The admissions game

A perennial source of stories, controversy

In 2009, the world of public higher education was taken by storm when the Chicago Tribune set its sights on one school — the University of Illinois.

Just one month after a team of three Tribune reporters began investigating a secretive, formalized system of preferential admissions at the state’s most selective public university, the newspaper published its first piece in a series it dubbed “Clout goes to college.”

The premise of that story — and of the more than 90 that followed over the next six months — was simple: university trustees, administrators and elected officials were using their power to give under-qualified applicants a boost in the admissions process.

College admissions is an area that offers “tremendous and untapped potential for student journalists to report on,” said Jacques Steinberg, who covers admissions for the New York Times.

This past year, the eight schools in the Ivy League alone — which offer some of the most coveted spots for incoming freshmen — saw 31,659 applications submitted, the largest number ever. Of those, just 12.3 percent were accepted — a record low.

Numbers like these, said Eric Hoover, who covers college admissions for the Chronicle of Higher Education, have “driven a public fascination with the process that borders on obsession.”

And yet, while the admissions process remains a rite of passage for anyone hoping to call himself a college graduate, few have a real sense of what happens behind the closed doors of the admissions office, Hoover said.

Today’s student journalists can be at the forefront of efforts to shed more light on college admissions. From a team of editors keeping up with the Tribune series to an enterprising reporter at the University of California - Los Angeles poking around the School of Dentistry, admissions coverage has taken on more and more prominence at many student publications.

“Admissions is something that attracts a lot of people and appeals to a wide audience,” said Naveen Srivatsa, president of the Harvard Crimson, Harvard University’s student newspaper. “Who Harvard accepts bears on who Harvard students and professors interact with, so that’s obviously worth covering.”

Preferential policies

The Tribune’sinvestigation began in April 2009, when reporter Jodi Cohen filed a request under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act for records from the University of Illinois admissions office.

Among various records, Cohen sought access to admissions office logs, emails from admissions officers and other written correspondence by university officials.

Though the university chose to redact much of what Cohen requested — citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act — she was able to uncover the existence of a so-called “clout list” operating at the school’s Urbana-Champaign campus.

In one email exchange between admissions officers, reported by the Tribune, an applicant was described as having “terrible credentials.” In another email, an admissions officer wrote that there “is absolutely no reason to expect anything other than failure” on the part of a law school applicant.

However, because of the applicants’ endorsement by public officials, both were admitted.

After the publication of the first article in May 2009, “the story evolved into an almost breaking-news type story,” Cohen said. “Clout plays a part of everything here in Illinois ... so the series seemed like a perfect storm. As we learned more about the admissions system, we also learned more about what documents to request, and additional layers kept unfolding.”

As the Tribune continued to dig deeper into the university’s practices, other newspapers began to take notice.

Among those was the Daily Illini, the student newspaper at Urbana-Champaign.

Melissa Silverberg, who was serving as managing editor when the Tribune first broke the news, said the Daily Illini staff decided to add its own “clout list” coverage into the mix because “it was taking place right on our campus and we had to respond.”

The night before the first Tribune piece was set to run — which was when Silverberg first learned of the newspaper’s investigation — she had the Daily Illini staff get in touch with university administrators and members of the board of trustees for comment.

“That was the only chance we had to speak with the [university] president candidly during this whole process,” she said. “We had to move quickly.”

In the months that followed, the Daily Illini continued to publish stories — about two per week, Silverberg estimates — chronicling the ongoing developments.

Fast-forward to today, and the remnants of the investigation can still be felt on the school’s campus, said Jill Disis, current editor in chief of the Daily Illini.

The Tribune reports led to the appointment of a state commission to investigate the university’s admissions system. Soon after, the school’s president and chancellor resigned, along with most of the trustees.

Stacey Kostell, director of undergraduate admissions at the university, said the series “portrayed a pretty accurate picture when it showed emails from the admissions staff saying ‘here’s my concern about this applicant,’ but made it seem like there were hundreds and hundreds of cases [of preferential admissions], when in reality it was a very small number.”

Kostell added that the series has enabled the admissions staff to take “total control” over the fate of applicants, with no more interference from university administrators or state legislators.

However, she maintained that Illinois was probably not alone in its practices.

“To say that we are the only school in the country where this happened at, I think people know better,” she said. “I think this is a standard practice at many places. In our case, the decisions had really left the admissions process, and that’s what we did wrong.”

Though Silverberg called the “Clout” stories “the biggest news of the year,” Disis said the school’s admissions process “is still a bit under wraps.”

Kostell acknowledged that “it’s certainly our goal to make the process itself more transparent. At the same time, what we do isn’t formulaic. As universities have moved away from a formula and more in the direction of a holistic process, it’s more difficult to be transparent in the sense that our audience might like us to be.”

Today, the Tribune staff is waiting on a decision from the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to determine whether the redaction of student names and academic performance from admissions logs and emails was permissible under FERPA.

“Until we can get that information, we’re unable to tell the rest of the story here,” Cohen said, adding that the Tribune’s use of public records “can definitely be replicated by other student journalists looking to investigate college admissions.”

Two years earlier, Robert Faturechi, then a student journalist with the UCLA Daily Bruin, did just that.

After he received a tip from an alumnus of the School of Dentistry, Faturechi spent six months investigating a system of preferential admissions within the school’s orthodontics residency program.

In one of his stories, published Nov. 12, 2007, Faturechi wrote that “applicants related to donors giving six-figure gifts were automatically advanced over other students despite their lower test scores and grades.”

While Faturechi said he could never have exposed the school’s practices without the use of freedom of information requests — he received hundreds of pages of emails and internal documents under the state’s open records laws — he relied largely on tips from program alumni.

Most alumni were quoted anonymously in Faturechi’s reporting.

“I was stonewalled in several cases, but in general people were more than happy to talk,” he said. “They were frustrated with what was going on internally. At a public university, it’s not supposed to work that way. It’s taxpayer money, and everyone should have an equal shot [at gaining admission].”

Though Faturechi has moved on from covering the admissions process — he now works as a reporter at the Los Angeles Times — he said the investigation provided valuable skills for his future in journalism.

“This definitely taught me the importance of not taking your sources’ words at gospel, of doing the necessary work to verify with facts,” he said.

Still, he added that he remains frustrated by the unwillingness of residency program administrators to admit any wrongdoing. He is equally disappointed by the redactions made to his freedom of information requests.

“It seems that my records requests may have been treated with more respect had they come from a major, professional newspaper,” he said.

A need for transparency?

While both Faturechi and the Tribune experienced relative success at digging into the admissions process, their work may be the exception — and not the rule — when it comes to college admissions coverage.

Michele Hernandez, a former admissions officer at Dartmouth College and now a private admissions consultant, said she has rarely seen student journalists reach beyond basic day-to-day admissions coverage.

“It seems like most student reporters just take the admissions director’s rubber-stamp responses at face value,” said Hernandez, who wrote about the inner-workings of the Ivy League admissions process in her book, “A is for Admission.” “I’ve hardly ever seen a real penetrative admissions article. Students should be asking more penetrating questions, not just listening blindly.”

She added that the admissions process is “definitely” in need of more transparency. Those inside the admissions office, however, may not agree.

Jeffrey Brenzel, dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale University, believes there is an overabundance of information available to the public today.

“With respect to transparency about admissions criteria, I think the public is actually awash with information, including high school counseling offices, guidebooks and Internet resources,” he wrote in an email.

Emily Wanger, a rising junior at Yale who covered admissions for the Yale Daily News this year, said her experiences reporting on the process “showed that it was easy to fall into the trap of [the stories] being a cycle.”

To broaden her coverage, Wanger complemented her day-to-day work with larger trend pieces on the admissions process. In one instance, she wrote a feature on the “craze” surrounding admissions numbers today.

Wanger added that she has never run into any issues with transparency in Yale’s admissions office.

Steinberg, of the New York Times, said “admissions has probably never been more transparent than it is today. But it is always going to be a mysterious process because you can never know for sure why someone was admitted or rejected.”

He added that it is in every college newspaper’s interest to maintain a steady presence in admissions coverage.

“Think of the revenue stream coming in from admissions,” he said. “If you’ve got 30,000 applications coming in at one school, at around $65 per application, you’ve got a huge amount of money to follow there. A good college newspaper editor will see tremendous potential in the admissions beat year-round.”

Rob Killion, executive director of the Common Application, Inc. — which provides the undergraduate application platform for more than 400 colleges and universities — agreed.

He added, however, that the bulk of the college admissions coverage he has read has been focused on upper-tier institutions.

“These articles get written that make it seem like this frenzy is occurring as a national phenomenon,” he said. “In reality, that’s probably not the case.”

Access: accepted, denied

In some cases, the experiences of student journalists reinforce what Killion has observed.

Emily Cole, editor in chief of the Captain’s Log — the student newspaper at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va. — said admissions is not normally a major coverage area for the school’s weekly publication.

However, when CNU’s admissions office mistakenly sent 2,000 acceptance emails earlier this year to students they did not intend to admit, the Captain’s Log was on the story.

Cole speculated that the staff’s coverage of the admissions snafu rubbed school officials the wrong way and was part of the driving force behind a proposal to strip funding for the print edition of the newspaper. The proposal has since been taken off the table.

Like Cole, Greg Doyle, co-editor in chief of the Villanovan, Villanova University’s student newspaper, said admissions stories are generally not prominent in the weekly publication.

At least that was the case until this year.

In February, Villanova’s School of Law announced that an internal investigation revealed several school officials who had been reporting inflated admission data to the American Bar Association for the past few years.

While Doyle covered the story right after it broke — relying almost solely on official university statements — he said he was largely stonewalled after trying to gain access for follow-up reporting.

“Students deserved to know what was happening in our community, and I felt that they were preventing that from happening,” Doyle said, adding that “this had the potential to be one of the biggest stories this year.”

At a private university like Villanova, it is admittedly far more difficult for a student journalist to investigate the admissions process if sources are unwilling to cooperate. Unlike a public institution, reporters cannot rely on freedom of information laws to gain access to the admissions office at a private college.

But in many cases, student journalists at private schools are still finding ways to unearth new admissions practices.

When he was a reporter covering admissions for the Harvard Crimson in 2002, Dan Rosenheck, a 2004 Harvard alumnus and current editor with the Economist, took it upon himself to make investigative journalism a priority.

Rosenheck learned through an investigation that the school’s so-called “z-list” — which refers to students who are admitted to the university with the understanding that they will take a year off before matriculating — was, in reality, being used as a way to accept more students with familial ties to Harvard.

Though Harvard’s admissions office denied that its z-list also operated as a “legacy list,” Rosenheck reached out to undergraduates who had experienced the process personally.

He found that about 72 percent of the “z-listed” students were also legacies. At the time, the normal makeup of legacies for an incoming class at Harvard was 12 to 14 percent.

Along with a separate investigation into the school’s early admission program, Rosenheck said his investigative work “was met with a quite conspicuous radio silence from the admissions office. They were as transparent as possible when they felt like it, and they weren’t when they didn’t feel like it.”

Still, though, Rosenheck said his experiences reporting on the admissions process at the nation’s most selective institution helped him shed light on “American meritocracy as a whole.”

“In a way, college admissions trends help point to the broader ways in which society is picking its winners and losers,” he said. “For a college journalist, there’s endless opportunity.”

By Seth Zweifler, SPLC staff writer

Fall 2011, reports