The admissions game

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

Just one month after a team of three Tribunereporters began investigating a secretive, formalized system ofpreferential admissions at the state’s most selective public university, thenewspaper published its first piece in a series it dubbed “Clout goes tocollege.”

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

College admissions is an area that offers “tremendous anduntapped potential for student journalists to report on,” said JacquesSteinberg, 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 31,659applications submitted, the largest number ever. Of those, just 12.3 percentwere accepted — a record low.

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

And yet, while the admissions process remains a rite ofpassage for anyone hoping to call himself a college graduate, few have a realsense of what happens behind the closed doors of the admissions office, Hooversaid.

Today’s student journalists can be at the forefront ofefforts to shed more light on college admissions. From a team of editorskeeping up with the Tribune series to an enterprising reporter atthe University of California – Los Angeles poking around the School ofDentistry, admissions coverage has taken on more and more prominence at many studentpublications.

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

Preferential policies

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

Among various records, Cohen sought access to admissionsoffice logs, emails from admissions officers and other written correspondenceby university officials.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa Silverberg, who was serving as managing editor whenthe Tribunefirst broke the news, said the Daily Illini staff decidedto add its own “clout list” coverage into the mix because “it was taking placeright on our campus and we had to respond.”

The night before the first Tribune piece was set torun — which was when Silverberg first learned of the newspaper’s investigation— she had the Daily Illini staff get in touch with universityadministrators 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 hadto move quickly.”

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

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

The Tribune reports led to theappointment of a state commission to investigate the university’s admissionssystem. Soon after, the school’s president and chancellor resigned, along withmost of the trustees.

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

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

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

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

Though Silverberg called the “Clout” stories “the biggestnews of the year,” Disis said the school’s admissions process “is still a bitunder wraps.”

Kostell acknowledged that “it’s certainly our goal to makethe process itself more transparent. At the same time, what we do isn’tformulaic. As universities have moved away from a formula and more in thedirection of a holistic process, it’s more difficult to be transparent in thesense that our audience might like us to be.”

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

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

Two years earlier, Robert Faturechi, then a studentjournalist with the UCLA Daily Bruin, did justthat.

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

In one of his stories, published Nov. 12, 2007, Faturechiwrote that “applicants related to donors giving six-figure gifts wereautomatically advanced over other students despite their lower test scores andgrades.”

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

Most alumni were quoted anonymously in Faturechi’sreporting.

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

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

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

Still, he added that he remains frustrated by theunwillingness of residency program administrators to admit any wrongdoing. Heis equally disappointed by the redactions made to his freedom of informationrequests.

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

A need for transparency?

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

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

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

She added that the admissions process is “definitely” inneed of more transparency. Those inside the admissions office, however, may notagree.

Jeffrey Brenzel, dean of undergraduate admissions at YaleUniversity, believes there is an overabundance of information available to thepublic today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Access: accepted, denied

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

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

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

Cole speculated that the staff’s coverage of the admissionssnafu rubbed school officials the wrong way and was part of the driving forcebehind a proposal to strip funding for the print edition of the newspaper. Theproposal 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 generallynot prominent in the weekly publication.

At least that was the case until this year.

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

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

“Students deserved to know what was happening in ourcommunity, and I felt that they were preventing that from happening,” Doylesaid, adding that “this had the potential to be one of the biggest stories thisyear.”

At a private university like Villanova, it is admittedly farmore difficult for a student journalist to investigate the admissions processif sources are unwilling to cooperate. Unlike a public institution, reporterscannot rely on freedom of information laws to gain access to the admissionsoffice at a private college.

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

When he was a reporter covering admissions for the HarvardCrimson in 2002, Dan Rosenheck, a 2004 Harvard alumnus and currenteditor with the Economist, took it upon himself to makeinvestigative journalism a priority.

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Seth Zweifler, SPLC staff writer