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.

How to find the hottest…school?


Everybody in Hollywood understands that reviews are a matter of opinion, and that efforts to get people to watch your movie/show will often include activities that have nothing to do with making the show better. As a result, armies of publicists seek to get stars on covers of magazines and included in the various “hot” lists.

The education equivalent of that is THE RANKINGS. Colleges and university officials whine and cry about the rankings each year, moaning that they have little or nothing to contribute to students’ understanding of their educational options. Meanwhile meetings take place across the country where those same officials plot and scheme to raise their placement on these same lists.

This schizophrenic behavior isn’t really all that hard to understand. The rankings are, for the most part, hooey. That’s a technical term meaning, “a lots of statistical data that doesn’t actually mean a thing if you’re trying to determine the quality of a school.”

With all due respect to Bob Morse, my longtime acquaintance that runs the U.S. News rankings, his very well-known list is a great example. It starts with a massive survey of college presidents and deans of admission. This is like starting a ranking of the best new cars with a survey of auto company CEO’s. Fortunately, I genuinely feel that Mason is the best university – ever – and I have no hesitation indicating that on the survey…which should give you some idea of how these things work.

The USNWR surveys are “balanced” by statistical data that is completely accurate, impossible to manipulate, and corresponds exactly to the quality of each institution. No. Wait. I mean the opposite of that.

One of the biggest factors, for instance, is how much money each school spends and earns. “What the heck does how much money a school earns and spends have to do with whether it’s the right school for me?” Good question. With money as a huge factor, of course, it guarantees that the rankings won’t change all that much from year to year, which is great if you’re, say, selling magazines to people who expect to see the same names at the top of the list each year.

I doubt, however, anyone really cares whether or not the rankings are accurate. Does anyone really believe that People magazine REALLY knows who the hottest people are in the world?

Very slowly there are some better tools being developed. The National Survey of Student Engagement does some great work trying to look at outcomes, what actually happens to students while enrolled at colleges and universities, and U.S. News has been publishing some of their results as well.

Shameless Plug: among the efforts to provide new and different ways to look at the rankings, three years ago USNWR added a list for the hot “up and coming schools to watch.” I’m not above bragging that Mason has been in the top ten for all three years. What does that mean? No more than the other lists. But, if your college decision is going to come down to just a ranking, I suggest that you might as well use the USNWR “up and coming schools to watch list.” I’m just saying…

Speaking of useless top ten lists, this very amusing list of educational screw ups showed up in my twitter feed courtesy of the Huffington Post.

The bottom line is that the rankings can be an interesting shortcut to developing your interest list, but don’t get sucked into thinking there’s a lot of substance behind them. My suggestion: build your own ranking based on the things you think are most important. Send me your suggestions for what should go on that list and I’ll post them in a future column. Who knows – maybe we can control THE RANKINGS of the future!

Be seeing you.

Faith, Admissions and the Internet


URGENT NEWS: The internet is not always entirely correct.

Shocking, I know. What’s more startling is that many of the websites that you rely on to get your information on college admissions are actually not all that reliable.
In fact, I had a student (who I dearly hope will enroll at Mason next year) confess that she relies on one of these sites as her “college admissions bible.”

Holy inappropriate religious reference!

Here are some of the many reasons why it’s a bad idea to rely entirely on college advice websites:

1. Most sites are trying to sell something (usually college loans) and care much more about the sale than about presenting accurate information. These sites will post just about anything to get you to their homepage where they can inundate you with their own advertisements for the best student loan ever or the most gimmicky product on the planet. HINT-if the first few pages keep redirecting you to loan offers, that’s a bad sign.
2. Many of these college websites are only trying to make money. Period. Here’s how it works–The people that build the site focus on featuring the most popular schools so that their link pops up on your eager google search. However, when you enter the site, you also see attractive features on schools you’ve never heard of (often for-profit schools). Don’t be fooled. These sites earn a lot of money in exchange for presenting these schools to you (whether they are quality institutions or not). HINT-if you can’t even get to any information without being bombarded by ads first for some totally irrelevant service or school, that’s a really bad sign.
3. Those that do care about accurate information and don’t manipulate the data are still often post misinformed and dated information. However, they might not be entirely to blame for this one. Colleges and universities are notorious for providing very little useful information that would tell them apart from one another. As a result, sites like these try to fill in the gaps caused by a persistent lack of transparency. HINT-if the site praises a campus as, “really modern; indoor plumbing newly installed,” that’s a truly and spectacularly bad sign.

On the other hand, I totally get why so many of you worship these sites. Face it, we all love and crave ratings, scores, and lists of any kind (regardless of accuracy).

This obsession starts at an early age. For example, my eight year old son insists that I score him each time he jumps in the pool. He does not, however, appear to care a bit about the scale on which he is scored, only that his score increases each time. His last jump received a score of 365,492. It was an awesome jump.

However, if you aren’t just on a quest for random numbers and genuinely want some good information, there are some decent sites out there. I’m particularly partial to http://mycollegeoptions.org. In fairness, that should be labeled “Shameless Plug,” as they feature this blog on their site; but, I do think they have solid information and their free college match test is more than a few steps ahead of most of its competitors.

I hope your summer is going well. Whether you’re surfing the information super highway or just jumping into the pool, I hope you receive ratings of biblical proportions.

Be seeing you.

Could iCarly hold the Secret to College Admissions?


For those of you who haven’t gotten the chance to read my bio, I’m a dad. For parents like me, the opportunity to humiliate our kids is one of the greatest joys that we can experience. Through the miracle of technology, I can do so on a vastly wider scale than was possible for my parents. For instance, my eight year old son loves the show iCarly. Apparently, this is a huge secret that could permanently destroy his street “cred” if it were ever to be accidentally revealed. Consequently he feigns disinterest when our friends’ daughters insist on watching the show.

Pretending interest/disinterest, it turns out, is an important talent well beyond your elementary years. While it’s unlikely to impact your popularity in high school, the level of interest you show in a college or university has a surprising impact on admissions decisions. Surveys from the National Association for Admissions Counselling (motto – “We’re a pretty big deal even though you’ve never head of us”) show that “demonstrated interest” is an increasingly important factor in the admissions process. That means that colleges and universities, especially the most competitive ones, will look at how many times you visit, call, email, and tweet about your unmatched desire to attend their precious institutions. They will also look at how early you apply, as well as whether you bother to mention in your essay that you believe your life (and possibly existence as you know it) may come to an end (or at least be shattered in some way) if you are not admitted to their school.

This often leads to madcap situations worthy of a reality show where students attempt to show their passion for institutions. Many end up rapidly crossing that thin line from, “I’m really interested,” to, “I’m a crazy stalker.”

Much like being an iCarly fan, however, there is a dark side to demonstrated interest. Many of those schools that make the most use of demonstrated interest in admissions decisions, use it in exactly the opposite way when awarding financial aid and scholarships. In other words, if the school thinks you want to go there badly enough, then they assume you’ll still come even if they give you less money.

Fortunately, we don’t play those games at Mason. You can feel free to shamelessly admit that we are the best school EVER and that your life will only be complete if you attend. Yeah, I get that a lot.

In the end, my advice is that it’s probably best to just be honest. Speaking of honesty, my son has asked me to formally announce that he does NOT like iCarly and that I was really referring to his friend Logan from across the street…no, really. I don’t watch either. Although Sam is hilarious.

Be seeing you.

What is the admissions mission?


Do you trust college admissions officers? Do you view us as dedicated public servants working tirelessly to help you achieve your dreams in the most time and cost-efficient manner? Or do you, perhaps, consider us the aggressive sales force behind education, about as welcome as those people in the mall who NEED you stop and try their face cream/hair extension/perfume combination?

I trust that most of my colleagues fall closer to the former than the latter. The reality is, however, that a massive portion of our jobs is to convince a particular group of students that they should enroll at our school – and in many cases, enroll for a particular price.

For numerous years, the federal government has been concerned that the motivation to enroll students surpasses the duty that college admissions officers have to appropriately guide students. As a result, there is a set of laws and policies that preclude colleges and universities from paying bonuses or incentives to recruiters based on numbers of students recruited and from basing salaries on enrollment numbers.

Since recruiting is a big portion of the admissions job, it is not surprising that these laws are nearly impossible to enforce. While few institutions, if any, will officially say that their admissions officers’ salaries or jobs are based on enrollment, there are any number of incidents where admissions officers have been “exited” when targets weren’t achieved. At the other end of the spectrum, those of us that have enjoyed remarkable enrollments tend to be offered jobs at other institutions that are coincidentally packed with raises and promotions.

At the moment, there is a noisy discussion about the use of enrollment incentives at for-profit institutions. The traditional non-profit universities play the part of innocent angels, saying they are shocked at the blatant conflict of interest created by the clear bonuses and incentives that some for-profit institutions use to try to motivate their “sales force.”

Of course, unethical marketing doesn’t require incentives. Many admissions officers are hyper-competitive regardless of their pay scales. Often alumni of the institutions, they have enormous passion for the school’s success. While there is no doubting the sincerity of their loyalty, there is also little doubt that some go over the top in claims of student financial support, academic quality, and graduate job availability.

So, how does this issue impact you?
When the system leans so far towards awarding incentives for enrollment success, many admissions officers reach a point of saying anything – I mean ANYTHING – to get you to enroll.

While I am not a fan of the direct, overt, and excessive incentives and bonuses that some institutions are using, I’m also a realist. My job is, in no small part, to make sure that Mason has an amazing incoming class of students that both reaches targets of quantity, quality and diversity. At some level, no matter how ethical, honest and just generally wonderful my conduct, I am still a partisan for my institution, which, if I haven’t mentioned lately, is clearly the BEST UNIVERSITY IN THE WORLD. This leads me to another…

Shameless Plug: I’m incredibly excited about this Sunday’s start of Mason’s first annual Washington Youth Summit on the Environment. Outstanding high school student leaders are coming from across the country to meet at Mason and at our partner organizations, the Smithsonian National Zoo and the National Geographic Society, for this monumental event. This program builds on the incredible relationship between Mason and the Smithsonian National Zoo, which includes the one-of-a-kind partnership with the Conservation Resource Center and the Smithsonian Mason semester program. With presentations from some of the leading scientists and activists in the field, as well as representatives from every side of the political spectrum, attendees will be exploring how to deal with the enormous challenges posed by current environmental issues.

See what I mean? It all comes down to being a smart consumer. Regardless of the great information/propaganda/shameless plugs you may get from any admissions officer, you should also do your own research on each institution. On the other hand, you are certainly welcome to just take MY word for it. Be seeing you.

How to live your life – what you want versus what we might


I’m at the Washington Journalism and Media Conference blogging on my new iPad. Last night I did my usual speech on college admissions, and even after giving it for 20 years, I’m still amazed at the insane factors high school students consider in the admissions process. A few examples:

How will college consider the quality or ranking of my high school?
Why would anyone care? Apart from the reality that it probably makes next to no difference at all, are you really going to consider changing schools? If not, how does knowing help you at all? It doesn’t– It only adds unnecessary stress.

What classes should I take to increase my chances of admission?
I have a longer post somewhere about AP/IB/dual enrolment, but this question always makes me really sad. Unless you are doing something entirely nutty, like substituting study hall for AP physics, and assuming your course load is reasonably competitive, you have no way to know how your course choices will impact your admission. What you DO know is that some courses interest you more than others and that challenging yourself is important. Isn’t that enough to guide your choices?

I know this sounds naïve, but students and families give us WAY too much power over their life decisions. There are over 4,000 colleges and universities, and there are probably dozens that could be wonderful for you. Out of those, many will admit you simply FOR DOING THE THINGS THAT ARE BEST FOR YOU. Read: That’s what’s best for you, not for admission.

Shameless plug: clearly what the best for many of you was attending the WJMC. If you are a great student and interested in the environment, check out the Washington Youth Summit on the Environment starting in 9 days.

Be seeing you.
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Will hyper-involvement help you get admitted (and would that be worth your time)?


I have a house less than a mile from Mason’s campus.  This is a huge advantage as my commute is whopping five minutes.  This has obvious benefits, among which is residing in the Washington, D.C. suburbs.  This is particularly interesting as a parent – the unofficial motto of the region was taken from The Prairie Home Companion: “All of our children are above average.”

This was made most clear to me when we stuck my kid in storage (also known as day care) at the advanced age of four months.  My wife and I soon after attended a gathering of parents whose children were stored (I mean nurtured and educated, of course) at the same place.  I found a group of parents with kids in the same age range, 3-6 months old, engaged in a VERY SERIOUS conversation about what languages their kids were studying.

Not how many they spoke at home.  How many they were studying. Three to six months old.  Really?

With my typical sarcasm, I responded that our son had recently learned to blow raspberries quite successfully.  The parents in the group managed, at best, a weak response to my clearly superior sense of humor, and asked whether, if our son was not enrolled in language lessons, he was too busy with other classes, like gymnastics or swimming.

Did I mention he was four months old?  I told them we hadn’t made it to swimming lessons but that we did manage to bathe him…occasionally.

At this point, I believe, several of the parents immediately called protective services.  We’ve wised up since then.  Our eight year old now plays soccer and basketball, takes guitar and piano lessons, and speaks fluent Yiddish (and by fluent, I mean that he knows a handful of wildly inappropriate phrases. I, of course, have no idea where he might have learned them).

The reason I’m blathering about all this in what is (arguably) a blog about admissions:

1)   This local obsession with toddler involvement continues throughout the country into high school, where students are over-involved, over-scheduled and just plain overwhelmed. 
2)   Parents and “experts” complain that students have no time to be kids, as they are busy scheduling high school internships in between band right after soccer practice while they volunteer at homeless shelters.
3)   All of that hyper-programming is often blamed on the admissions process.

I wonder whether there’s really a problem.  Did the pioneers stop their kids from working in the fields after school so they could “have time to be kids”?  If given more time, will teens use the freedom to rest or expand their minds with great literature and art – or will they just sit around updating their statuses and gawking at YouTube videos?

On the other hand, scheduling every minute of your life in order to get into college is nutty:

  • Extracurricular activity isn’t nearly, remotely, or in any way as important as your academic records;
  • You never know what admissions officers are looking for anyhow – especially if they’d prefer to have a student deeply involved in one thing compared to the applicant involved, in one way or another, in every club and activity available;
  • And most importantly, it’s a dumb way to live you life.  If you’re doing all that stuff because you love it, have a passion for it, and/or can’t bear to live without it, fine by me.  Trying to join every single activity that MIGHT give you some miniscule assistance in some mythical admissions process, however, is deeply misguided. 

Shameless Plug: Speaking of over-involvement, my team is busy getting everything finalized for Mason’s incredible Washington Journalism and Media Conference next week. Over 150 students from across the country competed to be recognized as THE future leaders in journalism and media, and to come to D.C. to meet with some of today’s best know experts in the field.

Since you can’t know what we want (or don’t want), you can feel free to make choices based on what actually interests you, as opposed to what MIGHT interest us (the admissions office).  Isn’t that better?  Be seeing you.