college admissions scandal

I Was a College Admissions Officer. This Is What I Saw.

Photo: W. Steve Shepard Jr./Getty Images

When I heard that Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, among about 40 others, had allegedly bribed colleges to admit their children, I wasn’t surprised. Working in college admissions for five years taught me that only one factor really matters: Will you be able to pay the full cost of tuition? Basically: Are you rich?

I worked at two different schools as an admissions counselor. The first, a small, private liberal arts college with a student body under 5,000. It was a tuition-driven institution, so our (relatively) small endowment meant we relied heavily on the financial security that students would pay their tuition. One of the most appealing things about applying to this school was that we were “test optional,” meaning you were not required to submit your ACT or SAT scores in order to be admitted. Our office had less than ten admissions counselors assigned to read applications. I read about 350 of these applications a year, and the acceptance rate was around 60 percent.

The other school was a large public D-1 research institution with an undergraduate population of around 25,000. It was a state school, so, feasibly, a majority of the admitted students needed to be residents of that state. Our office had around 40 admission counselors. I read about 1,500 of these applications a year, and the overall acceptance rate was around 50 percent, even though the in-state acceptance rate was probably closer to 75 percent, and out of state 25 percent.

Most colleges and universities tout a “holistic” application-review process, including both that I worked at. This means we looked at every piece of information that was submitted in order to make a decision, as opposed to looking solely at GPA and test scores. When you’re first trained to read applications holistically, you’re given a lot of information about the kind of student who would be a great “fit” on campus. “Fit” was the combination of the rigor of their academic schedule (were they taking honors/AP/IB classes?), plus their academic performance (were they maintaining good, A/B grades?), plus their extracurricular involvement (were they balancing multiple priorities?), plus their expressed interests in their essays (do they think they’re a good fit for this campus? What sets this school apart?). At first, it seemed exciting to comb through a list of applications and hand-select those who I believed would be a great fit and find success on campus.

But the longer I read applications, the more holes I saw in the so-called “holistic” process, and the more I discovered how much it came down to money.

Not infrequently, I would pull up a student’s file, see my “Defer” or “Deny” recommendation, and then a second reviewer recommending the same thing, and then a high-ranking admissions staff member would flip the decision to admit. Usually, the justification would be a brief couple of sentences with purposefully vague language, like “Student has struggled with math sequence but should be fine with on campus tutoring resources, ADMIT.” I saw these decisions flipped frequently for students from affluent backgrounds, and rarely for students who’d applied for financial aid. Once, I saw a student who fell far below our clearly outlined admissions requirements admitted — this student was heir to a popular processed-meat company’s fortune.

Although our school advertised our “holistic” review process, our director typically used test scores to screen applicants. His rationale was that these were “riskier” students. The only time he didn’t? If the student could pay full price to attend our institution, or a “full pay” student. He was not coy about this fact, and would frequently make comments about how students from Silicon Valley could “afford” to come here. When I planned my recruitment trip in California, I was given an Excel spreadsheet that listed high schools by average household income.

There were a variety of ways of gleaning if a student was “full pay” from an application. Firstly, on the Common Application, there is a place where students can indicate if they intend to apply for financial aid or not. My director’s instinct was always to see what we could do to admit the students who checked that they were not intending to file for aid, regardless of the student’s academic achievement. I had one student from Northern California who was, by all metrics, an outright deny. I remember vividly that he had several Cs and Ds on his transcript, plus a test score well below our average range, and an essay that consisted of two sentences (really, just two). He visited campus twice, once before applying, and later once he was admitted. He paid full tuition with no aid for four years.

I Was a College Admissions Officer. This Is What I Saw.