Survey Reveals Correlation Between College Admission and Ability to Pay

It has long been suggested that college admission decisions were made based on more than just student merit, and a new survey conducted by Inside Higher Education confirms that might be the case more often than expected. The survey, completed in early September and released Sept. 21, received responses from 462 top admissions officials at two-year and four-year public and private institutions. For-profit college admissions professionals were not surveyed. Admissions officials were asked to weigh in on what their concerns are for the upcoming admissions seasons and what their highest recruitment priorities are, including what strategies are used to meet those goals. Anonymity was promised to officials to ensure honest answers.

The top concerns from admissions officials all involved money and, more specifically, a lack of money. Overwhelmingly, the number one challenge facing admissions professionals at their institutions was "rising concerns from families about tuition and affordability." Only community college officials did not list that as their top challenge, saying instead that they were most concerned about "reduced state funding that affects the quality and availability of academic programs," which is what many public school admissions professionals listed as their second biggest challenge. Private school officials listed "increased competition from other institutions in other sectors" as their second biggest concern, and all four-year institutions as a whole named "potential cuts in federal student aid programs" as the second biggest challenge they face.

With a lack of funds coming in, many admissions professionals revealed that recruitment priorities at their schools have changed. While many still list providing for students with great financial need, the priorities at many institutions now include recruiting out-of-state and international students, who typically pay higher tuition, along with full-time and full-pay students. The emphasis on full-pay students, or those who qualify for neither merit-based scholarships nor need-based financial aid, is a shift for many public universities, which, according to the Inside Higher Ed article, are "traditionally known for (their) commitment to access." The desire and need to recruit full-pay students is so great, in fact, that 10% of admissions professionals at four-year colleges admitted to accepting students with lower grades and test scores than other admitted applicants simply because of their ability to pay in full. And, perhaps more shockingly, 92% of admissions professionals agree with that practice.

In an editorial in the Huffington Post, writer Krystie Yandoli denounced the survey results, saying she believes the prioritization of money is "in no way morally acceptable … in 2011 — a decade and generation that is supposed to be more a modern and progressive society." Though recruiters might find the practice necessary financially, Yandoli argues that buying admission into schools creates a class issue in higher education. It is not fair, she maintains, to judge students based on their family’s socioeconomic status, over which they rarely have any control. The practice perpetuates the cycle of poverty, Yandoli said, because it keeps hard-working poorer students out while letting less-qualified, but richer, students in.

According to Inside Higher Ed, Jerome A. Lucido, executive director of the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice at the University of Southern California, sees the survey’s results as demonstrating the "clash of values" that challenges the admissions profession. While admissions professionals choose their jobs because of a "set of values," including educational opportunity, "those values are less and less a consideration" in the pay-to-play college admissions culture. "It’s one thing to say we have enough full-pay students on our campus to make sure those who are needy can come to our campus on equal footing," Lucido told Inside Higher Ed. "It’s another thing entirely to just say, ‘Can we add more full-pay students?’"

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