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Survey: College counselors admit wealthy, under-qualified students for extra revenue

A new survey of college admissions counselors released by Inside Higher Ed confirms many seek out students of means who do not require financial aid assistance.

The trend is most visible at public universities that have set their sights on out-of-state candidates who pay considerably more than local students — at times three times as much.

Anonymity was granted to 462 top admissions officials to offer candid replies to what they look for in the applicant pool. The survey shows most admissions officials interviewed are sensitive to the economic toll college can have on families, and make their selections eyeing a student’s ability to repay their debts. While aid budgets have spiked during the economic downturn, bolstering the reserves means admissions counselors must juggle access and sustainability:

In *Inside Higher Ed’*s previous surveys, of presidents and business officers, large percentages of colleges have reported responding to the economic downturn by increasing their aid budgets. This survey doesn’t contradict that finding, but shows between 12 and 31 percent of four-year colleges (depending on sector) saying that they are paying more attention to applicants’ ability to pay in admissions decisions, that they are increasing their discount rate (the percentage off the sticker price that students actually pay), and that the increases in discount rate are unsustainable.

Some ten percent of colleges sampled in the survey report admitting students who could pay full price despite their grades and test scores trailing the results of other admitted peers.

Steps are being taken, however, to expand college education to a greater swath of students. The researchers state “there is near universal agreement among admissions directors” that affirmative action measures, even those that look past lackluster secondary performance, are invaluable. And while 12 percent of admissions officials reported their admissions process does not require submitting standardized test results, closer to 25 percent said scores from exams like the SAT and ACT should be optional.

Still, other aspects of an applicant’s means is corrupting the selection process, admissions officials who were surveyed admitted:

Just over 53 percent of admissions directors, for example, report that coaching by college counselors and parents makes it difficult to truly learn about applicants, and just over 25 percent report a serious problem created by plagiarism in applicant essays.

While a quarter of the time, senior school officials influence the admissions team to select certain applicants otherwise not given consideration:

A significant minority of admissions directors report receiving pressure to admit certain applicants — with 28 percent having experienced the pressure from senior-level administrators, and 24 percent having felt the push from trustees and from development officials.

Other facets of the admissions process scrutinized were percentage of surveyed schools who upped their discount rates, the policy of hiring recruiting agents paid on commission to find international candidates and the type and percentage of students — athletes, alumni, minorities, veterans, men, women and foreign applicants — who are given an acceptance letter despite lower-than-average pool-applicant grades.

Taking into account a student’s ability to weather the financial burden of higher education is an increasingly ethical dilemma. Student default rates, as determined by the two-year cohort rate calculated by the U.S. Department of Education, is at a 12-year high, with 8.8 percent of graduates not paying their college loans for 270 days or more. Using a more comprehensive metric, a report issued (PDF) by the New America Foundation found that 15 percent of graduates defaulted, while 21 percent were delinquent on their payments.

According (PDF) to the College Board, tuition prices have grown an average of 5.6 percent on top of inflation since 2001, translating into a 28 percent jump in tuition costs. While in 2006 tuition at an in-state four-year college was (PDF) $5,804, this year the same stream costs $7,605. Tuition does not include other charges like computers, transport, textbook fees and room and board.

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