Family wealth and admission

It’s breaking news!!! The admissions process isn’t fair! I know so because The Washington Post had a big article recently (ok, April, but I’ll admit I didn’t notice until one of our readers forwarded it to me for comment) on the subject. Their intrepid reporter, after what I’m sure was a grueling round of research involving at least three phone calls, uncovered the previously untold story that rich kids have an advantage in the admissions process.

I know, shocking. Take a moment to recover your composure. I’ll wait.

The article specifically cites the advantage that rich kids have on the SAT, blaming access to test preparation courses. The author fails to mention that 1) the SAT isn’t NEARLY as important to the admissions process as the reporter seems to think or that 2) the rich are advantaged in the admissions process for a whole bunch of OTHER reasons.

Even those of you who don’t get to obsess about admissions the way I do are probably able to guess that access to tutors, not just test tutors but the kind that might actually teach you stuff; personal college counseling; parents who have been through the system (or better yet, are graduates of your dream school; or even better have their name on a building at your dream school) is likely to give one a leg up over less affluent applicants.

Worse, the article totally misses one of the great secrets of the admissions process – that there are many competitive institutions that actually look at higher family income as a plus factor in the admissions process. This started a few years back when the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, of which I am a proud and long-time member, decided that we really liked rich kids. I’m kidding of course (mostly). The discussion was actually focused on whether admissions offices could use financial aid data in the admissions process.

Once upon a time, admissions offices were supposed to be “need-blind.” This meant that we were supposed to evaluate students based on their academic records (or jump shot), and not on how much an applicant might be able to pay. Some very good-hearted people claimed this made admissions way too hard since they ended up admitting way too many students without money that needed way too much financial aid, which meant less money for everyone. So instead, said these Samaritans, we will review their financial aid information and admit fewer of the really poor kids (or more of the really wealthy ones) – that way everyone has more money. Isn’t that wonderful!?

If you find the math doesn’t work for you, you’re not alone. Soon, however, you’ll go to college where you’ll learn “numbers” can be guided by “spin”.

To be fair, most colleges really are still need-blind…usually. Where you see the most impact of the change is in waitlist decisions: students with high need may be disadvantaged, especially in a year like this one when many schools went very deep into their aid budgets to try to attract their top recruits. A handful, however (and these are generally not the more moderately priced institutions), use income aggressively in the admissions process right from the start. Mason, I’m proud to say, remains need-blind in our admissions process, but there’s no doubt that the market pressure to make changes in the policy are an annual consideration.

So to recap – money good. More money better. Talent best of all. Be seeing you.


Shameless plug – Mason the destination of choice for global leaders

Those of you reading this blog for a while may recall that President Obama kicked off his campaign on campus (in fact, right outside my office – a fact which, I believe, was a major factor in the campaign’s success), and then returned to campus for his first major economic speech as President-Elect. Hard acts to follow, to be sure, but I have to say that the visit by Nobel Laureate and Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, on campus to discuss ways to promote peace in the post-Cold War era was spectacular.

Today’s Washington Post: admissions stress aplenty

Two interesting articles today in the Washington Post. The first article details how hard the decisions on where to deposit are for some families (conveniently they highlight a student who chose Mason, but unfortunately for financial reasons instead of realizing that we are the BEST SCHOOL EVER). This is another of the many many many many articles about how students are changing their decision patterns. A few of the articles include surveys, but most, like this one, highlight a couple of students. As I’ve said before, we won’t really know what’s going to happen until…well, until it happens. At the moment what I hear from my colleagues (one might say spies) is that enrollments commitments are all over the map – some privates up, others down, same for publics, and changing daily (yes, Mason is up. I know…we rock). A fellow dean from one of the most competitive schools in the world told me he announced to his campus leadership that he had no idea what enrollment would be and that they shouldn’t expect to know a thing until August. In other words – take all these articles with a healthy does of skepticism, as it ain’t over ’til it’s over.
I much preferred the other admissions article in today’s Post, this one by Joel Achenbach, on the decision process from a parent perspective. He does a great job highlighting to totally unrealistic and unnecessary stress in the process. Although there’s a boatload of data on all the reasons why where you do to school isn’t as big a deal as LIKING where you go to school, parents are still twisting themselves into knots every bit as much as applicants (if not more). My boss, Provost Peter Stears, wrote a great book on the subject (one of his more than 100 published – not that I’m jealous or anything. Hey, I have a blog.) called, “Anxious Parents.” It walks through the history of how we as a society became so insanely stressed about our kids, and I think it has great lessons for the admissions process. Of course, it really doesn’t provide any answers, but it does help explain our neurosis. Be seeing you.