Fairness and Influence in College Admissions


Sharing is caring, right? From an early age we teach children about the importance of treating their friends in ways they want to be treated in return. As they grow older we continue to tell them over and over that all people have the same rights and the same chances to reach their dreams.

As a result, fairness becomes a huge issue for kids. My eight year old says, “But that’s not fair,” approximately 2,374 times each day. At least 2,373 times a day I reply, “Well, life is unfair.”

And so it begins.

This childlike belief in fairness results in one of the most central misconceptions about the admissions process: the widespread assumption that the process is fair, unbiased, and equitable.

Yeah. Right.

For those of you not paying attention or too preoccupied with the latest Paris Hilton scandal, universities are under heavy scrutiny on the fairness issue. It all began last year when a flagship Midwestern university had emails printed in the press revealing blatant influence by politicians in efforts to get unqualified students admitted.

Pardon me while I fail to be shocked by this.

While the particular incident last year was really blatant, politicians (who often control our budgets) advocating for constituents seeking admission to institutions is nothing new. It’s just one small example of the overall unfairness of the admissions process, which (let’s be honest) pretty much reflects the condition of our society.

Shameless Plug: Speaking of political influence, Mason students plan to be among the most politically influential in the country; at least according to Princeton Review and Huffington Post, both of which named Mason among the most top ten most politically active campuses in the country.

Nonetheless, unfairness in admissions is usually less about politics than it is about money. Fair or not, many students get access to better schools and/or grow up in environments where getting a college degree is assumed from birth. Test preparation programs, some argue, tilt the balance to those who can afford them. Tutoring and help with essays are also within reach of the affluent, along with hundreds of other boosts students can get if they can afford them. Let’s face it – it’s just plain better to be rich than poor.

Furthermore, apart from better preparation and guidance opportunities, there are many other seemingly “unfair” considerations that may work for or against students in the process. Admissions officers balance the interests of the institution and its constituents against fairness to applicants. This gets particularly difficult at schools like Mason that are picking from among very highly qualified applicants. A colleague from a similar school once told me, “we could have enrolled the next group of applicants instead, and the profile of the class would have been just as likely to academically succeed.” At that level of competition, influence has greater potential to sneak into the process.

That being said, I believe that Admissions officers, in most cases, do their best in good faith to instill as much fairness into the process as possible. Admissions, however, is focused as much on meeting the goals of a college or university as it is about serving its applicants. The faculty, alumni, and current students all have to be considered. Isn’t it logical for children of alumni and faculty (who are in turn more likely to be long term supporters of the school) to be given advantages in the process? Using the same line of thought, how should admissions consider children, friends, or employees of its major donors?

So no matter what you learned as a toddler, I’m here to tell you that life is often unfair (and, in other news, two plus two still equals four). There are, however, right and wrong ways that this fairness gets applied. Good news: you really don’t need to worry about this – there are PLENTY of great schools that are very likely to admit you even without special influence or connections. More on that when I have time, after I return a call from…well, never mind who.

Be seeing you.

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9 Responses

  1. Well said Dean. Well said.

  2. Be aggressive when dealing with career college admissions. Some schools may be unfair, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make a school notice you.

    • There is a thin line between “aggressive” and “stalker”. Yes, you know who you are…

  3. I have browsed through several posts today. Thanks for making me laugh! I am a K-12 Admissions Director and have been looking for an out-of-the ordinary admissions blog when I stumbled across yours. I am looking forward to reading more.

  4. [...] 8, 2010 by LBJ| Leave a comment Some food for thought…Inside Higher Ed directed me to this blog today, maintained by the Dean of Admissions at George Mason. It’s an interesting way to [...]

  5. How much stock do you put in an IB diploma? I’ll assume all else equal(GPA, extra-curriculars, 6’9″ and can hit 3′s, etc.) an IB diploma would carry more weight.

    What if everything isn’t equal though; specifically GPA?

    • Great question. The reality is that in most cases you won’t HAVE the IB diploma until you graduate, so when you’re applying you’ll need to tell schools that you are PLANNING to have the IB diploma. Those of us VERY familiar with IB will probably already know from your transcript, but it won’t hurt to mention. Then a bunch of schools will know but not care. others won’t know at all, some of whom might care, others not.
      The reality is that most colleges and universities want to see that you challenged yourself in curriculum, but don’t dig very deep on the content, so unless the school has a particular interest in the IB, there isn’t an inherit, automatic benefit from an admissions standpoint – but it can’t hurt.
      More importantly, the IB Diploma shouldn’t be about getting admitted. Actually, not all that much SHOULD be about getting admitted!

  6. Good Golly, Batman! This was great! I have enjoyed reading your blogs for the past few months and I stood up and applauded when I read this one. I have bitten my tongue every time I saw EVERY player on the soccer/baseball/football etc. team get a trophy…when EVERYONE makes the team….and we don’t “keep score” because we don’t want the other team to feel bad. Trust me, the kids know the score. We are teaching an entitlement mentality. And, now, when it’s time to apply to colleges….you mean I may not get in?
    Thanks for your honesty. And on another note, I am a BIG fan of adjunct faculty. This is one of the things that appeals to me about GMU.
    Selfless plug: My son, Jordan St. Jean would be a great addition to the GMU student body. :-) I will let him tell you why but it’s his number one choice and you will be seeing his application soon.

  7. Dean Flagel,

    How does honors classes impact your admission’s decision. I have a 3.75 gpa, and I was thinking about taking honors courses. I think the honors courses will probably lower my gpa, and I am worried about how that will be received by perspective universities and employers.

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