House Education and Labor Committee Holds Briefing on College Admissions in Wake of Scandal

By Jill Desjean, Policy and Federal Relations Staff

On Thursday, the House Committee on Education and Labor held a briefing hosted by Rep. Donna Shalala (D-FL), on the college admissions process and the current state of access to higher education, in response to the recent announcement of federal charges filed as a result of an FBI investigation into a college admissions bribery and fraud scandal. A panel discussion was moderated by POLITICO education reporter Ben Wermund and included David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling; Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce; Tiffany Jones, director of higher education policy at the Education Trust; and Daniel Saracino, higher education consultant and former chief enrollment officer at Santa Clara University and the University of Notre Dame. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) began the briefing by reflecting on how this case presents an opportunity for broader conversations on the systemic and pervasive inequities in higher education for students traditionally underserved by higher education.

Hawkins led the panelists’ opening remarks, expressing shock at the scope of the scandal, and condemning the behaviors of those involved. He pushed back against the assertion that the college admissions system is broken, and argued that, while not perfect, the admissions process works reasonably well in spite of structural inequalities that exist at all levels of the U.S. education system, and echoed Bonamici’s hopes that the scandal invites discussions to collectively address the larger issues of access to higher education.

Carnevale offered remarks on changes in the U.S. economy over the past several decades that have raised the stakes in higher education, pointing to the shift from more jobs requiring only a high school diploma to the present, where more jobs now require a college degree. He also argued that those with existing economic advantages also enjoy advantages in access to higher education, replicating and passing on both advantage and disadvantage to future generations, making higher education as much a part of the problem as it is the solution. He concluded with support for greater transparency on outcomes at the program level.

Shalala joined in the discussion, reflecting on her experience as a former college president. She wrapped up her remarks by stating that the intent of the briefing “do[es] not assume there is a place here for federal legislation,” acknowledging that new laws often sprout in response to high profile events like the admissions scandal. She instead framed the briefing as a chance for the committee to be educated by and to engage in discussion with experts in the field.

Jones focused her remarks on the access and opportunity gaps for low-income students, first-generation students, and students of color, citing unequal access to higher education as a justice problem. She stressed the need to expand the focus of discussions away from just selective private colleges, and to acknowledge that access issues exist at public colleges as well. Jones offered that policy solutions should support those institutions that are doing a good job of providing access, and that federal dollars should not support institutions that exclude or prey upon underserved populations.

Saracino expressed feelings of anger and embarrassment at the message sent to vulnerable students by the admissions scandal, that getting into college isn’t about what you know but who you know, and focused on the widening gap between those with advantages and opportunities and those without.

Wermund posed a question to the panel of whether there were others to blame in the admissions scandal besides the parents and coaches charged, and whether there are systemic problems involved. Carnevale offered that there is a problem with the higher education business model that forces all but the wealthiest schools to compete for upper-middle class students who will enroll with small merit scholarships and pay the remaining $40 to $50 thousand out of pocket. He also argued that standardized testing is overused in the admissions process, and came back to the need for greater transparency on outcomes like graduation rates and economic value of programs. Jones addressed the systemic issues that begin at the K-12 level, like lower spending and fewer AP course offerings in brown and black communities, all of which lead to disadvantages in the college application process. 

On the question of what Congress should do to address the issues of the commercialization of higher education that contributed to the admissions scandal, Hawkins stressed that more resources for better counselors to help disadvantaged students navigate the college application process is necessary. Jones suggested that policies should create both incentives and accountability measures that would make institutions want to serve more low-income students; making them compete for those students as much as they do now for more advantaged students.

Hearings continue in preparation for reauthorization of the Higher Education Act in both chambers of Congress. The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee will hold a hearing on April 2 titled, “Addressing Campus Sexual Assault and Ensuring Student Safety and Rights.” Next up in the House isa hearing titled, “Strengthening Accountability in Higher Education to Better Serve Students and Taxpayers,” set for April 3.

 

Publication Date: 3/29/2019


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