The college admissions scandal has led to increased scrutiny of the many legal ways that some applicants have advantages others lack. Legacies — the children of alumni — have an edge at many colleges, especially elite private institutions that consider that status a plus when evaluating applicants.
Brown University is among the institutions that considers legacy status, and recent articles have drawn attention to other advantages that legacy applicants and wealthy applicants have had or continue to enjoy.
On Thursday, The Brown Daily Herald reported, and the university and some faculty members confirmed, that the university’s fund-raising office sets up meetings with faculty members for applicants who are either legacies or are related to wealthy individuals or others in touch with fund-raisers. In some cases, the faculty members have been encouraged to write letters to the admissions office about their (positive) impressions of the applicants.
Darrell M. West, a scholar at the Brookings Institution and formerly a faculty member at Brown, wrote an essay this week for Brookings about the advantages he saw for well-connected applicants at Brown.
“When I taught at Brown, I periodically was asked to meet with children of the rich and famous who were seeking admission to the university,” West said in an email to Inside Higher Ed. “I did so and wrote letters to the admissions office giving my impressions of the applicant. The university claims there was no pressure to admit well-connected individuals, but it was clear to me Brown thrived on its reputation as a ‘hot Ivy’ that had lots of prominent students there. It admitted many well-deserving and talented students, but many on the faculty recognized the university’s interest in having children of prominent individuals on campus because it generated publicity for Brown and sometimes paid off down the road in financial contributions to the university. Looking back on these experiences, I can see that wealthy students had admissions advantages over the average applicant because the latter were not getting one-on-one meetings with faculty members or special consideration by the admissions office.”
West’s essay is part of a forthcoming book — Divided Politics, Divided Nation: Hyperconflict in the Trump Era — in which he touches on Ivy admissions. Of the current scandal and the practices he witnessed at Brown, he said, “I think everyone needs to re-examine university admissions practices and make sure we maintain a merit-based admissions process.”
Brown alumni also have (and will have until this summer) another form of help. The Alumni College Advising Program provides free college counseling — from counselors with extensive experience in admissions — to the children of Brown alumni, faculty members and other employees. Each eligible child gets three hours of counseling and is under no obligation to use that counseling to prepare to apply to Brown.
Brian Clark, a spokesman for Brown, said via email that the programs were undergoing some changes. He said that the alumni advising program would end on July 1. “The decision to phase out the program followed months of study to identify the best ways to devote resources to serving expanding numbers of families who can benefit from advising services,” he said. “As of July 1, the Office of College Admission at Brown will assume the role of offering all college advising services to interested families looking for guidance on the college admission process.”
As for the advancement-orchestrated meetings with faculty members, he said that the advancement office has stopped asking faculty members to write to the admissions office after meeting applicants whose meetings the advancement office set up.
A letter from a faculty member could certainly help a candidate at any college. Increasingly colleges favor applicants with “demonstrated interest” — those who have shown that they are committed to enrolling if admitted — and meeting individual professors would check that box for some applicants.
But Clark said that the program as a whole did not involve anyone getting an unfair advantage. “Brown’s Division of Advancement coordinates a campus visit program open to alumni, parents and friends who share that an interested student would like to visit campus. This program has benefited those from many backgrounds, including individuals who are unlikely to have a philanthropic relationship with the university,” he said.
Clark acknowledged, though, that these visits do originate outside the standard admissions process. “Visits typically originate as a result of inquiries from conversations that staff in alumni relations, development, the Brown Annual Fund and other offices in advancement have during their work,” he said. “For instance, an alum may share that a colleague or friend has a child interested in touring Brown, and the advancement team arranges a visit as a courtesy. This is one of many ways we maintain strong relationships with members of our community.”
Clark added that Brown takes steps not to mingle fund-raising and help for applicants. “As a rule, if a student is a prospective applicant to Brown participating in this program, their family is not in gift conversations with Brown. Advancement does not enter into gift conversations with families involved in the admission process. And if we learn that a family already involved in gift conversations has entered the admission process, our policy is to suspend gift conversations.”
Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, has said he is drafting legislation to remove the tax deductions on gifts that come just before or after the child of a donor is admitted to a college. Higher education groups are opposing the legislation.
Wealth and Legacy Status
Brown enrolls some of the wealthiest students in the country. According to Opportunity Insights, a project based on research by Raj Chetty of Harvard University, the median family income of a student at Brown is $204,200, and 70 percent of students come from the top 20 percent of family income in the United States. More Brown students come from the top 0.1 percent of the population in terms of income (4.3 percent) than from the bottom 20 percent (4.1 percent).
Some Brown students have been campaigning against legacy admissions, urging Brown to reveal more information about exactly how legacy status helps some applicants. Clark, the university spokesman, said that in recent years, Brown alumni children have made up 10 to 12 percent of the classes admitted. But he said that because “we don’t admit students based on categories, we don’t release application and acceptance data in a way that suggests we do.”
The ethics standards of the National Association for College Admission Counseling do not bar consideration of legacy status. But they do require colleges to be up front about their practices, and many Brown applicants appear to have been unaware (until perhaps this week) that the advancement office could set up meetings for applicants with faculty members. NACAC’s guidance says that colleges “must make publicly available accurate, complete and current information concerning … the factors considered in making admission, financial aid and scholarship decisions, including, but not limited to, students’ demonstrated interest, social media presence, personal conduct, legacy status and financial need.”
Networking for the Rich and Famous
The discussion of admissions advantages for the wealthy or legacies follows discussion at Brown of help for students from such groups. A February article in The Providence Journal reported on an invitation-only networking dinner held each semester off campus and organized and paid for by Martin J. Granoff, a trustee emeritus and major donor. The article takes a critical look at the event, quoting critics about how such events reinforce the class advantages that some at Brown enjoy. One attendee described the guest list this way: “Just look up the names of buildings [on campus] and look up people with matching last names — that’s it.”
A university spokesman said that the events are not Brown functions, but the article noted that invitations come from Brown advancement officials and that the advancement office provides “logistical support” for the event.
A Brown spokesman said via email to Inside Higher Ed that advancement staff members helped with logistics “as a courtesy” to Granoff, who “does not have an administrative staff.” But the spokesman said that the central administration was unaware of this until being contacted for the article and “has since clarified with staff that they should not assist with personal events.”
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