As the U.S. Supreme Court gets ready to consider the use of race in university admissions decisions, a Wall Street Journal article Feb. 20 cast light on another sensitive issue: the admissions of students whose parents are identified as potential university donors.
The front-page article by Daniel Golden took a close look at Duke's use of what are known as "development admits," the practice of giving extra consideration to students whose parents are wealthy or particularly prominent in some arena and who might become donors. Many factors beyond academic and extracurricular accomplishments are commonly considered in making admissions decisions, such as artistic excellence, athletic ability, geography, ethnicity and family ties to Duke. Duke officials emphasized that all admitted students are qualified to attend Duke, and explained how development considerations play a role for a very small percentage of students.
"There's no quid pro quo, no bargains have been struck," Peter Vaughn, director of development communications, told the Journal. He was among several senior Duke officials who spoke with Golden at length to explain the limited interaction between Duke's admissions and development offices.
In addition to speaking with Duke officials, Golden also called numerous Duke students, parents and former employees, and he identified in his story the names of several students he said were development admits. In a few cases he listed SAT scores, information that Duke does not make public because of legal and ethical privacy considerations.
The article said that while racial preferences in affirmative-action decisions get considerable public attention, admissions preferences such as those for "development admits," remain out of the spotlight. It argued that development admits constitute an "affirmative action" program for wealthy, predominantly white children.
Several Duke officials who spoke with Golden agreed that public discussion is needed on the entire range of admissions issues but also said considering more than academic qualifications in making admissions decisions has promoted worthwhile goals and served Duke well.
"Every year, highly selective institutions like Duke admit many students who are less 'academically qualified' than some of those we do not admit," Duke President Nannerl O. Keohane wrote in a Feb. 13 message to Golden, now posted on the Duke News Web site. "Hundreds of high school valedictorians and students with perfect SAT scores have to be disappointed, in order for us to take other factors besides academic talent in the narrow sense into account.
"This may seem unfair to those who are turned down, but unfortunately, a place like Duke has room only to accept a small fraction of the wonderfully talented students who would like to be here. We review every application carefully and consider many factors in molding a class, and we cannot admit everyone whom we would like to have at Duke. This is the way I respond to talented students who are turned down every year."
Keohane said she agrees that it seems odd that race is singled out for public discussion out of all the factors that go into admissions decisions. She said the discussion should be more broadly based.
"I do feel that the use of preferences for children of alumni, development prospects and other factors that are likely for reasons of history to be disproportionately favorable to white students should be considered within the larger context that affirmative action is designed to address. The two are definitely related, and it seems odd to me to allow one sort of preference, but not the other."
In a related statement, Christoph Guttentag, director of undergraduate admissions, stated that, contrary to what the article stated, the number of development admits at Duke has actually decreased since the early 1990s. "Then, as now, a variety of factors were considered in the individual evaluation of each applicant; our practice has always been to admit only those students we believe can fully succeed at Duke," he said.