Colleges Use More Than SAT Scores When Deciding Which Students To Admit

17 hours ago
Originally published on March 14, 2019 12:54 pm

The federal case announced this week charging parents with buying their kids admission to top universities is shining a light on the admissions process. Every year, U.S. colleges and universities are tasked with sorting through a mountain of applications. Some of the most selective schools, like Harvard, can get upwards of 40,000. So how do officials know if the information in all of that paperwork is truthful?

Terry Cowdrey, a former acting dean of admissions at Vanderbilt University, says the key is in consistency.

"If a student had a very high SAT score on the verbal portion but then we saw consistently weak grades in English, and we read a poorly written essay," she explains, "we would likely question if that SAT score was, in fact, valid."

Cowdrey has been working in college admissions since the 1980s. She's got experience heading up admissions departments at schools like St. Lawrence University and Colby College.

Cowdrey adds while admissions processes can vary at every school, generally officials can tell if student is telling the truth about test scores, or even extracurricular activities, because the different parts of their application will reinforce each other.

"If a student indicates they're involved in certain activities that's also mentioned in a letter of recommendation, or it's something that's in conversation when an admissions counselor meets a student," adds Cowdrey.

A sentiment echoed by former Yale assistant admissions director Ed Boland.

"What often raises a red flag is when you feel like you're getting a sense of a different student from different sources," he says.

Boland explains those red flags are cues to the admissions office to dig deeper, meaning a phone call to a school guidance counselor may be in order. Boland and Cowdrey add that, in their experience, most applications get reviewed by several sets of eyes before getting an official acceptance.

So what about rooting out fraud on the consumer side? Brooke Daly, with the Higher Education Consultants Association, says most private admissions consultants are members of a professional association like hers and bound by a strict code of ethics. She says it operates through whistleblower system and an anonymous tip line.

"It was developed so that, in the industry of independent educational consulting, we can differentiate ourselves," Daly explains. "We are operating ethically and we are doing good work with our students."

Daly adds the code is constantly reviewed by group leaders so that as times change, so do the policies.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Federal prosecutors this week described a nationwide scheme. Wealthy parents, they said, bought admission to elite colleges for their kids. They allegedly bought altered test scores, fake athletic records. And hearing this was especially disturbing for school officials who dedicate their careers to preventing just this kind of corruption. Carrie Jung from member station WBUR in Boston reports on the process school officials are supposed to follow to verify a student's application.

CARRIE JUNG, BYLINE: When federal officials busted a huge college admissions scam, Terry Cowdrey admits she was disappointed, especially by the role of sports coaches in the scheme.

TERRY COWDREY: I think admissions people count on athletic coaches to be our colleagues, to be representatives of the same institution that we represent.

JUNG: Cowdrey has been working in college admissions since the 1980s. She's got experience heading up admissions departments at places like Vanderbilt University, St. Lawrence, and Colby College in Maine. She argues this group of bad actors are likely a rare case because, in her experience, rooting out a fake test score was always pretty straightforward.

COWDREY: If a student had a very high score on the verbal portion of the SAT but then we saw consistently weak grades in English and we read a poorly written essay, we would likely question whether that SAT score was in fact valid.

JUNG: Cowdrey explains, while admissions processes can vary at every school, generally officials can tell if a student is telling the truth about test scores or even factors like being the president of the Spanish club because the different parts of their application will reinforce each other.

COWDREY: So a student, for example, who indicates that they're involved in certain activities on their application - that's also mentioned in a letter of recommendation or it is something that is in conversation when an admissions counselor meets the student.

JUNG: That's a sentiment echoed by former Yale assistant admissions director Ed Boland.

ED BOLAND: What often raises a red flag is when you feel like you're getting a sense of a different student from different sources.

JUNG: Boland explains, those red flags are cues to the admissions office to dig deeper, meaning a phone call to a school guidance counselor may be in order.

BOLAND: You're looking through it for a throughline, and you're looking through people saying consistent things about a student.

JUNG: And Boland and Cowdrey add, in their experience, most applications get reviewed by several sets of eyes before getting an official acceptance. So what about rooting out fraud on the consumer side? Brooke Daly with the Higher Education Consultants Association says most private admissions consultants today are members of a professional association like hers and are bound by a strict code of ethics.

BROOKE DALY: We have four pillar values in our statement of standards and ethics. It includes sound advice, integrity, respect and confidentiality.

JUNG: She says it operates through a whistleblower system and an anonymous tip line.

DALY: It was developed so that in the industry of independent educational consulting, we can differentiate ourselves that we are operating ethically and that we're doing good work with our students.

JUNG: And Daly explains, the code is constantly reviewed by group leaders so that as times change, so do the policies. For NPR News, I'm Carrie Jung in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.