Last week, Northwestern President Morton Schapiro revealed to the Daily Northwestern that this past application cycle, a pool of about 550 applicants were set aside for Schapiro to read. Among these applications were legacies—students whose family members attended Northwestern and/or donated to the University—and students who had some kind of personal connection to Schapiro.
Aside from being rather uncharacteristic of the University to spill the tea on how it goes about various stages of its admissions process, this admission (yes, pun intended) by Schapiro carries with it some substantial questions about what the college process has come to mean. Moreover, this transparency about the blatant imbalance in the process of reading applications seems to be a reflection of the way in which the inequality that was so detested during the recent admissions scandals nationwide is actually embedded in the process itself.
As a separate entity from the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, Schapiro does not have to remain distanced from the Office of Alumni Relations and Development—aka the office coaxing alumni to take their fond memories from their post-grad years and turn them into cash donations. In fact, Schapiro frequently engages with some of the University’s most important donors, therefore not only concerning himself with the thoughtful consideration of applicants but also the thoughtful consideration of the dollars he needs to bring into the University.
To be quite honest, this revelation about Northwestern’s admission process does not surprise me. Coming from a place of privilege, having attended an all-girls private Episcopalian school in Washington, D.C., I learned early on that the college process was going to be mostly defined by my academic credentials, test scores and how I appeared to the admissions committee. Still, I couldn’t avoid falling into another kind of rhetoric that was commonplace among my peers and their parents. Discussing the college process did not exclude comments about who had what kinds of connections, who was a legacy or who had family that gave a shit ton of money. This gossipy discourse frequently raised the question of advantage and whether these advantages equated to whether a person deserved to get into certain schools. So, I couldn’t help but accept the fact that college admissions seemed to be a game where you played all the advantage cards you may have up your sleeve in addition to the application you submit.
This kind of understanding of the college process was not only toxic in the highly competitive high school setting but is also profoundly unsettling in its inherent exclusion of students applying to elite universities without any sort of “advantage card” to play.
As institutions initially only meant for white, privileged males, elite universities have continuously carried this legacy of entitlement and exclusivity. In many ways, the admission of these rich white men in 19th century colleges based on their family’s social status seems not to be too far off from the implication of Schapiro’s role in the admission process. Regardless of whether Schapiro claims, as he told The Daily, that he’s “pretty tough on those decisions,” the principle of setting aside these applications for a kind of special review perpetuates the inequality of the college process that has pretty much always defined admission to elite universities.
“But 20% of the Class of 2022 is Pell Grant eligible! We’re pioneers of accessibility and equality!”
This kind of logic, perhaps oversimplified, is what I imagine the University’s response may be to criticisms of its admission process, particularly in light of President Schapiro’s remarks. However, though a sign of progress, reaching this 20% by 2020 goal does not obscure the fact that 66% of Northwestern students come from the top 20% of the median family income. This persisting imbalance in the student body thus makes Schapiro’s unique role in selecting this pool of, shall we say, “high-profile” applicants all the more concerning.
If Northwestern is need-blind, why is it that the admissions process remains very much attentive to the needs of the University in terms of donation and clout?
Those 550 applications that fall into the lap of Schapiro because of the markers of privilege that are external to their actual qualifications: legacy status, donor families and personal ties to Schapiro. The fundamental issue thus comes with the understanding that these are 550 applications out of approximately 40,000 that the University receives, singled out precisely because of their privileged status. This small portion of the application pool somehow gets a bonus read-through by the president himself, playing their hand of advantage cards to increase their chances of going to a well-regarded academic institution like Northwestern. The leveraging of advantages exemplifies the disparities that still exist within the college process. Most applicants do not have a family member who has donated or has some connection to the president that would afford them an extra shot at admission that these 550 applicants are afforded.
Ultimately, college admissions should not be a game of playing your “advantage cards.” If Northwestern were truly committed to creating a student body with the ability to contribute a wide range of experiences and talents, it would stray from practices like validating the playing of “advantage cards” by providing special presidential read-throughs. We may be need-blind in reading applications, but perhaps we should consider being need-blind to the University’s need for donations.