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.