UI admissions director: Rankings 'doing more harm than good'


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University of Illinois admissions Director Andrew Borst has a few ideas on how to curb the pressure driving some parents to cheat or even break the law to get their kids into college.

Get rid of college rankings.

And for parents, focus on the best fit, not prestige.

"I think as a society we clearly have demonstrated value for those rankings, but I think that they're doing more harm than good," Borst said in a podcast interview with The News-Gazette this week.

Borst frequently hears parents comparing the UI's ranking in a particular program to schools a notch or two higher.

"It really feels like parents are looking for something to talk about at cocktail parties rather than what's going to be the best education for students," he said.

Parents should keep the discussion mostly within the family and resist peer pressure to talk about where their children are headed or whether they won scholarships, he said.

"None of that information is anybody's business."

Borst said he was surprised by the magnitude of the "Varsity Blues" scheme announced earlier this month, in which a consultant allegedly used bribes to help celebrities, business executives and other wealthy parents get their children into elite colleges.

Prosecutors said Rick Singer bribed coaches to make it appear students were athletic recruits, even faking credentials and photos. He also hired ringers to take college entrance exams for students or paid proctors to correct their answers.

Borst said he's heard stories within higher education of individuals making large donations to a university and then pressuring them to admit a student, but nothing involving "such an in-depth knowledge of the process and trying to work around it."

Borst said he's not aware of any attempts to do so at the UI, and said the "firewall" placed around the admissions process after the Category I scandal in 2009 offers protections against outside influence.

In that case, legislators, trustees and others with influence pressured UI administrators to admit politically connected applicants.

With the firewall, the admissions office can only talk about an individual student's application with the student, family members, a high school counselor or UI employees whose admissions duties pertain to that student.

"So there's not a trustee or a legislator or president or even my supervisor that can inquire as to the status of an admissions applicant," he said.

The policy also provides cover for deans or other administrators who might face pressure from a donor, for example, Borst said.

"If that donor were to say, 'I gave you all this money ... can you make sure my student is admitted,' the dean can say, 'I'm not allowed to be part of that process,'" Borst said. "It's not, 'Let me see what I can do.'"

The UI also uses the "rule of two." All admissions decisions have to be approved by two people.

To ensure transparency and accountability, there's also a record kept of all admissions decisions, so if accusations of wrongdoing emerge later "we're able to go back and check."

At the UI, admissions decisions are made by individual academic programs. Faculty members in those departments determine the guidelines for admission, and the admissions office reviews students to determine who is the most competitive, Borst said.

The firewall ensures that "no one can interfere and pluck a student who is outside of those guiderails and say this student is going to be reviewed differently," he said.

The UI also keeps a log of anyone who calls trying to intervene on behalf of a student. Borst said they tend to be people with good intentions trying to help the university recruit certain students or "well-meaning grandparents." After he explains the safeguards, "usually people stop at that point," he said.

But there are some who try to use their positions to get the UI to take another look at a student. So the admissions office logs the call for review by the UI's ethics office and a faculty admissions committee.

Unlike some of the elite schools flagged in the recent "Varsity Blues" scandal, the UI doesn't automatically admit "legacies" — children or grandchildren of alumni — or accept letters of recommendation, instead relying on the same materials for all students, he said.

The recent scandal affected only a "small sliver" of schools with highly selective admission rates, Borst said.

"This isn't how higher education works" generally, he said.

Still, the UI is reviewing its procedures, specifically looking at whether anyone could have been admitted who didn't really have athletic ability or who may have used another "side door" to get in, he said.

"We think this process will hold up, but want to make sure," he said.

The UI's "holistic" review process for applicants offers some protection against a student with faked test scores, for instance, Borst said.

"We have had many cases where we had students who had really high test scores but poor grades, and nothing really outstanding in their essay and nothing outstanding in the rest of their application materials," he said. "That student is not likely to be admitted."

There are additional precautions taken when the UI is considering athletic recruits who may have outstanding ability but don't qualify under general admissions criteria.

Two coaches — a head coach and an assistant coach — must certify that the student has unique athletic ability, he said.

That student is then reviewed by the 11-member Committee on Admission for Student Athletes, which includes a faculty member from each college. The panel decides whether the student can be successful at the university, Borst said.

If the student is admitted through that process, the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics' compliance office must ensure that the student is actually included on a roster, he said.

Borst said that's one area the UI will be reviewing, to ensure proper background checks are made.

Borst, who wasn't at the UI in 2009, thinks the processes put in place then, while not foolproof, can be a model for other schools.

He's hoping the national scandal will also help universities identify "weak spots" in the admissions system that can exploited by unqualified students.

And he has some advice for parents considering a private consultant: be on guard, especially if they make any guarantees.

"None of this process is guaranteed," he said.


Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is jwurth@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).