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After ‘Varsity Blues’ scandal, lots of talk about overhauling college admissions. Will there be action?

Gathering at USC dreams big, but many poor students will still be left behind

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Varsity Blues scandal

Karoline Jimenez visits and falls in love with Smith College, in Northampton, Massachusetts, during a visit as a senior in high school.

LOS ANGELES — Karoline Jimenez will never know exactly why her dream college turned her down. She was a student leader with top grades. Her essay recounted overcoming obstacles: moving to New York City from the Dominican Republic at 12, learning English, navigating bullies in school and an abusive father at home.

“When it turned out I didn’t get in, I collapsed emotionally, to the point that I missed school for a couple of days,” Karoline recounted recently.

Rejection without explanation has long been an annual rite of passage for high school seniors like Karoline seeking limited spots at elite four-year colleges. But now that bribes, lies and cheating schemes in the so-called Varsity Blues scandal have landed famous actresses, coaches and parents in prison, there are new cries for transparency about the role money, privilege and connections play in determining who gets in.

Last week, a host of ideas emerged during a conference sponsored in part by the University of Southern California, ground zero for bad admissions behavior. I listened carefully, wondering how and if anything will ever change.

I’m not holding my breath.

Related: Testing abuses, legacy preferences and bad parent behavior all influence who gets into college: What must change?

“It’s understandable that the public views college and admission with skeptical eyes,” said Robert J. Massa, a longtime enrollment specialist who now teaches at USC’s Rossier School of Education. Massa was among the higher education leaders pushing for new ways of fixing the system and restoring trust. They tossed around ideas like increasing enrollment at selective colleges and creating non-negotiable firewalls between admissions and development directors.

Other suggestions included setting aside more spots for low-income, first-generation and nontraditional students, ending legacy admissions (something John Hopkins University just did) or following the lead of the University of Texas, which guarantees admission to any public university in Texas to the state’s top-ranked students. There were calls for condensing college degrees from four years to three to save students time and money, creating a lottery system for admissions, and adding more federal Pell grants and state support for higher education, though little optimism the latter two proposals would happen.

Ideas also emerged for overhauling the way colleges are ranked by publications such as U.S. News and World Report – giving colleges props for fostering access, diversity and affordability, for example, instead of rewarding them for admitting students with high test scores and good grades, or for rejecting large numbers of recruited applicants so they can boast about selectivity.

Related: Colleges ratchet up recruiting of applicants, just to turn them down

Joyce Smith, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, talks about changing college admissions during a conference in Los Angeles last week with Jim Larimore of ACT and James Montoya of The College Board.

“It speaks to the problem we have all created by trying to compete, keep pace and be higher ranked,” said Joyce Smith, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. “It’s hard [for counselors] to explain to the public why colleges have 60,000 applications and your kid is in the pile. It is [also] hard to address the stress that kids are under in the process.”

Even after the Varsity Blues scandal, the public may never learn how and why decisions are made at selective schools that give a leg up to donorsathletes and legacies – by some estimates these advantages double or quadruple an applicant’s chances of admission. Nor may they receive an explanation for why so much merit aid continues to be doled out to middle- and upper-class students, and why admissions had been so easily – and cynically – manipulated.

In the face of such unfairness, it’s helpful to remember that higher education has always been a business, with admissions officers at selective schools beholden to trustees, wealthy alumni, college rankings – and, in many cases, ability to pay. There’s a great explainer in journalist Paul Tough’s new book, “The Years That Matter Most,” on the pressure for enrollment managers “to admit a lot of rich kids who can afford full price.” At USC, the estimated annual total cost of attendance without aid is upwards of $77,000.

“Most colleges don’t act within the best interest of the student – the driving force of the discussion is not ‘what’s the altruistic thing to do?” said Don Hossler, a senior scholar at USC who formerly headed student enrollment services at Indiana University-Bloomington.

Related: Operation Varsity Blues proves we need affirmative action

Disillusionment with higher education has been growing not only because of the Varsity Blues scandal but also due to fears over escalating tuition and unmanageable debt loads. Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council of Education, spoke about the doubt and dissatisfaction expressed during focus groups his organization convened around the country.

“We kept hearing, you don’t need to go to college, college isn’t for us,” Mitchell said. “We heard this from people over and over, across red, blue and urban lines. We heard that [college admissions] is a game they couldn’t play, it wasn’t real, they were at a disadvantage” if they weren’t athletes or couldn’t afford essay coaching, SAT tutors and private counselors.

While elite college admissions grab headlines, speakers also acknowledged that only a small proportion of Americans actually attend such schools. Some 40 percent of undergraduate students attend public two-year or for-profit institutions; only 55 colleges in the country admit fewer than 20 percent of their applicants, noted Nick Hillman, an associate professor in the education school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Black and Latino students, along with those who receive Pell grants, are far more likely to be found at open enrollment or broad access colleges. “Looking at students based on income buckets, selective institutions and inequality go hand in hand,” Hillman said.

Related: Facts about race and college admissions

That’s an understatement, in fact: Less than one-half of 1 percent of children from the poorest fifth of American families attend elite colleges and universities, according to one analysis.

Enrollment at the 3,250 lowest-funded community colleges and four-year universities is 43 percent black and Hispanic.

In recent years, many small liberal arts colleges are finding themselves in trouble due to declining enrollments resulting from demographic changes and more high school graduates heading straight into the workforce. Some are merging, closing or seeking survival strategies. Staggering student debt loads are leaving some students from the poorest families worse off than when they started, casting further doubt on the investment.

Related: Debt without degree, the human cost of debt that becomes purgatory

And obstacles loom large for low-income, first-generation college students like Karoline Jimenez, who often get little help from parents and overworked school counselors.

Nationally, the school counselor-to-student ratio nationwide is 1 to 464, and this gap is a topic of the film “Personal Statement,” which tells the story of Karoline and two of her peers as they navigate college admissions while working as peer counselors to help other students. (The Hechinger Report is partnering with the film to report on the counseling shortage).

As a high school senior, Karoline had pinned her dreams on all-women Smith College in Massachusetts, falling in love with its 147-acre campus of sweeping lawns, lovely libraries and state-of-the art classrooms. She felt a sense of belonging that eluded her at her Brooklyn high school, where she was teased for being gay.

Related: After a tough but promising freshman year, Dartmouth student tackles change at elite campuses

Karoline did not realize how competitive Smith would be. In recent years the school has shattered records for its entering class, attracting 5,780 applicants in 2018 for a class of about 613. Regrouping from rejection, Karoline ended up enrolling at Borough of Manhattan Community College and is now finishing her degree at SUNY-New Paltz, a four-year state university.

She’s also involved in another effort: a new social media campaign in partnership with Get Schooled, a free digital college and job adviser that encourages students to share stories about their struggles both in applying to college and coping once they arrive.

Other discussions on revamping and understanding the current admissions landscape are underway. Inside Higher Ed is hosting a discussion on the new landscape of considering race and ethnicity in selection decisions, following a judge’s ruling last year in favor of Harvard’s use of race-conscious admissions.

Related: Operation Varsity Blues Proves We Need Affirmative Action

But for real change to happen, elite schools have to be willing to admit more students from disadvantaged backgrounds, warned Catharine “Cappy” Bond Hill, managing director of Ithaka S + R, a nonprofit consulting group. As president of Vassar, Bond Hill doubled financial aid and pushed hard to admit more low-income students. “We have to change the stories by changing our behavior, but if more schools aren’t taking low-income students, it is irrelevant,” she said.

After the conference in Los Angeles, several themes and calls for action, research and policy initiatives emerged, to help “lift the veil of admission and student aid mystique and mystery,” said conference organizer Jerome Lucido, executive director of the USC Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice.

Admissions practices have already changed on many levels at USC. The school fired two employees associated with the allegations, placed a faculty member named in the indictment on leave and is conducting a full review of related donations, along with a host of other actions. It remains to be seen what will happen with the class being selected now.

In the meantime, is there any hope the public will finally get to know clearly how and why decisions are made?

I asked Jeff Selingo, a longtime higher education writer who spent months inside college admissions at three different colleges for his upcoming book, “Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions.”

It won’t be anytime soon, he said.

“There are no rules, really,” Selingo said. “Anytime a college says we care more about grades and test scores, there will be a decision that contradicts that. There are always exceptions. The highly selective colleges lead the way and the system works to their advantage.”

This story about the Varsity Blues scandal was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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