Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Torts Are Killing College Admissions

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Some very busy college admission offices are having to add another activity to their January To Do list—going to court. A lawsuit was announced this week alleging some of the nation’s best-known colleges have been colluding to limit financial aid awards to certain applicants. According to the suit, this affected some 170,000 students in the past 20 years, and many of the colleges involved had been named in previous lawsuits alleging collusion.

That last point shouldn’t be overlooked, and could work to the advantage of the colleges. If they already had some legal run-ins with the information they shared with other colleges, you’d think they’d be extra careful not to do it again, since second-time offenders are treated less daintily by the justice system. No college has said that, but quotes from the colleges involved clearly suggest they’ve kept a close eye on what they are and aren’t sharing. Assuming they mean what they say, that could set the stage for some kind of settlement, which would be to everyone’s advantage—especially the profession of college admissions as a whole.

On the other hand, this new lawsuit has already caused damage to the name of college admissions. Combined with the court trials currently going on with affirmative action (hello US Supreme Court) and the legal sideshow provided by the Varsity Blues scandal, the last thing college admissions needs is one more procedural element being adjudicated through the justice system—and yet, here we are.

If this keeps up, one can only wonder what’s next—and it doesn’t take much imagination to find the likely targets. The Justice Department didn’t have any issues with Early Decision when they threw out a number of long-held admission practices two years ago, but that doesn’t mean the legal landscape is now barren. If the right ED candidate changes their mind and loses out on the real college of their choice, a lawsuit claiming restraint of trade isn’t all that far away—and even if it’s unsuccessful, it’s one more round of lawyers, publicity, and public questioning of the motives and integrity of the admissions process.

The real shame with these forays into the legal system lies in two areas. It’s certainly true most colleges don’t have to worry about the influence of million-dollar donors, and most colleges aren’t part of a financial aid-sharing consortium. But any savvy admissions office has to see these events and wonder how much scrutiny they are going to lend to any changes they might make in the admissions process. Something as benign as a change in a deadline date could make some reporter eager for admissions fame try to create a problem that doesn’t exist, fueled by the public’s appetite for college admissions gossip. Once the media has you looking over your shoulder, autonomy in the admissions workplace becomes stilted.

This lawsuit is also a problem because it serves as another example of a media-obsessed issue involving a handful of schools serving a small percentage of America’s college students. 170,000 students boils down to about 400 students per involved institution per year. It’s hard to imagine the same media furor being raised over a similar story involving 10 colleges in the rural Midwest that serve far more students—but since the colleges involved are the darlings of mainstream media, the issue is grabbing headlines.

We have far to go in giving the public the information they need to really understand what college admissions is all about. One more story about the Big 25 isn’t really going to help that effort, and that’s what we have here.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Patrick. We are pleased that someone is looking ahead for us.
    Since we spend so much time looking back, we risk more collisions with the ever-evolving reality.