In Praise of the Admissions Dean - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
In Praise of the Admissions Dean

We are entering that anxious time of year once again for high school seniors who are college applicants: the announcement of admissions decisions. Will it be the fat envelope (packed with details on admission to their #1 choice, “Welcome to the class of 2018…”), or the skinny one with the one page rejection letter (“Thank you for your interest in us and best wishes for every success in your future studies”)?

This also marks the culmination of the work of college/university deans of admissions and their staffs over the past year reviewing the amazing credentials of stellar applicants from around the country and the world.

Their job is an enormously difficult one.

In addition to all the razor thin distinctions among superb candidates in the applicant pool, they confront complex legal issues as a result of the Supreme Court’s sharply divided decisions on “affirmative admissions policies.” The lack of definitive guidance from the Court on this issue leaves many admissions deans walking a legal high wire without a net.

The job of Dean of Admissions of a college or university has always been a difficult one. Their decisions are an annual lightning rod for intense criticism from parents and family of disappointed applicants.

The enormous pressure on admissions deans come from many directions:  influential alumni, high school guidance counselors, major contributors, powerful trustees, and “type A,” successful, goal-oriented parents of bright young kids. 

Embattled admissions officials sort through thousands of applications from talented high school and prep school students to fill a comparative handful of openings in the incoming freshman class. Vast numbers of the applications boast 4.0 grade point averages, top 1% SAT board scores, and their applications are embroidered with enriching extra-curricular activities and community charitable projects. Largely, the decision-making process boils down to choosing a first among equals.

Many applicants also have the equivalent of personal “agents” working the admission network on their behalf and assisting on SAT exam prep. In addition to free guidance counseling provided by their high school, affluent parents of some kids shell out thousands of dollars to admissions consultants who coach high school students on the nuances of application preparation (“do something to set your case apart from the thousands of others”), essay writing (“simple, concise and hopefully unique”), and even the spectrum of extra-curricular programs that may catch the collective eye of the admissions office staff (“worked part-time at the local children’s hospital and spent a summer in Guatemala building a church with Habitat for Humanity”).

The dean of admissions faces an anomalous challenge each spring. On one hand, given the seemingly limitless pool of remarkably talented applicants (valedictorians, summa cum grads, and talented scholar athletes), he (she) can’t possibly make a “bad” decision. Paradoxically, all the admits will be good, even excellent choices.  Nonetheless, each decision made will result in a crushing disappointment for the candidates who will be rejected or wait-listed. 

In many respects the admissions officer walks a high wire without a net in attempting to balance myriad competing interests. Here are some examples:

• Comparing two valedictorian graduates of top-ranked high schools, both with perfect SAT scores, one a world class oboist,  the other a recognized playwright and star quarterback.

• Deciding between the standout student who is the son of a multi-billionaire entrepreneur and the daughter of a Baptist minister from Little Rock.

• Balancing yield projections, expected enrollment numbers, scholarship cases, and so-called early action decisions… all in the hope of not getting too many, or too few, students in the freshman class.

• Aiming for total diversity — geographic (Arkansas to Alaska), religious (Jews and Muslims, Hindus), ethnic (Puerto Rican and Native Americans), and foreign and domestic.

• Satisfying coaches’ aggressive recruiting objectives without compromising academic standards (at some institutions those standards seem increasingly flexible for superstars).

• Meeting legacy demands from angry alums threatening to cut off their contributions to the Annual Giving Campaign.

• Making sure that not too many students are admitted from any single stellar high school or boarding school. Imposing quota limitations on outstanding schools like New Trier, Andover, and the like, while reaching out to Whitney Young in Chicago, Stuyvesant in New York, and other inner-city high schools to extend superior educational opportunities more broadly regardless of the applicant’s financial means.

Of course, a university’s pursuit of the well-rounded and racially diverse student body makes the admissions director’s task that much more complex. Compliance with the series of Supreme Court’s decisions in the “affirmative admission” cases will require the wisdom of Solomon, the patience of Job, and little luck of the Irish too.

(Disclaimer—Mr. Skoning has no immediate family members who are currently applying to college and is in no way attempting to curry favor with college admissions deans.)

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