Admissions firewall aims to provide transparency


Ryan Chow

The University admissions staff has taken notice of wealthy families from five counties around Illinois having their children gain financial independence upon entering college to obtain greater need-based awards to attend the University at a lower cost. ProPublica Illinois reported many of these schemes may be taking place around the country.

By Julie Kang, Assistant News Editor

The University’s admissions firewall policy aims to provide transparency, which has brought an issue to light due to recent college admissions scandals.

A decade ago, an investigation at the University revealed “high-level administrators were providing special treatment for relatives of legislators, trustees and other influential individuals,” according to an op-ed published this month by Andy Borst, director of Undergraduate Admissions, and Kevin Pitts, vice provost for Undergraduate Education.

In other words, if a donor or legislator contacted the University and asked the school to help an applicant in the admissions process, the applicant’s name was put on a special list called Category I, Pitts said.

The main response to this Category I scandal was the creation of the firewall.

“We thought, ‘OK, how can we make sure nothing like this happens again?’” Pitts said. “The best thing we can do is to just keep all that information away from the review process.”

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The firewall blocks outside interference with admittance decisions, meaning nobody is allowed inside the firewall except admissions officers and application reviewers; presidents, donors, lawmakers and provosts must stay behind the wall.

“Any attempts to cross that line are logged and reviewed by the University’s ethics office,” the op-ed writes. “The log itself is a public record.”

Borst said in a follow-up email the University makes admissions decisions through independent reviews and not committee reviews. In an independent review process, an admissions staff member assesses an application based on the criteria of each academic program.

A newer staff member typically does the first independent review, then a more senior-level staff member does the second review, independent of the first. Staff are required to justify their decision to either admit, refer to another major, defer, waitlist or deny the applicant with qualitative notes.

If the two decisions differ, a third independent review is done. The process continues until two decisions match.

The process also includes cross-checking. This helps the admissions staff look for anomalies and any other information that can explain differences in decisions.

Borst said this year, the office added greater detail to the program explorer so students could see the academic profiles of students in the middle 50%, the range between the 25th and 75th percentiles.

In addition, Pitts said the recent scandal has led the school to think more about potential holes in the admissions process.

“(Although) we feel like our system is pretty good, we’ve been really trying to think things through,” Pitts said.

The March 29 firewall report, issued by Borst, was presented to the Senate Admissions Committee on April 7. The report describes nine attempts by nonadmissions personnel to intervene with admissions denials since last year.

One account in the report, dated Dec. 18, states an applicant called the office wanting to know why he was denied admittance. An anonymous source identified the applicant as Korean. Upon explanation, he was told an appeal would not be successful and was suggested to apply as a transfer student.

The applicant later said he hoped to be accepted based on his academic credentials. The report writes he said he did not want to make this offer but asked, “Can I donate to the University instead?” The offer was rejected, and he dropped the subject. He and the staff member continued to discuss his transfer process. The applicant was denied admission.

“We don’t get to know who makes donations and who doesn’t,” Borst said. “So if someone asks if they can make a donation to the University, we can put you in touch with our foundation staff; that information is kept separate.”

The University of Illinois Foundation functions to secure and administer private gifts to the three schools in Urbana, Chicago and Springfield.

Sue Johnson, director of marketing and communications at UIF, said in an email in fiscal year 2018, the foundation received $498.5 million in grants, pledges, gifts and deferred gift commitments.

Donors can be alumni, corporations, foundations, friends and other designations. They designate where the gifts go, whether it is to student support, facilities, academic programs, public service, research or unrestricted use.

Johnson said UIF and advancement teams at the campuses follow the Association of Fundraising Professionals Donors’ Bill of Rights.

“It is the ethical platform for campus development efforts, and it ensures that philanthropy merits the respect and trust of the general public and that donors and prospective donors can have full confidence in the nonprofit organizations and causes they are asked to support,” Johnson said.

The admissions office also received a Freedom of Information Act request in March from the Illinois attorney general, who was contacted by an applicant’s legislator with a Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act waiver to see the applicant’s admission decision.

Although this is a lawful FOIA request, Borst said the school’s firewall policy does not allow a third party to request for information. The request is still pending.

“Even with a FOIA request, that is not something we are going to provide,” Borst said. “They can ask, but we can say, ‘I am not going to provide you with this information, and because you have asked us, we are going to log this information.’”

Borst said compared to previous years, he noticed the types of calls or requests coming in and the people calling are becoming braver when making admissions requests.

“What our process shows is that admissions decisions for these individuals are not changing,” Borst said.

Pitts said people sometimes describe the scandal as something only happening at highly selective schools.

“We have some programs on campus that are pretty selective,” Pitts said. “That doesn’t make us completely immune to (issues regarding admissions).”

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