from addressing the issue and letting internal and external stakeholders know they are reviewing their admissions processes to identify areas for improvement.
"It's a tremendous opportunity to show leadership on an issue that, if you think about it, is really at the forefront of everybody's mind right now," he said.
Colleges are taking a range of approaches, and not all are poised to land well. The president of Southern Methodist University, which was not among those implicated in the scandal, said in a letter to the campus that it would review admissions records of students possibly involved with the college prep firm at the center of the conspiracy ring.
"Our goal in conducting this review is not to cast doubt on any student's qualifications for admission, but to safeguard the reputation of the admission process for all our students," he wrote.
Writing for The Atlantic, Ian Bogost, a contributing editor and an SMU parent, called the message "defensive" and criticized its support of an admissions process that he contends is overly dependent on the idea of selectivity.
Others used the news as a foil to their own agenda. Juniata College, in Pennsylvania, told prospective students in an email obtained by Education Dive: "Parents offering bribes to get their kid into college? Awful. At Juniata, that's not how we do things. When you apply to Juniata, we admit you, not your parents' wallet." (IPEDs data show net annual tuition at Juniata ranged from $18,428 to $30,455 for the 2016-2017 academic year.)
At this point, Hauserman said, "I'm not sure that anybody really trusts the (admissions) process." Colleges can help control the message, though. Saying something as simple as, "'This is our process, this is how we do things,' can go a long way toward creating more trust," he said.
It's also important departments are on the same page.
"If the school hasn't given the internal team things to say or ways to respond, how are they responding?" he asked. "Are they just responding how they think the school does it? That's the genesis of a crisis right there, if you've got different people saying different things."
'Batten down the hatches'
The ability to detect the kinds of falsities at the heart of the latest scandal — faked test scores, coaches bribed to list nonathletes as athletes — is largely beyond the traditional scope of application reviewers. In response, Prywes said, colleges should take the steps companies do to protect themselves from fraud.
"You start off assessing what internal controls you have," he said. "You make sure that who's supposed to be doing what is documented. You need to make sure your personnel are honest because if your personnel aren't honest, a lot of other mischief is possible."
Prywes suggested colleges "batten down the hatches," such as by creating a hotline for people to anonymously report problems, making sure admissions records have an audit trail, and adding or increasing oversight in how prospective student-athletes are admitted.
The latter has "a lot of room for tightening up," particularly with regard to verification, Prywes said. In response to a small survey by The Chronicle of Higher Education, some institutions said they were making changes to their athletic recruiting processes in light of the scandal. Several also indicated a need for broader reform in that area.
To protect against this pathway being exploited again, universities could task an official to check in with teams after the start of the academic year to ensure students admitted as recruited athletes are on the roster, Prywes said. Paying attention to "curious large donations" to specific sports programs is also important, he added.
The "holistic" admissions process selective colleges use to review applicants is designed to help draw out personal qualities not easily captured in GPAs and standardized test scores, explained Jeffrey Selingo in The Atlantic. As a result, admissions officers must rely on applicants to accurately present themselves. That leaves an opening for fraudulent behavior that may go unnoticed — after all, he wrote, "[a]dmissions counselors are not hired to be detectives."
As students apply to more colleges, admissions officers are spending less time reviewing each record. Though the extent to which that would prevent them from spotting fabrications as blatant as those among the allegations of the latest admissions scandal is disputed.
"You can’t catch (all those) things because they were lies, they were fraudulent," said Annie Reznik, executive director at the Coalition for College, an alternative to the Common Application that seeks to improve equity throughout the college application process by making preparatory resources more widely available.
"If you're looking at a record of a student and you see one SAT score, how would you possibly be able to tell that the practice test they took in the basement was a 22 but now they actually scored a 31?" she said. "You wouldn't possibly be able to tell that when the only score you have to evaluate is the 31."
"One thing colleges need to pay really close attention to is offering a counter-narrative to (this story) because if everybody feels the system is rigged, who's the least likely to apply?"
Executive director, Coalition for College
For students with no or limited access to college preparatory help, being able to trust their application will get a fair review matters. To that end, more colleges are looking to get a bigger picture when reviewing applicants' test scores and other claims, with options for doing so including The College Board's Environmental Context Dashboard and by joining Reznik's Coalition, which offers prep resources to students from underrepresented groups and a digital "Locker" to store documents and multimedia to support or round out their applications.
"One thing colleges need to pay really close attention to is offering a counter-narrative to (this story) because if everybody feels the system is rigged, who's the least likely to apply?" she said, citing low-income and first-generation students as well as those from underrepresented backgrounds. "It's not to give the colleges credit so much as it is to help students who are out there wondering, 'Why should I even bother (applying),' to realize schools are actively looking to … read your application and find ways to make sure that your context and experiences are acknowledged fairly."
The idea of fairness underlines one of the thornier issues swirling in discussions about the recent scandal: colleges' relationship with their donors, whose family members often get preference in admissions in exchange for funds for buildings, faculty, departments and more.
Though not all schools honor it, that trade is a "general practice" across higher ed, Prywes said, adding that while it isn't fraudulent, it raises important issues of equity and fairness.
Although colleges can be reluctant to say so, those funds are important. Some evidence of that comes from a recent statement by the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO). It said federal legislation announced this month that would remove tax benefits for donations made to colleges before or during a family member's enrollment process there would "threaten to curb charitable giving." Those donations, NACUBO said, are "fundamental" to institutions' health and ability to offer high-quality education.
"This is a well-known existing inequity in the system," Prywes said, "and it's going to take a lot of willpower for universities to move away from that."