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New questions being raised over the role 'donations' play in college admissions

Posted at 8:06 AM, May 18, 2019
and last updated 2019-05-18 08:11:23-04

CLEVELAND — The largest college bribery scandal in history is raising new questions about the role hefty “donations” can play in assuring a student’s admission.

More than 50 wealthy parents, including two prominent actors, have been swept up in the $25 million scandal.

Illegal bribes are one thing, but the scandal is putting a spotlight on what’s sometimes seen as legal bribes: the college donation.

An exclusive 5 On Your Side investigation found that while it’s rarely spoken about publicly, the practice is widely acknowledged by college admissions professionals and education policy experts who follow trends in college admissions.

In fact, donations to the nation’s colleges and universities are hitting record highs.

According to a 2018 report by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, U.S. colleges and universities raised $47 billion in the 2017-2018 academic year. That’s up 7.2% from the previous year.

Here in Ohio we found at least 3,800 donors gave individual donations of more than $100,000 at three of the state’s major universities:

Ohio State, Ohio University and Miami University emphatically denied donations play any role in gaining admission, but the role of donations is now getting renewed scrutiny in the light of the college admission scandal.

Kevin Carey is an education policy expert for the New America Foundation who examines a wide range of public policy including fair and equitable access to college.

Carey says donations can unfairly give students admission to elite schools over other qualified students.

“There’s the back door,” Carey said, “where rich people, famous people, legacies send a big check to the donation office secretly in the admissions process.”

A 2017 study by the Equality of Opportunity Project, based at Harvard University, revealed more students at elite colleges across the United States are from the top 1% of income earners, than from the bottom 60%.

Stefani Niles is the president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling that represents more than 15,000 private, professional counselors, who for a fee, will help students legally and ethically navigate the college admission process.

Unlike Rick Singer, who pleaded guilty as the mastermind of the nationwide scandal, these association members adhere to strict ethical standards.

While Niles acknowledges the role donors play in helping colleges and universities pay the bills, she admits, “it’s sort of the have’s and have nots”.

Regarding huge donations aimed at assuring a student gains admission, Niles said, “I think it varies to the institution how much they pay attention to it, the role that a donation could play in the process, but I think it’s something to acknowledge that it exists.”

“Are they inequities?” Niles asked. “Absolutely”.

The role of professional, private counselors or “educational consultants” has gained popularity, in part, due to the increased pressure students feel to get into college, coupled with the dwindling number of high school counselors employed by school districts across the country.

For example, in Ohio we found 1,700 high school counselors at the state’s 696 public high schools, an average of 2 per high school.

One in three have only one counselor.

Michelle Grimm is president-elect of the Ohio School Counselors Association that advocates for school counselors in all grade levels.

Grimm said she has seen impact of a shortage of counselors coupled with an increased workload.

Michelle Grim

A recent survey by the Association reveals that of 2,076 public schools in Ohio, the ratio of students to counselors alarmingly exceed recommended levels.

“In Ohio,” said Grimm, “there are 452 students to one counselor, twice as high as what’s recommended by the American School Counselor Association.”

Grimm said that high school counselors have many more responsibilities as bullying, drugs, family issues and threats of active shooters compete for time counselors spend with students.

Our investigation found that a shortage of counselors, coupled with increased pressure to gain entrance to college, has helped fuel the growth of the private college counseling business.

Kristina Dooley is a member of both the National Association for College Admission Counseling as well as the Independent Educational Consultants Association.

Kristina Dooley
Kristina Dooley, College Admissions Consultant

Dooley, is the founder of Estrella Consulting in Hudson, is one of only a handful of Certified Educational Planners in Ohio, who require a board-certified examination plus a master’s degree or equivalent. She blamed “unrealistic expectations” by both students and parents as partly to blame for the recent college scandal.

“A lot of what we do is lower anxiety levels,” said Dooley. She stressed that professional college education consultants do not engage in the types of behavior exhibited by those involved in the college scandal probe.

“We do not guarantee acceptance at any school,” said Dooley, “and if you are dealing with someone who says that you should be heading out the door."

Dooley says her role is to help families and students assess their own strengths and weaknesses and help decide what colleges may be a good fit.

“What I do, and what my colleagues do, is we support families through the different steps along the way to eventually enrolling in a university,” she said.

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