Dartmouth Admits to Favoring Donors in Admissions Decisions

Dartmouth's confession is more of an acknowledgment of what everyone already knows, but it seems distasteful nonetheless.
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D., is a senior writer and higher education analyst with BestColleges. He has 30 years of experience in higher education as a university administrator and faculty member and teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University. A former...
Published on August 8, 2023
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  • A lawyer for Dartmouth College revealed that the college considers family wealth in some admissions decisions.
  • This confession occurred during a hearing in the ongoing “568 Cartel” antitrust case involving 17 elite private universities.
  • The Supreme Court's affirmative action decision accelerated debate around access to highly selective colleges.
  • Legacy admissions have come under fire, though most elite universities uphold the practice.

Anyone paying attention to elite college admissions understands wealth plays a role in who gets in. We know admissions offices favor children of donors or prospective donors.

Still, it's somewhat jarring to hear a college admit it.

That's exactly what Dartmouth College did during a recent court hearing in a case that's largely flying under the radar amid national scandals and landscape-altering Supreme Court decisions.

For would-be Ivy Leaguers, it pays to be rich.

“568 Cartel” Case Challenges Elite College Admissions

At a July 24 court hearing, Terri Mascherin, an attorney representing Dartmouth, said the college has considered donations when making admissions decisions.

We put forth a witness last week who gave testimony to the effect that each year in certain admissions decisions, candidates who were on the fence, if you will, would be admitted because of the interest of the alumni affairs and development office, Mascherin said in a court transcript obtained by The Dartmouth, the college's student newspaper.

The hearing was part of an ongoing lawsuit dubbed the “568 Cartel” case, which involves six Ivy League schools and other private institutions such as Northwestern University, Vanderbilt University, California Institute of Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Johns Hopkins University.

The University of Chicago, also a defendant, settled claims last April.

This class-action suit — Henry et. al. vs. Brown University et. al., filed in 2022 — alleges these colleges are in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act because they didn't uphold a commitment to need-blind admissions as required by Section 568 of the Improving America's Schools Act of 1994.

Section 568, which expired last September, was a congressional sanction allowing colleges to formulate common approaches to awarding need-based financial aid — as long as they strictly adhered to need-blind admissions. Absent this commitment, the suit alleges, what these colleges were doing was illegal.

As a result of this conspiracy, the claim argues, these universities artificially reduced financial aid awards and increased the net cost of attendance through the use of a consensus methodology for determining aid. More than 200,000 students paid higher tuition and incurred larger debt absent competition among these institutions.

The strict definition of “need-blind” required by Section 568 doesn't include putting a thumb on the scale for wealthy kids, which is what Dartmouth confessed to.

Mascherin, the college's lawyer, revealed during the hearing that some admissions decisions were influenced by the college's fundraisers.

The records include an initial decision by the admissions department, information provided from alumni affairs and development with respect to a limited number of applicants and then a final admissions decision, Mascherin said during the hearing. In fact, for many years, there are reports that show initial decision, final decision. So it's quite evident how the decisions changed as a result.

The Strong Correlation Between Wealth and Access

The recent Supreme Court decision on race-conscious admissions accelerated a national conversation about access to our nation's most elite universities, Dartmouth included.

That conversation has been brewing for some time, fueled recently by the Varsity Blues case that uncovered a bribery scandal involving a shady college consultant, his A-list clients, and elite colleges willingly conspiring to enroll rich kids who, by all objective measures, didn't warrant admission.

And now, a study published by Opportunity Insights, a group of economists based at Harvard, confirms once and for all the public's suspicions about correlations between wealth and access.

Examining data from the “Ivy Plus” schools — the Ivy League along with Stanford, Duke, MIT and the University of Chicago — researchers found that among applicants with similar standardized test scores, children from families in the richest 1% are 34% more likely to gain admission. Those in the top .1% are more than twice as likely.

Elite universities also favor legacy applicants, or children of alumni, and indeed there's considerable overlap between legacy and donor status. The Harvard study found that legacy applicants among the top .1% were seven times more likely to get in.

As colleges struggle to maintain level playing fields in a post-affirmative action world thanks to the court's decision, many are jettisoning legacy admissions, a practice that has been proven to advantage white and wealthy applicants.

Amherst College, Johns Hopkins, Wesleyan University, and Carnegie Mellon University are but a few that have abandoned the practice, as have some state university systems. New York legislators want to abolish legacy admissions across both public and private colleges.

Yet despite public and political pressures to abandon legacy preferences, Dartmouth and its Ivy brethren remain steadfast in their commitment to favoring alumni kids.

And donors' kids, we now realize, not that this revelation should surprise anyone. In a documentary released earlier this year titled “Exclusion U,” Ivy League officials essentially made the same confession Dartmouth's lawyer just did, noting that development and admissions offices favor families that have donated significantly to their universities.

What's “significant”? Admissions offices will start to take notice at $10 million, they said.

Too often we toss around terms such as “tipping point” or “watershed moment,” but on the heels of the SCOTUS decision, this genuinely feels like one. Admissions practices at elite universities face ever-intensifying scrutiny, perhaps like never before. Even though the institutions in question educate a tiny fraction of America's students, they're gateways to power, wealth, and influence, commodities that have been disproportionately reserved among certain populations for generations.

Dartmouth's confession is but the latest example of how this self-perpetuating cycle operates.