The Dirty Little Secret of College Admissions

By Rodriguez, Roberto | Black Issues in Higher Education, August 8, 1996 | Go to article overview
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The Dirty Little Secret of College Admissions

Rodriguez, Roberto, Black Issues in Higher Education

In the aftermath of an expose by the Los Angeles

Times that some students were admitted

to the University of California at the request

of prominent people, a report by the

university was recently released.

Rather than silencing the debate, the report

drove home one of the dirty little secrets of college

admissions -- that when it comes to admitting

students who otherwise couldn't get in, friends and

relatives of prominent people are the first ones to

take advantage of special admittance procedures.

This has long been true at private colleges, where

"legacies," or children of alumni, have had first

preference and requests from large donors are

respectfully granted.

But public colleges are supposed to be immune

from that sort of influence. The report on the

University of California, which recently voted to

eliminate race as a factor in admissions, shows that

is not so.

The study, titled "Report on Campus Practices

Related to Admissions Inquiries by Prominent

Individuals," examined the admissions of the past five

years. Records from before then have been destroyed.

Approximately 215 annual inquiries were made on

behalf of undergraduate applications by prominent

individuals, of whom about 15 a year appeared to

have received special treatment.

Those who attempted to influence the admissions

process included UC Regents, legislators, high

government or corporate figures, and major

donors. The report, which was ordered by UC

president Richard Atkinson and conducted by UC

provost C. Judson King, showed that most of the

inquiries about undergraduate applications

occurred at UCLA, Berkeley and UC Davis, the

most prestigious of the campuses. Total inquiries

about graduate and professional school

applications were approximately ten per year for

the entire UC system.

During the time period analyzed, approximately

60 applicants may have or did receive preferential

treatment as a result of inquiries or

letters from prominent individuals.

According to the Los Angeles Times,

both Atkinson and King had

themselves handled some of the

admissions cases in question.

The report concludes that while

nothing was done improperly, the

university should establish a clear

policy so that there are no

misinterpretations in the future. The

report recommends the following:

* additional safeguards to assure the

integrity of the admissions process

should be instituted so that no external

factor is allowed to exercise undue or

improper influence on the outcome of

admissions decisions;

* procedures regarding handling and use of

letters of recommendation in undergraduate

admissions should be clarified

and published in University

materials; and

* clear guidelines to govern appeals of negative

undergraduate admissions decisions should be

developed and published.

However, administrators within the admissions

community say that the issue, which

comes within the context of the

heated affirmative action debate, is not one

that will go away soon. For one thing, the

report only documented cases where there is a

paper trail. But that may not tell the full


Many high-level administrators in the

field of admissions say that preferential

treatment is widespread and involves not

simply VIPs from outside colleges and

universities but also VIPs from within the

institutions. Many of those who spoke about

this phenomenon requested anonymity,

fearing retaliation.

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