Focusing on What Matters

This spring’s admissions fraud scheme poses challenges for higher education.

May 2019

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Focusing on What Matters

Photo: Toni Bird

This spring, Stanford was affected by a nationwide admissions fraud scheme. At Stanford, the episode focused on the head sailing coach, who accepted financial contributions to the sailing program in exchange for agreeing to provide athletic recommendations for two prospective students, neither of whom ended up completing their application. The coach’s employment has been terminated. We also rescinded the admission of a separate, enrolled student who had made false statements in their application. 

We have been taking steps to fully ensure the integrity of our procedures in the wake of this episode, including launching a comprehensive external review. But because the scheme affected a number of institutions around the country, it has raised questions about undergraduate admissions more generally and has shaken the trust of many in the process. I want to share a few thoughts about the state of undergraduate admissions broadly, and what institutions like Stanford can do to address these concerns moving forward.

First, we need to do a better job of explaining our admissions process. At Stanford, we practice holistic review in order to get to know each applicant and their unique attributes as fully as possible. While we could easily fill our class many times over with students who have top test scores and grades, we know that those are only one measure of potential. For that reason, our admissions officers focus on four aspects of each application: academic excellence, intellectual vitality, extracurricular impact and personal context. 

We consider the experiences, perspectives and special talents—artistic, musical, intellectual, athletic, leadership-oriented and otherwise—that each student brings. We also look at the drive they have shown in going beyond the obstacles or advantages conferred by their personal circumstances. In doing so, we strive to assemble a diverse class of students who will take full advantage of Stanford’s opportunities while making their own unique contributions to our community.

 Second, this episode has underscored the extent to which many in our country are suspicious that selective institutions cater primarily to the privileged. It is essential for us to emphasize that, at Stanford, we have an abiding commitment to expanding access to opportunity. This commitment is why we offer need-blind admissions for domestic students and provide scholarship support to meet enrolled students’ demonstrated financial needs; more than 80 percent of our undergraduates graduate without debt. It’s also why, under our long-range vision, we have committed to extending our need-blind policy to international students and are exploring ways to extend our university’s reach to more students. But there is more we can do to broaden access. We are dedicated to advancing this foundational value. 

Finally, stepping back, we need to reframe the college search. Our country is blessed with a large number and variety of excellent colleges and universities that differ in size, character, areas of emphasis and more. Regrettably, the emphasis on college rankings obscures this remarkable variety and fuels a preoccupation with getting into an institution with a certain standing, when, in fact, studies show that what the student makes of their educational opportunities matters more. We need to refocus the college search on helping students reflect on what is meaningful to them and find a range of institutions that will be a good fit for their personal interests, temperaments and goals.

This spring’s fraud scheme was a call to universities not only to strengthen their defenses against those who would misuse the admissions process, but also to improve understanding and reset expectations around the process itself. We will be engaged in continuing this work at Stanford, and we will be in dialogue with you, our alumni, as we do.

Marc Tessier-Lavigne is the president of Stanford University.

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