By Ari Worthman, director of college counseling
I will never forget a heated conversation in Haverford College's 2003 admissions committee. It my first year as an admissions officer. Two students from the same independent school had applied. One was an academically strong student whose personal qualities also impressed me in his interview. The other was weaker academically but was a nationally ranked runner who was the top recruit of the Haverford cross-country coach. We accepted multiple students from the same school all the time, so we could have taken them both. But the committee readily admitted the star athlete while judging his classmate — who met no institutional priority — as less compelling. I was outraged. "How is it fair that we'd turn away a stronger student and take a weaker one just because he can run faster?" I remember asking. I was a rookie admissions officer. I was naïve.
Cross-country and track have been Haverford's premier sports for decades, and students and alumni take pride in both nationally ranked teams. This pride engenders schools spirit and strengthens community — both important factors that motivate alumni to donate. Because tuition doesn't cover the full expense of educating each student, alumni giving is a necessary supplement to tuition revenue.
"Our job isn't to make admissions decisions that are 'fair' to the applicants but rather decisions that are 'fair' to our current students and school community," my supervisor explained. Colleges are centers of education but also complex institutions with budgetary demands. If revenue falls short, programs are cut, professors are furloughed, and opportunities for students diminish. Ensuring there is a robust stream of income other than tuition revenue is a priority for leaders at any college, and admissions plays an important role in generating that income.
I bowed my head and raised my hand in favor of admitting the cross-country coach's top recruit and of rejecting his academically stronger classmate.
Admitting talented athletes is just one example admissions' role in generating additional revenue. Another is the commitment to admitting "legacies," defined by most colleges as children of alumni. Happy alumni are more likely to donate. Because rejecting the child of an alumnus or alumna usually breeds unhappiness, colleges make extra efforts to look favorably upon legacy applicants. While many legacies are still denied admission, at most colleges, they are admitted at rates higher than applicants who aren't children of alumni and who don't fill other institutional priorities.
Even if the applicant is not a legacy, sometimes the prospect that his admission will generate a major donation influences the admissions decision. A family's reputation for major philanthropy (defined by most colleges in the six and seven figures) may make its child a "development case" in the eyes of admissions officers. "If admitting only one student means that our entire student body will enjoy a new science center, then I'll vote 'yes' without hesitation, as long as the student can do the work," an admissions colleague once told me. Similarly, students "connected" to trustees and other generous donors get special attention. Colleges work hard to sustain strong relationships with these significant donors and thus strongly weigh their advocacy. In some cases, the student's connection to the trustee or donor can be the tipping point toward admission — ahead of applicants with stronger academic and extracurricular records.
"College admissions is a complex process through which competing institutional and political interests influence whom admissions officers choose as they build a diverse class," I wrote in the first piece of this series in August. It's not always about who is the most deserving or academically talented.
While colleges certainly care deeply about academic achievement, there are circumstances when they care more deeply about generating revenue.
In the next edition of Inside Lakeside, I'll talk about how building a diverse class impacts admissions decisions.
Here are links to the first in this series and to the second, about how the bottom line, influenced by such factors as a college's assessment of the likelihood of an applicant enrolling, her intended major or her ability to pay full tuition, can influence decisions.
Ari Worthman is director of college counseling. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.