Wednesday, March 25, 2015


My last post, dealing with President’s Office interference in the admissions process at the University of Texas at Austin, was written under duress.  “Duress” might be too strong a word, because no one was holding a gun to my head or threatening my children.

I should also be clear that the “duress” was self-imposed.  On Tuesday, March 3, I had knee replacement surgery, and not knowing how I would feel in the aftermath, wanted to publish a post on the Texas situation the previous day.  The surgery went well, I seem to be recovering as well as or better than expected, and I’ve developed a new appreciation for the DuPont slogan, “Better Living Through Chemistry.”  But it is only now, three weeks after surgery, that I am starting to feel the urge to write.

That urge may have nothing to do with the surgery and everything to do with the biorhythms of blogging.  It’s been two and a half years since I started Ethical College Admissions, and it is almost certainly the most rewarding thing I’ve done in my professional life.  Finishing a post and finding my “take” on a subject is an endorphin rush like no other.

Long before I ever thought about joining the blogosphere (or had any idea that such a thing existed), I remember hearing my friend Jeannine Lalonde (better known as Dean J, author of the Notes From Peabody blog for the admissions office at the University of Virginia) talk about how blogging had changed her life, such that the first thing she does each morning is check her two blogs (she also writes one on design).  I couldn’t do a daily blog, as I struggle to carve out time to think and write, but if I go two weeks without posting I start to feel the way I do when I go too long without chocolate.

Jeannine talked about seeing a blog as a conversation with readers.  That, of course, assumes that there are people reading the blog (if a blog post falls in the forest and no one reads it, does it make any impact?). When I began writing I had no idea if I had anything worth saying, if I could discipline myself to write on a regular basis, or if anyone would care.  I was shocked the first time someone mentioned that they had read and liked the blog, and it is gratifying to know that there are a number of people out there who care about the same issues I do.  According to the ClustrMaps analytic tool, the last post drew the 20,000th visitor to the site.

I am particularly appreciative of those ECA readers who reach out either to express support or to challenge my thinking.  After the Texas post there were two I want to highlight who supported my overall position but challenged me on specific points.

Steve LeMenager’s comment took issue with a point I made regarding the principle of fairness.  The Kroll report indicates that the students admitted to UT-Austin by the President’s Office over the objections of the Admissions Office did not take the place of an already admitted applicant but increased the size of the freshman class, and I suggested that was, if not “better” and “more fair,” at least not as ethically objectionable.  Steve suggests that both the report and I might be naïve (my word, not his).  He correctly points out that admissions in a “hyper-selective” (his word, not mine) institution are zero-sum, that any decision to admit one student is by necessity a decision not to admit other students, and that thinking of admissions slots as finite helps an institution focus on its priorities.  Steve worked at Princeton, so he has experience and perspective that I don’t have.  He allows that it might be different at a public university, but I think he is right and that my thinking was sloppy.  I’m also encouraged to know that hyper-selective institutions struggle over the fairness piece involved with admitting a class.

The other communication was an e-mail from Jon Boeckenstedt at DePaul.  Jon is someone whose voice and perspective I value, and I am particularly envious of his ability to organize and analyze data (here’s a link to Jon’s blog).  Jon quibbled (his word) with a statement I made that was almost a throwaway. 

One of the things that struck me when reading the Kroll report was the impact of the Texas law that guarantees admission to students in the top 10% of their class in Texas high schools.  75% of the spaces in the freshman class at UT-Austin come through the Top 10% program, including most of the spaces in certain academic programs.  The Kroll report suggests that UT-Austin would like to be holistic in admissions but that the 10% law prevents its ability to do so because of the legal mandate to put emphasis on a single factor, class rank.  The report also suggests that the 10% law results in students admitted who are less qualified and less likely to succeed, a claim I repeated.

Jon called me out on that point, citing a study published by a conservative think tank, the National Bureau of Economic Research, that shows that students who benefit from the Top 10% law perform and graduate no differently than students with similar credentials who are just outside the top 10% of their high school classes.  Jon further points out that the real culprit is that too many of us accept uncritically the notion that students with higher SAT scores are more “qualified” for college. Jon’s point is a good one, and I plead guilty to leaping to that conclusion. 

There is a more interesting philosophical question here.  How much does it matter what admissions criteria we use?  The argument for holistic admission review is that it allows an institution to take into consideration and value a broader spectrum of qualities, thereby producing a “better” class.  But better than what?  If the Texas Top 10% rule produces a student body that is just as successful in terms of GPA and graduation, does holistic review add any value other than the flexibility and discretion to admit students the university wants to admit for other reasons? 

During the Bakke case, the first Supreme Court case involving the use of affirmative action in college admissions, a major argument put forth by foes of affirmative action was that affirmative action programs admitted less qualified applicants.  But if a student is admitted to medical school and then successfully graduates and becomes a doctor, does it ultimately matter how they were admitted? 

Part of me says yes and part of me says no.  If the point of medical school is to produce doctors and the admissions process admits a student who completes the curriculum and practices medicine, then the student is qualified and the admissions process has accomplished its mission.  But in a hyper-selective admissions environment where admission is a zero-sum process, fairness requires that the criteria used for admission be relevant and predictive for every applicant.

I would like to argue that the sloppy thinking pointed out by Steve and Jon were caused by the duress of my upcoming surgery, but the truth is that it comes from the duress found inside my head on a daily basis.



Monday, March 2, 2015


A number of years ago one of my students was surprisingly admitted to a prominent public university.  He wasn’t unqualified, but classmates with stronger credentials were Wait Listed or Denied.  I told the Dean of Admissions that I assumed that he was a political admit, and my boss at the time was shocked that I would openly use the “p” word with the Dean.

I eventually learned the story.  Apparently the boy was the very last admit to the freshman class, and a prominent state legislator who headed the Appropriations Committee had conditioned his continued support for the university budget on the student’s admission.  Fortunately or unfortunately, the boy never ended up enrolling.  During the summer, he was involved in an alcohol-fueled incident where he vandalized fifteen cars, and he had to meet with the Dean of Admissions and the university psychologist.  When he claimed he didn’t remember the vandalism because he was drunk, the psychologist responded with a Law and Order moment (J.K. Simmons, not B.D. Wong), concluding that he would have remembered after the fifth car.

I thought back to that situation when I read a couple of weeks ago that an independent investigation had concluded that the President of the University of Texas had overruled the University’s Admissions Office and ordered underqualified applicants, most of them with wealthy parents, to be admitted.

It would be easy to react to the Texas story with shock and outrage, especially when that is how one feels, but it would also be as disingenuous as the gendarme in Casablanca who discovers that there is gambling taking place in Rick’s Café.  Is there anyone naïve enough to believe that the University of Texas is unique among colleges and universities, both public and private, in admitting candidates who get in because of who they know rather than who they are?

I have read the Kroll report, and here are the facts regarding undergraduate admission (the investigation also covered admission to the UT Law School and MBA program).  The UT admissions process included a practice of putting “holds” on any application where the President’s Office received a letter or inquiry from a “person of influence”—generally a member of the Legislature or Board of Regents.  The original justification for “holds” was to ensure that the person of influence was notified prior to a negative decision.

A number of the holds were admitted on their own merit, and the majority of the up to 300 holds in any given year were competitive for admission, but 72% of holds were admitted compared with 40% admitted overall. 82% of the holds were Texas residents. The number of holds has increased in recent years, partly because technology allows for computerized tracking and also because admission to UT has become more competitive, with nearly 40000 applications for just over 7000 spaces.  The other changing dynamic is that President William Powers and his chief of staff, Nancy Brazzil, have been less collaborative than previous presidents, more willing to order certain students admitted over the objections of the Admissions Office.  The report found no evidence of any quid pro quo, but President Powers justified the interventions as being in the best interest of the University. 

Kroll found that there were only 73 enrolled students in the six-year period from 2009 to 2014 with grades and SAT scores a full standard deviation below the average admitted student.  Some of the exceptions demonstrate influence, some a commitment to ethnic and racial diversity, and in a few cases a reward for legacy status, despite the fact that Texas law prohibits legacy preference in admissions.

So what are we to make of all this?  First of all, as already stated, I have a hard time calling this a scandal, but it certainly doesn’t reflect well on the University of Texas at a time when it has already received significant judicial and public scrutiny for its affirmative action program.  One may certainly question the use of affirmative action to achieve diversity as described in Fisher v. Texas, but the goal is at least laudable.  The practices described in the Kroll report constitute affirmative action for those who are already privileged, and there is no possible defense for that.

The culprit tying together both of those is Texas Education Code Section 51.803, better known as the “Top 10% Law.”  That law, which requires UT-Austin to admit automatically applicants who rank in the top 10% of their high school class, has had the impact of diversifying the student body at the expense of holistic admission review, admitting students who are not as prepared or qualified for success.  The original law was amended to limit top 10% admission to 75% of the student body at UT-Austin, but it places great stress on the institution’s ability to value other important qualities, especially at a time when application numbers are surging.

 There are two relevant ethical principles at stake here.  One is transparency. The Kroll Report notes that nowhere in any public description of the admissions process at UT is there reference to the system of holds, and saves its strongest criticism for the President and Chief of Staff’s failure to reveal the existence of holds and end-of-cycle meetings between the President’s Office and Admissions during a previous internal review, saying that they “appear to have answered the specific questions asked of them with technical precision” and “failed to speak with the candor and forthrightness expected of people in their respective positions of trust and leadership.”  (Kroll Report, p. 14)

The other issue is fairness. Should any institution have a “side-door” admissions policy available to only to the few connected enough or savvy enough to know about it?  And is the use of political influence in the admissions process particularly egregious at a public flagship university with responsibility to all the citizens of the state?  President Powers may have acted in what he believed were the best interests of the University, but were those the best interests of the state of Texas?  To be fair, the students admitted by order of the President over the objections of the Admissions Office did not take the place of an already-admitted student but increased the size of the freshman class.

As a counselor I have never been comfortable with the politics of college admissions.  I tell students and parents that I don’t understand the politics on a particular campus and don’t want to.  At the same time it is my responsibility to advise my students about the realities of college admission. 

It is not uncommon for a student or parent to contact me and tell me that they know someone who has influence and can help them gain admission.  When they tell me that the individual with connections wants to know to whom they should address the letter, I know they don’t have the hoped-for influence, because the person with influence would already know the person to contact and would do so by phone call rather than letter.  Based on that I suspect the Kroll Report may have underestimated the level of influence in the process at UT-Austin, because its review of the folders of the 73 enrolled outliers and its recommendations focused on letters of recommendation.  I’m betting the most powerful behind-the-scenes lobbying for individual candidates didn’t involve a letter.