Mysteries of admissions at Virginia's public colleges

By Andy Pettis
Sunday, May 16, 2010

During the season of college graduations, I'd like to rewind this film to what took place more than four years ago to make all these happy ceremonies possible: the successful navigation of the college admissions process, particularly as it opens the doors to publicly supported schools.

Many Post readers may relate to my family's experience. Recently, my daughter, a senior at Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax County, was accepted by several Virginia public universities. We found the run-up to college admission frustrating, mysterious, opaque and stressful. My daughter applied to six public Virginia universities. She was rejected by two and accepted by four -- and we don't have a clue why.

My wife and I went to college admissions briefings early in the process. When we reflected on them later, we realized that we came away with little real insight into why students are actually admitted. We were told how to fill out forms, that students should "put their best selves forward in an essay," that they should "get good grades." But we were also told that admissions officers take a "holistic" approach to each applicant -- and what does that mean?

In discussing this with guidance counselors, other parents, tutors and teachers, we began to get a sense of what really counts. If what we learned is accurate, it is not openly conveyed to parents or students, and that's troubling. We were left to wonder, for instance, whether the following considerations play into the admissions process. And if so, is that appropriate?

-- Do "legacy" applicants have an advantage?

-- Are there gender quotas?

-- Are the percentage of in-state, out-of-state and international applicants factored in?

-- What about Northern Virginia vs. downstate?

-- Do certain government officials have influence?

-- Do the children of potential big donors have an advantage?

-- Are there minority and ethnic quotas?

-- Do novel or entertaining submissions make a difference?

-- What's the relevance of an applicant's socioeconomic background or of any challenges he or she has faced in life?

This list could be longer, and admissions officers could provide detailed answers for all of this, but they don't. What happens in the admissions office stays in the admissions office. All that is clear is that good grades and top test scores, which should be the determining factors, play only a part in a successful admittance.

My wife was told by a state official that some relevant information can be shared if the student is accepted, but not if the student is not admitted. That is unfair. In fact, the whole process may be unfair, and it most certainly presents a terrible example to applying students of how government works. These are taxpayer-supported institutions, and they should be transparent in their admissions policies. If they are not -- and they are not -- these policies should at least be examined by some outside state authority.

In today's competitive world, getting a higher education is a serious matter, with substantial repercussions for both the student and the nation.

The selection process is far too important to the nation to be left solely in the hands of a few college administrators who are reluctant to explain their selections standards or model.

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