Admissionsgate: A view from the Palouse

College admissions had a rare moment in the spotlight this week, when a federal prosecutor in Boston arrested dozens of rich and famous parents who lied, cheated and paid to land their children in well-known colleges. Also arrested were the paid consultants, test proctors and college coaches who executed the scheme.

What’s noteworthy — and overlooked — is that none of of the people at the center of college admissions — high school counselors and college admissions officers — were implicated in the scandal.

The popular response to admissionsgate is that it shows us that something is broken about college admissions. But since this scheme only involved people at the periphery, I don’t think it tells us much about college admissions at all. Sure, it does illustrate the lengths that some parents will go to secure (perceived) benefits for their kids, and the (many would say oversized) influence of athletic recuiting in admissions. As for what really happens in the admissions process for honest families, it doesn’t tell you much.

But since I’ve got your attention, I’d like to share some of my thoughts about the real world of selective college admissions, and the problems and opportunities that process presents for local familes.

There are many great schools that would love to have you. The families involved in the scandal had the erroneous (Malcolm Gladwell would say “disordered”) belief that their students had to go to a certain small number of elite institutions to succeed. In fact, there are many schools where students can find success, including local colleges and universities, and hundreds of wonderful schools all over that are much more admissions friendly.

Selective colleges are a great opportunity for some students. That said, selective colleges can offer tremendous benefits. One benefit is that they are incredibly affordable to low and middle income students. Another is that they provide great resources and cultural capital to help low income students up the ladder. Another thing they can provide is access to power and opportunity: and I’d like to see our local students tap into that.

College Admissions is biased in favor of the wealthy. It IS true that in the legitimate world of college admissions having a parent who attended the school and/or could donate millions for a new stadium will give you a leg up in admissioins. It would be great if that bias did not exist but universities are expensive to run and courting rich donors is a tried and true fundraising method.

It also provides opportunities for other groups, including (increasingly) rural students. On the other hand, selective college admissions officers also give weight to a range of other factors in college admissions. Many provide an admissions edge to first generation students, pell eligible students, etc. Increasingly, selective colleges are considering “rurality” as a special factor weighing in favor of admisssions. (And they consider almost all of our communities to fall within that definition.) An admissions director at Pomona emailed me to say that this year for the first time they will be reporting the percentage of admitted students who come from rural backgrounds. This year it’s 3%, but now that it is being measured the number could well go higher.

Advantaged families further tilt the playing field by hiring expensive consultants. It is very true that families seeking an edge in college admissions will hire consultants to help their children through the process. These may be high priced tutors who help students prepare for the SAT or ACT; they may be writers who guide students through the college essay process. Most consultants are ethical and don’t cross the line into cheating or ghost writing. But even so, it rankles. Because the kids receiving these benefits have had every advantage already through their schooling and enrichment activities, and they don’t need more help. Community based organizations (like Palouse Pathways) exist to try to shift the balance away from privilege, at least a little bit. And fortunately, college admissions folks (many of whom are not from privileged backgrounds) try to recognize and correct for these disparities. But they are there.

Advantaged families also devote time and attention to college admissions that our families do not. Another thing that advantaged families do that is not (in my opinion) unfair is that they make college preparation a priority and a family effort starting from early teens or the beginning of high school. They may visit colleges, or think about preparing for college admissions tests, or spend time exploring careers and majors. Local families seem less inclined to do this, or they tend to start later. I can understand why, because we associate college preparation with a high stress atmosphere that is really unhealthy for kids. But it doesn’t have to be so. The best way to prepare for the SAT and ACT early is to read great books. Palouse Pathways programming for ninth tenth and eleventh graders is intended to be low stress and help students tap into their talents and interests and show them the range of possibilities available. I really wish more local families would make college preparation a priority earlier. Not to make it an obsession — thank goodness that doesn’t happen on the Palouse — but to develop a working knowledge of the process so they can plan and use time and resources well. Kind of like reading “What to Expect When you are Expecting” before your baby was born. We have a lot of free opportunities that can help, including our Path to College Presentation for ninth grade families and our College Exploration Course for tenth and eleventh graders..

College admissions is about relationships. When I was studying for my certificate in college admissions counseling, the thing I learned that bothered me the most was that college admissions staff have long-term relationships with counselors at wealthy private and public schools that help pave the way to admission for their students. There are two great studies of college admissions that document this. A counselor in a high school might call her admissions representative at Stanford to say: “I’ve got this really promising sophomore… “ And the admissions rep, finding the counselor to be a good judge of “Stanford material,” may well take notice. I hate that, because it further disadvantages students whose schools do not have enduring relationships or a proven track record. More fundamentally, many counselors don’t even know it’s appropriate to communicate with selective college admissions on behalf on individual students! This still bothers me a lot.

Colleges would like to build relationships with our students. On the other hand, I have learned that colleges want to cultivate relationships that benefit our students too! Admissions folks from selective schools reach out to Palouse Pathways all the time wanting to engage with local students. I’ve been flown to events at Caltech, Pomona, Carnegie Mellon, Bowdoin, Wesleyan and more, because they want to reach out to the students Palouse Pathways serves. I have learned that many community based organizations cultivate relationships with colleges and flag talented students in much the same way wealthy schools do. I am trying to do that. I’ve referred students to programs and recommended students for colleges. We are starting the Palouse Pathways Scholars program for Ninth and Tenth graders so that we can help make stronger connections between local students and great post-secondary opportunities. Isolated community groups can’t address the structural biases, but they can help their local students, and get those students a seat at the table where real change can begin to occur.