Survey on college admissions finds leaders have mixed reactions

November 24, 2020

College presidents haven’t taken much action in response to high-profile college admissions incidents

By Ross Brenneman

Image licensed under Flickr Creative Commons via user Thomas Autumn.

A new survey led by USC Rossier faculty finds that college presidents think it’s critical to increase public trust in the college admissions process, but a mixed reaction on how to do it.

The American Council on Education published the survey results Oct. 28, 2020. USC Rossier professors Jerry Lucido and Julie Posselt authored the survey with Maria Claudia Soler, a senior research analyst at ACE.

“One prominent conclusion from the survey is that presidents believe increasing public trust in higher education is a critical issue for their presidencies and their leadership teams,” the authors write. “Presidents also believe that the college admission process in general, and recent scandals in particular, have eroded the very public trust they seek to engender.”

The survey received responses from 246 university and college presidents, with a majority serving at four-year institutions. ACE initiated the survey in March 2020, a year after Operation Varsity Blues exposed attempts to illegally exploit weaknesses in college admissions systems.

What reforms are appealing?

While nearly 60 percent of presidents said the incident increased mistrust in higher education overall, two-thirds of those surveyed said that Operation Varsity Blues hadn’t negatively impacted their own institutions.

Moreover, only 15 percent of respondents said that their institution had made any reforms since the scandal, and of that number, 60 percent were from highly selective institutions—the kind predominantly involved in Operation Varsity Blues. Institutions who did take action focused most on reviewing the admission process for student-athletes (57 percent). Only one-fifth of such respondents reported that their institution had undertaken any kind of comprehensive review of admissions processes.

When presidents were asked to select admissions-related areas that might deserve greater consideration for reform, athletic and legacy admissions had the most support, but there was less interest in reconsidering college rankings participation or donor status.

The authors said that the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement helped provide broader nuance to some of the dissonance found in the report.

“The Operation Varsity Blues scandal may have compromised public trust in a fair admissions process for elite universities, but 2020 has also revealed how institutions struggle to earn and keep historically marginalized students’ trust in times of more widespread crisis,” the authors conclude. “In addition to taking action during a scandal, a sustainable strategy for rebuilding trust is deliberately demonstrating one day and one decision at a time that when times are hard, fairness and equity will not fall by the wayside.”

Read the full report: “On Scandal, Trust, and the Role of College Presidents in Times of Crisis”

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