College admissions offices weigh university interests more heavily than what’s best for students, according to journalist Jeff Selingo. Selingo spoke about his studies of admissions processes, as well as his USA Today bestselling book Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions during a Tuesday, Oct. 26 Zoom Q&A hosted by the Family Action Network, an Evanston nonprofit that runs free speaker events each academic year.

In conversation with Adam Harris, who covers education for The Atlantic, Selingo explained how much the college admissions offices’ own priorities drive their acceptance decisions. Objectives like having students from all 50 states, students from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds and more students of color were common priorities. Colleges also prioritized accepting sports interests and legacy students, who have familial connections to the institution.

Selingo called the initial applicant pool the “rough draft of the class.” The class is then shaped and studied through each applicant’s qualities, which is where college priorities come in.

“They are trying to balance a class out at the very end,” he said.

Selingo used Emory University as an example. In the weeks leading up to decisions, their computer model alerted school officials that they accepted too many students. The admissions committees were called back and told they had to cut some students based on university priorities.

Another priority Selingo mentioned was “busy high schools,” a term referring to high schools that send many students to a certain university. The university may be more lenient in accepting applicants from that school to avoid endangering the relationship. “All of the people close to the finish-line will get pushed over,” he said.

But according to Selingo, there is no greater advantage in the admissions process than being an athlete. Universities save spots for popular sports like football but also for “money sports” like squash. Athletes also receive better college advising than the majority of applicants.

“The amount of effort for athletics is bigger than other extracurriculars,” he said. “I just wish everybody was brought up to that level.”

Harris then asked him about different application options, such as Early and Regular Decisions. Selingo explained that the appeal to Early Decision is not only that the applicant is committed to the institution, but that they aren’t able to compare financial aid decisions.

“Almost everything in admissions is on the institution’s side,” Selingo said.

He added that colleges aim to get more applicants without increasing the size of the admitted freshman class, leading to more rejections and a smaller acceptance rate and increasing the institution’s exclusiveness and rankings.

Despite knowledge of university priorities, Selingo says the connection between the analyzing and the eventual acceptance or rejection is still a “black box” and the public may never know how close someone got to either status. Much of the admissions process remains secret: of the 24 colleges Selingo approached, none were willing to show him the admissions process.

“They’re afraid more transparency will lead to more criticism,” Selingo said.

Thumbnail courtesy of the Family Action Network