Chapter 8: Who Gets In? Examining Ethics and Equity in Post-Secondary Admissions

Emma Lockyer

Introduction and Full Disclosure

Post-secondary admissions are rife with ethical issues, on both the part of the applicant and the admitting institution. Admissions are a high stakes game, in which students are seeking entrance to increasingly competitive programs that will define the course of the next several years of their lives (at a minimum). Meanwhile, institutions are seeking students that they perceive as desirable to fill the limited number of seats available. These pressures can cause parents, students and institutions to behave in unethical ways to fulfill their own needs.

Unethical behaviour by both applicants and institutions in the admissions process can create an unequal playing field for all applicants, and especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. This inequity in access to education can serve to perpetuate socioeconomic inequality within our society. It is important to note that discussion around these issues is emerging, and as such, there is limited scholarly research around this topic. However, significant investigations and discussions have taken place in the media. For example, the extensive coverage of the 2019 Operation Varsity Blues admissions scandal, that included celebrities Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, saw a number of parents facing fraud-related charges in a massive college admissions scandal. Admissions fraud in this case involved paying test administrators to change grades and paying bribes to athletics coaches to admit students as recruits for sports that they did not play (Reeves, 2019).

Along with the FBI’s Operation Varsity Blues investigation, other cases have involved international students paying third party services to have someone else complete their language tests (Reuters, 2018) or to compromise international testing centres (Keung, 2018). While the behaviours that these individuals engage in are both unethical and illegal, there are many other tactics that parents and applicants may use to increase the chance of admission that are legal but may still be unethical. This can include the use of college admissions coaches and making large financial donations to the institution their child is interested in attending.

Post-secondary institutions can also be engaged in unethical admission practices, which can include policies of legacy admissions (Daniels, 2020), admitting the children of major donors and considering a student’s socioeconomic background (Weissbourd, 2019a) and need for financial aid (MacMillian, 2019). Institutions may also prioritize the admission of athletes based on their athletic — rather than their academic — capabilities (Jump, 2019). Institutions justify these decisions on the basis that they are looking for the best students who will be the right fit for their institution, although these practices can sometimes equate to overrepresentation those who are white and wealthy (Reeves, 2019).

In targeting students for recruitment and admission, institutions may also engage in unethical behaviour by using applicant data obtained from test administrators such as College Board (Selingo, 2017), internet cookies that track an applicant’s browsing history (MacMillan and Anderson, 2019), or an applicant’s social media posts posted in private Facebook groups (Homayon, 2017) to make decisions about which applicants to admit, even if the applicants have not provided this information to the school directly.

Table 8.1 demonstrates the ethical issues associated with post-secondary admissions using Farrow’s (2016) Uncompleted Framework.

Table 8.1 Ethical issues associated with post-secondary admissions based on Farrow’s (2016) Uncompleted Framework
Principle Duties & Responsibilities (deontological) Outcomes (consequentialist) Personal development (virtue)
Respect for participant autonomy & independence Institutions have a responsibility to respect student privacy and not use data obtained in unethical ways. Institutions should use ethical data to make equitable admission decisions. Parents have an obligation to behave ethically and to not put their child’s education at risk.
Avoid harm / minimize risk Students have an obligation to provide factual and honest information to post-secondary institutions. Students and parents must follow the laws. Post-secondary institutions have an obligation to train staff on the security features of test scores and transcripts. Institutions have an obligation to try and prevent students from being admitted using fraudulent methods. Assumes that applicants will act honestly and provide factual information.
Full Disclosure Institutions should be transparent about data used in admissions decisions. Applicants should disclose honest and factual information.
Privacy, Data Security & Informed Consent Institutions have a responsibility to respect student privacy. Applicants should disclose honest and factual information.
Integrity Institutions and students have a duty to act in ways that promote equity. Institutions should act to admit students in a way that is equitable.

While unethical behaviours in post-secondary admissions predate many modern technologies, technology has created additional avenues in which these behaviours can flourish (Selingo, 2017). Technology has also created opportunities to highlight and expose these behaviours. These behaviours have the ability to create inequity within the post-secondary system by giving undue advantage to those with financial privilege. This chapter will explore equity in North American post-secondary education, and how unethical behaviours aided by technology threaten the equitable admission of eligible students.

Equitable Access to Education

Equitable access to post-secondary education is an issue across North America. Many admissions practices used by institutions favour students of particular backgrounds, whether that be implicit or explicit. For example, wealthy individuals with the means to make large donations (typically $500,000 and up) to institutions may have their child pushed to the top of the waitlist (Reeves, 2019). Daniels (2020), citing Arcidiacono, Kinsler and Ransom (2019), notes that students admitted under legacy policies (those who are admitted because they are the child or grandchild of an alum) are disproportionately more likely to be white and come from a wealthy family. Kingkade (2019) discusses, policies surrounding donor and legacy admissions are much more common at US institutions than they are at Canadian institutions. However, affluent families in both countries are able to pay for tutoring and other similar resources, which allows those students to score higher on exams and school work than their less privileged classmates and puts them at an advantage when it comes to grades-based admissions (Reeves, 2019).

Speaking on the Harvard EdCast podcast, high school students Nicolas Burgess and Dequan Franks noted that, coming from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, students like them struggle to afford the costs associated with writing standardized tests, let alone paying for test prep courses (Weissbourd, 2019b). Burgess and Franks discussed the other barriers that prevented them from excelling in their high school courses, noting that they had to work to contribute to household expenses which took them away from their studies and gave them less time for homework than their more affluent peers.

Student-athletes are also given privilege when it comes to admission at some schools (Desai, 2018; Fox, 2019). As Desai (2018) notes, over 65% of NCAA athletes are white. Desai (2018) discusses that many of these students come from affluent families that are able to pay for the costs associated with playing sports in order to get these athletes to the NCAA level. This provides an advantage to these students in the admissions process, as Fox (2019) notes that athletes have the opportunity to be admitted with lower grades than their peers. Arcidiacono, Kinsler and Ransom (2019) use Harvard University as an example, where seats are reserved for athletes and the applications of recruited athletes are reviewed separately from other applicants. It should be acknowledged that, as noted by Desai (2018), there are some student-athletes (primarily basketball and football players) who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and for whom admission as an athlete does give access to education that they otherwise would not have. However, the vast majority of student-athletes have an advantage in the admissions process as a result of their socioeconomic status (Desai, 2018).

The privilege that student-athletes are given in the admissions process was demonstrated in the Varsity Blues scandal, in which actress Lori Loughlin had her two daughters admitted to the University of Southern California under the guise of being rowing team members by paying bribes to the coaches (Kahlenberg, 2019). Because her daughters were recommended for admission by athletics coaches, they were offered admission despite having lower grades and test scores than other students (Kahlenberg, 2019). While the Varsity Blues scandal is an extreme example of parents and students engaging in unethical behaviour to gain admission, there are many methods of cheating that are used by students and parents who are desperate to gain admission to their chosen school.

Many of the admission policies and tactics discussed in this chapter offer advantages to students of certain racial and socioeconomic groups. In an attempt to combat this gap, some policies have been implemented. In the United States, Affirmative Action was introduced in 1961 (Webster, 2017). As Webster (2017) notes, Affirmative Action was originally intended to “to improve the educational opportunities for minority groups (including minority races, genders, and sexual orientations) that are commonly and historically discriminated against” (para. 2). However, the use of Affirmative Action at US institutions is declining, and DeSilver (2014) notes that eight states have banned the use of Affirmative Action, in favour of other policies.

Similar equitable access programs exist in Canada, where admission has commonly been based on grades, without consideration for race or other demographic factors (Kingkade, 2019). Many institutions have created policies regarding Indigenous student admission in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations (Cote-Meek, 2017) that seek to level the playing field for those who have experienced discrimination in the education system. Institutions walk a fine line trying to balance equity in admissions processes with serving students who may typically struggle to access education without denying access to other students. From a deontological perspective (Farrow, 2016), post-secondary institutions have a responsibility to offer education to students from a variety of backgrounds, which can make the engagement in practices that favour those from certain racial or socioeconomic backgrounds unethical. However, in cases where these practices seek to level the playing field, they may be considered ethical behaviour by the institution if they seek to end legacies of discrimination from the education system.

Privacy and Data Security

Privacy and data security have become major issues in admissions with the increase in data tracking and analytics tools available to institutions. As MacMillan and Anderson (2019) reported, many institutions are using internet cookies to track prospective students before they have even applied for admission. Selingo (2017) notes that there are several tools available tailored to educational institutions that track prospective student’s browsing history on both the institution’s website and across the internet, using this data to build a profile that predicts, among other things, a student’s location, race and if the student will require financial aid. These profiles can be traced to the student’s identity and eventually attached to a student’s application, thus providing admissions officers with information about the applicant that the applicant did not supply themselves.

Homayon (2017) discusses an example of admissions being impacted by information that prospective students did not supply to an institution. A group of students had their offers to Harvard rescinded after screenshots of racist, sexist and homophobic memes shared in a ‘private’ Facebook group surfaced. As Hu (2020) explores, many people want more private spaces on the internet where they can interact with others. However, as Hu (2020) discusses, a space on the internet is never truly private; screenshots can be taken and shared beyond the intended audience.

Even before prospective students apply, or consider applying to, an institution, it is possible that their data is already being evaluated to determine if they are a suitable candidate. Selingo (2017) discussed the practice of purchasing lists of names from test administrators. Lists of names of students who have recently written a standardized admissions test, such as the SAT, are purchased from the test administrators based on demographic criteria such as location, test score, and parent’s income level (Selingo, 2017). Once an institution purchases a student’s name from a test administrator, they are allowed to market to that student for a certain length of time (usually 1-2 years). This process can decrease equity in the education system from the start of the recruitment process, as the names purchased are more likely to be of students from higher socioeconomic classes (Selingo, 2017). That means that some applicants will receive tailored communication from institutions providing them with information that may not be as readily available to other applicants.

From a consequentialist perspective (Farrow, 2016), institutions are acting to promote the best outcomes for themselves, by using any data they can access or purchase. For institutions, these practices often focus on the recruitment and admission of students who meet the socioeconomic and demographic profiles the institution is seeking to bolster, including targeting certain race and gender statistics, as well as to attract students who do not need financial aid or scholarships to pay tuition (Selingo, 2017). However, these best outcomes for the institution are not aligned with the best outcomes for all students, or for society. From a virtue ethics perspective (Farrow, 2016), the behaviour of the institutions is unethical, as the institution (and thus those making decisions at the institution) are not acting in a fair and ethical manner.

Educational Integrity and Minimizing Risk for All

Newcomb (2017) identifies a need for admissions staff to be trained on the security features of documents and how to spot fraudulent transcripts, test scores and suspicious documents, as part of the role of admissions staff is to be a “gatekeeper” for admission to the institution (p. 39). Several parents indicated in the Varsity Blues scandal paid to have their children’s SAT scores fraudulently inflated, many without their children even knowing (Kircher, 2019). In 2018, Niagara College identified that English language proficiency test scores coming from certain testing centres in India had been compromised (Keung, 2018).

Tyre (2016) describes the online network that some international students use to obtain fraudulent scores on standardized admissions and English language tests. Using online brokers, students are able to hire what are referred to as “gunmen” (Tyre, 2016), or a proxy test-taker. Students specify the score range that they need on the test, as well as provide a photo of themselves or information about their appearance. Gunmen who have a similar appearance to the student are vital, as ID is required at most testing sites, and many testing agencies take a photo of the test-taker and include it on the test results. Tyre (2016) notes that exceptionally high scores or having the test taken at a North American testing centre (rather than a Chinese location) costs extra. Brokers can be in North America as well; in 2019, a TOEFL fraud ring was discovered at the University of California Los Angeles (Beam, 2019). In 2018, a Chinese student studying at Pennsylvania State University was deported from the United States following fraud charges after using a paid test taker to write her TOEFL exam in 2016 (Reuters, 2018). These are only a few recent examples of test-taking fraud.

As technology has advanced, so have the methods of both engaging in and detecting fraudulent behaviour. As discussed by Jenks (2019) on the podcast Gangster Capitalism, the Varsity Blues scandal was built almost entirely electronically, with text messages, emails, photoshopped pictures, and wire transfers for funds connecting this fraudulent network. Tyre (2016) examines how these agencies attempt to keep ahead of the security features implemented by test administrators, such as hiring test takers who have a similar appearance to the person on whose behalf they are writing the test. Beam (2019) notes that face and voice recognition software are being considered by some testing companies as additional security measures.

The concern with the admission of students who have been granted admission on the basis of fraudulent application documents and test scores is that they are taking the spot of a more deserving student. The commonality of those who are admitted by cheating the system is the use of financial resources. From a virtue ethics perspective (Farrow, 2016), this is a challenge as it demonstrates that not all of the students are acting virtuously. From a consequentialist perspective (Farrow, 2016), this behaviour is unethical as it does not promote the best outcomes for all parties.

Student Autonomy and Independence

In the post-secondary admissions process, there can be a lack of consideration for student autonomy and privacy. In order to write the SAT exam, which is required for admission to most universities in the United States (and may be used to admission to many Canadian institutions as well), students are required to provide the following information to College Board (the private company that administers the exam): full name, date of birth, mailing address, phone number, email address, gender, race, and information about their high school (College Board, 2020). The College Board then uses this data to track students, as well as selling this data to colleges and universities through their Student Search Service (College Board, 2020). Students may ‘opt-out’ of having their data included in the Student Search Service (College Board, 2020), but they cannot ‘opt-out’ of providing their information to College Board in the first place. The sale of this student data means that students may receive communication from schools that they have never heard of, or that they are not interested in. While the schools have the choice of which student’s data they purchase, based on demographic and academic information, students do not have a choice of which schools contact them (Selingo, 2017).

Not only are students tracked by data they knowingly provide (such as the data they give to College Board), they can also be tracked by data they do not realize they are providing. As discussed earlier in this chapter, both MacMillan and Anderson (2019) and Selingo (2017) note that many institutions use internet cookies to track students before they have even applied for admission. The information gleaned from the student’s web browsing history may then be factored into that student’s admission decision (MacMillan & Anderson, 2019). This means that the student does not have a choice in regards to the information they are providing to an institution and may be evaluated based on information they did not want to disclose. As discussed previously, targeting and evaluating students based on this type of data may decrease equity in the admissions process, as this data can disclose information about a student’s race or socioeconomic status that may make them less likely to receive an offer of admission.

In 2019, College Board announced plans to introduce an “Adversity Score”, which would accompany a student’s SAT score when reporting to post-secondary institutions (Allyn, 2019). This score was designed to provide context about a student’s background based on their zip code and school, and would index things such as crime rate, median income, and average educational attainment into a numeric “score” (Allyn, 2019). The intent of this score was to demonstrate to institutions the factors that may impact a student’s ability to score as high on the SAT as their more affluent peers and allow them to be evaluated in the context of their situation (Rim, 2019); however, critics quickly noted that this information could be used to discriminate against students of lower socioeconomic backgrounds who may be regarded as less desirable by institutions (Allyn, 2019). Following this backlash, College Board redesigned this concept as the “Environmental Context Dashboard”, which is a series of metrics (rather than one single number), provided to institutions along with a student’s SAT score (Rim, 2019). However, Rim (2019) notes that this still provides institutions with information about a student’s background that they did not disclose themselves, which may be used against them in an admission decision.

It is not only institutions and data that strip students of their autonomy; as discussed by Kircher (2019a), many of the students who were admitted to top universities as a result of the Varsity Blues scandal did not know about the actions their parents had taken and were not aware that their admission was fraudulent. Kircher (2019b) notes that some of these students had their admission offers revoked (for those who had not started at the time of the arrests), and others were expelled or had their programs put on hold while schools conducted their own investigations.

From a consequentialist perspective (Farrow, 2016), College Board was trying to promote the best outcomes for students by providing institutions with a holistic view of a student’s background. Similarly, the parents involved in the Varsity Blues scandal were acting to promote what they felt were the best outcomes for their child, in this case, being admitted to a prestigious university. However, from a virtue ethics perspective (Farrow, 2016), these actions do not value the well being of the individual students.

Conclusion

The challenge with determining equity in post-secondary admissions is that there is not truly one “right” answer. In many cases, there are more interested prospective students than there are available seats in many programs, and it is up to institutions to determine the best and most fair way to fill these seats. While it is clearly unethical when prospective students and or their parents present fraudulent documents or engage in other illegal activities to gain admission, other situations are not as obvious.

In the play Admissions (Dunsdon, 2020), the lead character, Sheri Rosen-Mason, grapples with this conundrum. After spending her entire career advocating for diversity in admissions at the college prep school where she works, her son does not get admitted to his dream ivy league school, although his minority friend with lower grades does. Sheri recognizes the delicate balance of considering both circumstance and achievement, and the role of race, class, and privilege in these decisions.

As institutions consider how they admit students, they must consider the criteria they use for admission and how that is impacted by an applicant’s individual life and education circumstances. At the time of writing this chapter, institutions worldwide were considering admission criteria as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Standardized tests traditionally used for admissions such as the SAT and provincial diploma exams were cancelled (Adams, 2020; Edwardson, 2020) and testing centres that administer English language tests were closed. In some cases, institutions moved towards alternate forms of assessment such as online English language tests (University of Calgary, 2020) and eliminated the requirement for standardized tests and final grades (Hess, 2020).

As Hess (2020) notes, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted some of the issues with equity in education, as students from less affluent backgrounds, or students in remote and rural communities or areas of the country, struggle to access online resources due to lack of access to appropriate technology and or internet connections. The impacts of COVID-19 will be felt in the admissions process for several years to come, as prospective students apply with lower or non-traditional (such as pass/fail) grades or without earlier opportunities to write standardized tests (Hess, 2020). With these new challenges in admissions, institutions will need to be flexible and work with prospective students based on their individual circumstances. What remains to be seen is if this pandemic will change the way that institutions make decisions about admissions in the long-term, or whether institutions will revert to their previous ways of doing things as the pandemic becomes a memory.

While a student’s individual circumstances should be considered in the admissions process, institutions must carefully consider the source and credibility of information. While there is a great deal of information provided by prospective students to institutions in the admissions process, institutions must also consider a student’s right to privacy when considering the use of data gleaned from social media, internet cookies or third-party sources, as the student did not make the conscious decision to disclose that data to the school (Rim, 2019).

In the end, no matter what information is used and how admission decisions are made, there are applicants who will not be offered admission, as there are simply not enough seats for everyone who wants admission. This is the heartbreaking challenge of admissions work. No matter if admission is based on test scores, grades, or personal circumstances, there are applicants who will be denied admission. The ethical challenge is deciding which applicants will and will not be offered admission, without unfairly advantaging or disadvantaging any groups of prospective students in the process.

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