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In college admissions game, not all the rules are clear

In college admissions game, not all the rules are clear

Students, guidance counselors, admissions representatives and a private admissions coach weigh in on scandal
In college admissions game, not all the rules are clear
Schenectady High School seniors Audrey Canty, Fejan Karn, Amrit Lekram and Luisa Sanchez.
Photographer: Marc Schultz/Gazette Photographer

Schenectady High School senior Luisa Sanchez applied to 13 colleges this year. She's already been accepted at St. Lawrence, Hobart and William Smith Colleges and a handful of other schools.

She's not so sure she wants to get in anywhere else; her decision is already hard enough.

“I kind of hope not,” she said Thursday when asked if there were others she wanted to get in to.

“She's hoping to be able to make a decision,” said her guidance counselor at the high school, Earl Barcomb.

As recently as her senior year, Sanchez assumed her college choices would be limited to community college or an affordable public school.

“No one else in my family went to college, so I didn't really think about it until now,” Sanchez said. “I thought community college, and then Barcomb told me I could have more options, so I went with it.”

Those options include full scholarships at the two private colleges, where she was accepted into the Higher Education Opportunity Program, and another full ride at SUNY Binghamton.

Rojan Karn, another Schenectady High School senior, applied to 15 schools; he's been accepted at RPI, RIT and SUNY Stony Brook, and as of Thursday was still waiting to hear from eight more schools.

“A lot of the schools I applied to were reach schools,” said Karn, who applied to Michigan, Columbia, NYU and Boston University, among others.

As students across the region and country await their final admissions decisions over the coming weeks, the world of high school seniors, guidance counselors and college admissions officials has been fixated on the details of an admissions scandal unveiled earlier this month. A federal indictment charging 50 people, including wealthy and famous parents, spelled out a bribery scheme used to allegedly rig the acceptance of students to a handful of elite schools including Yale, Stanford and the University of Southern California. Coaches were allegedly bribed to report prospective students as athletic recruits, granting the students an athletic advantage in admissions; they weren't legitimate recruits and some had faked athlete profiles. The private admissions consultant at the center of the scandal also allegedly payed off an SAT testing center, so he and his clients could cheat the test, sometimes flying in a specialist to target a test score.

For students waiting to hear back from colleges, or trying to move past a rejection from a dream school, news of the admissions scandal struck a nerve of unfairness. And the scandal broke loose a broader discussion about the many advantages wealthy families have in the admissions process – from paying for test tutors to flying across the country for campus visits to hiring outside consultants to shepherd them through the process.

“There are only so many spots, acceptance rates are so low, and to think there are students who have an advantage because their families can donate money or they are a legacy [scholar], it really changes the chances for everyone else,” said Audrey Canty, a Schenectady senior headed to Tufts University in the fall.

The private option

At any given time, a Schenectady High School guidance counselor has over 200 students on their caseload, Barcomb and counselor Amanda Cruz said; and in addition to offering college advice, the counselors have to help kids manage their high school schedules and progress toward graduation.

And few districts in the region have districtwide student-to-counselor ratios of less than 250 students for every guidance counselor, including primary grades, according to 2017-2018 school year data reported to the state Education Department.

This month's admissions scandal focused attention on an industry of private consultants who work with families confounded by countless college options, an opaque admissions process and tuition prices approaching $80,000 a year. Many families that can afford it have turned to private college counselors, who help walk families through every step of the admissions process, offering suggestions of schools to apply to and helping families understand the finances of college.

Dean Skarlis, who runs Albany-based admissions coaching firm The College Advisor of New York, in an interview last week said he was shocked to learn about how the admission process had been cheated.

“I can't believe how brazen it was, I can't believe how widespread it was,” he said.“Maybe I'm just naive, but I cannot believe there were so many people on the take... I guess you have dishonest people in every walk of life.”

Skarlis said most his clients are “middle to upper-middle class,” with some he classified as affluent. He also sees some low-income families, including a few cases he takes on pro bono. Skarlis, who said in 15 years he has worked with over 1,000 students, said the majority of his clients are families going through the college process for the first time.

An initial meeting costs $195 and fees to continue with the private counseling run between $1,800 and $4,500, Skarlis said.

“The word I hear all the time is they are overwhelmed by the process,” Skarlis said of what brings clients to his office. “They don't know where to start, they don't know what to do, they may be struggling to motivate their son or daughter to start the process. They don't even know what that means. What should we do first? Should we start looking at colleges? Well, which colleges should we look at? What are we going to be able to afford? They need some guidance and structure to begin that.”

Skarlis usually starts with students in the beginning of their junior year in high school. He and his team of admissions coaches work with students and their families to narrow down a list of schools to apply to. The consultants provide students with assessments to home in on their interests and skills, anything that could point in the direction of a potential college. The goal, Skarlis said, is to find the student the “right fit.”

“They go to schools you've never heard of before,” he said of his clients. “And I hear that all the time: 'Oh, we would have never considered X if you didn't put it on our list and we are so thankful because he's very happy at that institution.'”

The team reviews and offers help with student essays, and they ensure families have filled out all of their financial aid information in an effort to maximize how much aid the families get from schools.

Skarlis has the students and parents sign an agreement that spells out their relationship and partly outlines what he won't do for them.

“I'm not an agent, I'm not going to be calling colleges to try and get you in,” he said. “We don't write your essays for you, we don't take your SAT for you, we don't do your application. We're guides, we're coaches, but we're not going to do this for you.”

Skarlis and other consultants like him – Skarlis said he was relieved to learn the man behind the admissions scandal was not a member of the professional association of independent consultants he belongs to – fill a vacuum created by the complexity of the process colleges have laid out for students.

“Honestly, the colleges have made this more complicated than it should be,” he said.

Skarlis acknowledged that many of the families he works with – almost by definition – have advantages in the admissions many other students don't. But he also said college pricetags can be unaffordable even for families with healthy six-figure incomes and suggested as the most elite colleges have become increasingly competitive, it's been wealthier students who have been squeezed.

“A lot of kids have a lot of advantages, and I guess that's part of life in America,” Skarlis said.

“The majority (of my clients) I'd say are upper-middle class, but they're not wealthy and that's the perception that's out there and it's not even close to true.”

He pointed to early education and K-12 system as the root of the inequities that ultimately play out in college admissions.

“The college admissions process is a good target, where people say, 'Oh, that's unfair,'” Skarlis said. “Well, the fairness should begin a lot earlier than that, and if it did then you would have students competing on a even playing field and they really aren't.”

A view from the inside

On Friday, Union College mailed around 2,000 admissions packets to high school students across the country. The college hopes 570 will join the campus this fall as the Class of 2023.

As Union's admissions staff considers the merits of thousands of applicants, they employ a complex matrix of factors aimed at establishing a freshmen class diverse in student interests, backgrounds and more. The evaluation of every applicant begins with looking at his or her academic profile. Then, admissions evaluators work to understand the student's "story and context," Matt Malatesta, Union's vice president for admissions and financial aid, said during a Tuesday interview.

“Fundamentally, we work for the faculty here, and we are trying to bring students who can add to the academic life of the campus,” Malatesta said. “We want this to be a diverse place with students from a variety of talents, backgrounds, experiences, because we think by putting those different kinds of people together, they are going to have a better educational experience."

Malatesta also said he was surprised the admissions system was cheated in the way spelled out in the federal indictment. He said it was absurd to think there was just one or two schools a student could be successful at and said families should instead be focused on finding a strong fit where a student will thrive.

“I can't wrap my head around the bad behavior,” Malatesta said. “The perception that life is going to be magically wonderful at one or two places, and we are going to cheat and lie to make that happen. As a parent, I can't wrap my head around it.”

Malatesta said Union's smaller size protects it against the kind of faux-athlete scam allegedly perpetrated at elite campuses, saying it would be hard for a student to get in as student athlete and never actually join the team without anyone noticing. But he acknowledged some student-athletes at Union benefit from “support of the coach” in the admissions process. He said in fewer than 2 percent of students does athletics play a role in admissions.

“It can be a thumb on the scales for students,” Malatesta said of a recommendation from a coach.

But he said the final decision still rests with the admissions office.

“Admissions makes all the decisions, coaches make no decisions in our process,” he said. “Coaches can raise their hand to say here's a recruit we want you to take a look at, but ultimately we are only going to be a good experience if the kid can be successful in the classroom.”

Malatesta said private admissions consultants can be helpful for some families but that in some cases students would be better off letting their own answers speak for themselves. He also said students shouldn't over-complicate the process: work hard in school and you will have good choices.

“I hope this doesn't get lost in this story, what it's ultimately about is kids who work hard are going to have the choices. You work hard, you show academic achievement, you are going to have choices,” he said. “To try and game the system I think is a colossal waste of time.”

Union promises to meet the financial needs of all the students it accepts. For next year's incoming class, the college plans to dole out $13 million in merit and need-based scholarships, 85 percent of which will be to help students' financial needs.

But since the college uses “need aware” admissions, some students on the margin will be denied admissions because they can't afford the college even if they are otherwise better-qualified candidates than students who are accepted in part because they had less financial need.

“We want to make sure that if we admit someone, we'll meet their full financial need as we measure it,” he said. “What I don't want to do is make us feel good about what we are doing, and then tell someone that they have been admitted to Union and tell them we can't afford to make it happen for them.”

Schenectady High School in recent years has worked to strengthen a culture of going to college, plastering student acceptance letters on walls and a teacher's alma mater on their doors. They started hosting college fairs and this year established a day when upperclassmen all have a chance to take the SAT.

Even for students who haven't considered college until their senior year – maybe only months before graduation – the counselors still urge them that it's “not too late.” The students may not be positioned to get into their top choices, but they may instead find a “scenic route” to where they want to go.

“You send a kid off to college who no one in their family went to school, you can be ending generations of poverty. Generations after that, their kids and everyone after, will be going to college,” Barcomb said.

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