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Fairness in College Admissions

Fairness in College Admissions

This month, March 2019, we have heard a lot about celebrity indictments of illegal schemes to get children admitted into prestigious schools in the US. It was then reported how the wealthy have long legally bought their kid's college admissions.

The illegal means should be prosecuted and involve such schemes as substitute test taking, bribing college coaches to get spots saved for athletic sports that they do not play, and other related bribes.

In this discussion, I would like to hear from the scientific community about the role of "legal" means for the wealthy to gain admissions which has been characterized as 1.) legacy admissions 2.) massive donations to schools 3.) athletics. It has been estimated, for example, that at some institutions, one out of six admissions are set aside for legacy admissions. A legacy admission is an effort to offer seats to alumni, or faculty family. The massive donations are for donations for buildings, programs, named chairs, etc. Highly recruited athletes are given spots outside of the normal admissions process. What do you think? Should these legal means be changed in society? If we think it is unfair, do we think that chemists or scientists have any standing to cry foul?


In a TV news report I heard, the following recommendations were made to make college admissions more fair.  1.)  Open up schools to talented low income students 2.) ask Congress to leverage funding to discourage legacy admissions. 3.)  actively forbid lineage for admissions.

Does the ACS wish to issue a policy statement to make admissions to US Higher Education more fair?

I know this isn't possible at other institutions, but Arizona State University doesn't turn away any qualified student. Michael Crow, our president, stated, "a place judged not by who it turns away, but by who it accepts, and how many of its students ultimately graduate." As an ASU alumni I was a bit aggravated that one of the parents being indicted bashed ASU as a crappy school that they didn't want their child at. I graduated from ASU with my Masters, and the program was far more challenging and rewarding than my prestigious private school I went to as an undergrad. The things I see my graduate students doing in my engineering lab at ASU are phenomenal and world changing! (off my soap box sorry!)

I think as long as schools limit the number of students they enroll, you will always have admissions issues. I also know that the sports division of the university generates substantial revenue that can be used for other parts of the school, so having admissions processes in place that encourages athletes to come to the university is likely a good thing and in the case of ASU that process doesn't displace more academically qualified students. As long as students are qualified, I don't think it matters if their parents donate lots of money to the school either, or if they had family go to the school or not. One reason schools include legacy questions is because they want students who are loyal to the college. Loyal students are more likely to stay, pay tuition and not transfer somewhere else. However, it should only be part of the story when getting into college.

This disturbed me as much as any undermining of any trust in institutional value. While I understand the need to raise money, and I also don’t have too much of a problem of rewarding ALUMNI loyalty by giving their direct family preferential consideration, I think that it is the institutions and professors who should WAKE UP and recognize the threat to their existence! After all, despite some correlation (much less these days) between top professors teaching top students to become the next top professors, IF the “elite” ranking of an institution – or even the perceived value of a degree! - is NOT based on academic rigor and production, then it will soon lose the ability to attract either the elite professors or the money.

“Top Minds” are always a buzz-word. Yes, great thinkers and technologists do pop up – they really make their OWN way, using available institutions and opportunities, but NOT dependent on them. And then, our progress still depends on all of those other intelligent and hard-working people who simply are not “statistically” in some extreme to make it all work. So, I promote the value of an EDUCATION, not the brand of some school or other. On a larger scale, if we let our learning institutions become simply variations on commercial business we may find that they are neither valuable for education or business! Whether that affects the larger society and nation or not is a different concern.

The immediate concern is whether “professionals” in any discipline will accept this prostitution of their reputations along with the institutions’ to maximize profitability or will condemn and oppose it as anathema to learning. Maybe there is a closed-cycle academic cottage industry here that likes it that way, and will keep recycling academics with a large by-pass stream of income-providing brand lovers.

In the REAL world anyone who cannot add value to society (or even another person) by their efforts will be overtaken – possibly even eliminated – by those who do. In industry we already don’t really care about even recruiting from the “elite” universities – except possibly for research. That may decrease as well if the “elite degree” is recognized as just a gold-plated shadow of any other capable institutions graduates.  We already know that simply obtaining a "degree" neither guarantees success, or even a job.  Maybe it is time to re-establish and identify the value of formal academic training where it is necessary - and ensure that relevant criteria are the ones used.

Best regards,

Steven Cooke

You raise a good point!  The ACS makes other statements due to our impression of chemistry's impact.  We should have a Statement reflecting the fact that ACADEMIC qualifications should be and remain ONLY that - academic!  Now, some other considerations of background might warrant flexibility... but then the criteria and limits must be carefully defined and restricted!  "Social" issues need to be dealt with by society, and at a much earlier time than college admission.  But if an institution has (and wants to keep) a reputation for academic excellence, admission criteria must be proven academic ability and prognosis.

Given that I got into a graduate school with a 2.62/4.00 gpa,  I don't think grades and such are a real measure of a student's ability, the are a measure of how he takes tests, and what else is going on in his life.   In graduate school, learning Chemistry, the subject I was interested in, I earned a 3.98/4.00 gpa.  Same thing can be true out of high school.  The only thing that got me into grad school was a Professor's faith in my abilities, and a single experiment I performed on my senior research.  (I had 250mg of a crude natural product; recrystallized into 5 crops and separated the two possible diastereomers in one afternoon; my mentor's question to the rest of the faculty, "Who in this room could do that?"

My point is, there are many ways to define and determine talent.  Decisions as to who qualifies and who does not qualify needs to be determined locally by knowledgeable people.  Yes, there will be mistakes and cheating.  Even so, having the government make the rules makes no sense.

I can't help but notice that having read the above comments and enjoying their points of view, they all seem to refer most about admissions requirements of getting into graduate school!  The controversy in the news media is much more about parents intervening to help get their children into elite undergraduate institutions by paying bribes, etc. or minimally seeking legacy preferred status.  By the time one applies for graduate school, the intervention of the student's parents are much less common, and presumably the student's own undergraduate academic success is used predominantly for how the best students get into the more elite institutions.

My comments were not specific to graduate school.  In any case, if we look at the issues related to undergraduate institutions I would posit that there is even LESS reason for a student to worry about it!  Parents might worry for different reasons, but any student swayed by their social pressures is getting a huge disservice.  In fact, my (limited) experience in academia is that smaller colleges of any type are probably BETTER suited for good instruction in any discipline.  At "major" universities the highly touted world-class faculty are rarely the ones teaching the courses anyway!

So again, a student should GET an education, not a national name on their first diploma.  My point earlier was just that I see it as a self-imploding situation for the large institutions.  They can chase money and profits instead of educational excellence, but that WILL fail them in the long run, when they have neither.  Like trust in a relationship, academic credibility and reputation takes a long time to build up.  It may also take a while before it is really lost.  BUT, once lost - or even eroded - it is even more difficult to reclaim it.

Best regards,


This may be related to admissions, simply because there may be other political/social/business drivers that are not apparent in the specific activity.

Cracks in the Ivory Tower

This insightful interview by Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed with the authors of the new book Cracks in the Ivory Tower is well worth reading in full.  A few key grafs relate some of the author’s findings about universities:

“...the more financially insecure a department is—e.g., by having a high faculty-to-major ratio, declining enrollments, a bad job market or few opportunities for outside grants and revenue sources—the more often its classes seem to appear as gen-ed requirements. Also, mandatory gen-ed credits have gotten more stringent over the years—especially in writing composition, foreign languages and the ‘first-year experience’ classes that many universities now require. Keep in mind that in most universities, the more butts in seats, the more money your department gets. If you can’t get volunteers to take your classes, you can always force students to take the classes instead and say it’s for their own good. It’s also pretty easy to convince yourself it really is for their own good.

“A learning objective that looks good on paper ends up actually becoming a way to prop up departments that need enrollment, even though students are not learning much in their courses. And the students— or others—end up footing the bill through tuition payments on a largely ineffective product...

“Universities are perplexing places. They are filled with left-leaning faculty (like Jason) and even more left-leaning staff and administrators who profess a commitment to social justice. Yet most universities work hard to increase their status by becoming ever more exclusive and elitist. Universities are hierarchical in their own operations, and reinforce other social hierarchies in their outcomes. They serve as gatekeepers of prestige, power and status. Many top institutions have plenty of physical capacity to expand the number of students they admit, but they instead work to keep admissions rates and the number of undergraduates as low as possible, all to enhance the elite status of their brand.”

I've noticed that the comments above mainly focus on the admission requirements for graduate school. However, the news often talks about parents doing things like paying money or using their influence to help their kids get into fancy undergraduate colleges. By the time someone applies for graduate school, it's usually based on their own hard work in their earlier college years. That's what matters most for getting into top-notch graduate programs – how well the students did in their previous studies.