What’s the price of admission? The Five Colleges respond to scandal

  • William "Rick" Singer, founder of the Edge College & Career Network, departs federal court in Boston on Tuesday, March 12, 2019, after he pleaded guilty to charges in a nationwide college admissions bribery scandal. AP PHOTO/Steven Senne

Staff Writer
Published: 3/18/2019 3:27:59 PM

AMHERST — For the past week, the national media have focused on higher education after news broke of a cheating scandal that saw wealthy parents essentially buying their children’s admission into prestigious colleges.

No local college or university was named in the scheme. But the resulting scandal has been far-reaching, calling into question long-standing practices like lax admissions standards for the children of alumni or donors, and solidifying the belief many have that the country’s system of higher education is anything but fair.

These conversations are not new in the Five Colleges community. At Amherst College, for example, student activists recently called for greater transparency around the privileges given to “legacy admissions.” Last year, the college’s First Generation Association signed an open letter  along with 12 other organizations at elite colleges across the country, calling on their schools to re-evaluate legacy admissions and to make data and policies about those admissions public.

In the open letter, students referenced the history of legacy admissions, which were originally intended to exclude Jewish students from elite colleges.

“Today, the lasting impact of these practices reaches far beyond higher education, helping to reinforce cycles of class inequity and hampering economic mobility in America,” the students wrote.

As last week’s scandal unfolded, many news outlets in search of an expert to weigh in on admissions practices turned to investigative reporter Daniel Golden, who in 2006 published a book on how those practices benefit the wealthy: “The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates.”

Golden grew up in Amherst, the child of two University of Massachusetts professors, and is now a senior editor at ProPublica. In an interview with the Gazette, he said the Pioneer Valley’s institutions of higher education, like others across the country, are equally susceptible to pressures to give preference to the rich.

“There are always threats to the integrity of college admissions, particularly in times when sources of revenue are in danger or drying up,” Golden said.

In the current financial landscape of higher education, that’s a very real concern for many colleges. Massachusetts lawmakers, for example, are calling on the state to increase higher education funding to plug an annual gap of more than $500 million. And across New England, small private colleges like Hampshire College are struggling to cope with falling revenues caused by dwindling enrollment.

“It is a time of financial struggle for liberal arts colleges across the country,” Golden said. “In times of struggle, it can be a great temptation to lower your standards to admit the children of people who are willing to donate.”

Golden said that Hampshire College is one of many quality colleges struggling financially, with fewer students paying full sticker price.

“The financial plight at Hampshire illustrates why colleges might be so eager to accommodate wealthy kids, even if their children don’t meet the standard,” he said.

Although much of the focus has been on elite private colleges after this week’s scandal, Golden said public universities also have their own groups of constituents they feel obliged to award with admission slots.

“The groups they need to curry favor with may be slightly different, but the same temptations are there,” he said.

Vulnerabilities

All of the schools pointed to safeguards — multiple rounds of review for applications, direct contact with high school counselors and teachers, regular legal and ethical trainings — in their admissions processes. Despite these steps, however, some college spokespeople acknowledged that the latest controversy raises questions that need answers.

“The admissions scandal has foregrounded the vulnerabilities of college admissions processes,” said Keely Savoie, spokeswoman at Mount Holyoke. “This issue is a complex one that also involves organizations outside of our immediate control. As an industry, we will need to partner to find solutions.”

Amherst College spokeswoman Caroline Hanna said that at all institutions of higher education, when it comes to the admissions process, “part of the process is based on trust.”

“We, like our peer institutions, are taking another look at the safeguards and processes we have in place and are doing everything that is in our control to ensure that the most deserving and talented students from all backgrounds have access to an Amherst education,” Hanna said.

In his 2006 book, Golden described attending a workshop at Amherst College, where Katie L. Fretwell — an admissions office veteran who retired last year as dean — told an audience of prospective parents that Amherst graduates and their children could get “informal ‘conversations’” with her and the admissions dean by identifying themselves as alumni. At the time, Golden reported that Amherst admitted 50 percent of the children of alumni.

But on Thursday, Golden said he believes Amherst has made significant progress since then. Since fall 2008, the college has had a no-loan, need-blind financial aid program for its students.

Legacy admissions still exist at Amherst and the area’s colleges, though Amherst, Smith and Hampshire colleges all use the word “holistic” to describe their process of reviewing applications.

Amherst College and Mount Holyoke both declined to provide information on what percentage of students are children of alumni or what percentage of legacy applicants are admitted.

“Every application for admission to Amherst College is considered individually and very carefully, and every admitted student must meet the College’s high academic standards,” Hanna wrote in a statement.

Smith College spokeswoman Stacey Schmeidel wrote in an email that legacy applicants to Smith comprise 3 to 4 percent of the applicant pool and “are admitted at only a slightly higher rate than other applicants.”

Hampshire College has put admissions on pause this year as the school continues to search for a partner institution to take on its financial woes. But over the past few years, around 6 to 7 percent of incoming classes have been legacy students, according to college spokesman John Courtmanche.

At UMass, 67 percent of admitted applicants this fall reported at least one parent was a UMass Amherst grad, according to university spokesman Ed Blaguszewski.

“Given that UMass Amherst is the flagship public institution of the commonwealth, it is natural that many of our students report that at least one of their parents attended,” Blaguszewski said. “That acceptance rate is slightly higher than our overall acceptance rate of 60 percent. However, the overall GPA and SAT scores for the legacy students who were offered admission were slightly higher than those of the admitted population overall.”

SAT scores were another component of the recent admissions scandal, with parents bribing proctors, for example, and hiring others to take the test for their child. Critics of the SAT and other tests, like the ACT, have pointed to the racial and class disparities in success rates on the exams.

SAT scores are not required for admission to Smith, Mount Holyoke and Hampshire. Hampshire went as far as to disallow the submission of SAT and ACT scores beginning in 2014.

“This decision reflected our commitment to equity and accessibility in higher ed,” Courtmanche said. “In the years since, we’ve encouraged other institutions to consider the role that admissions plays in incentivizing competition and test-prep over all other aspects of the educational experience.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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