BOSTON — As a sweeping bribery scandal reignites debate over college admissions, a pair of polls reveal that many Americans think the nation's universities place too much emphasis on factors such as wealth, family ties and athletic ability.
The surveys, conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the Higher Education Analytics Center at NORC, finds Americans about evenly divided on the overall fairness of college admissions, but their views on individual selection criteria reveal a rift between the factors they see as important and the factors they think colleges value.
The polls were conducted in March and April, weeks after federal prosecutors accused 33 parents of paying bribes to cheat on their children's college entrance tests or get them into elite schools including Stanford, Yale and Georgetown. In some cases, investigators said, parents paid bribes to get their children labeled as recruited athletes for sports they didn't even play.
Against that backdrop, some college counselors said they expected wide distrust of the admissions process. Instead, the results were mixed: about 4 in 10 say they think the process is fair, while a similar share said it's unfair. About 20% are neutral.
"Following the scandal I actually expected the floor to give out," said Mark Sklarow, CEO of the Independent Educational Consultants Association. "Maybe it just confirmed concerns that people already had, that the system isn't fair or at the very least unclear."
Spencer Buettgenbach, 24, of Topeka, Kansas, said the scandal affirmed his view that the college admissions process is all about money. Most colleges want students who will cover their own tuition, he said, and ideally come with a donation from their parents.
"It's become more of a numbers game than it is finding the people who have aptitude or talent," Buettgenbach said, who attended three terms of college and now works in retail. "The people who have the money to make things happen, they get to go to school."
Overall, Americans are most likely to say they think high school grades and standardized test scores should be important in admissions, and majorities agree that colleges value those factors too. Similarly, many think that extracurricular activities should play a role and say that colleges take them into account.
On legacies, athletic talent
But on other criteria, there's a clash between the way Americans think students should be picked and the way they think colleges actually operate.
Nearly 4 in 10, for example, say they think colleges give significant weight to legacy status, or whether a student has a family member who attended the school, but just 11% say they think it should be important. Many similarly think colleges consider whether a student's family has donated money to the school, but few say it should matter.
When it comes to athletic ability, about a third say they think it should be an important factor, but a slim majority think it actually is.
BJ Taylor, 70, said he has no problem with colleges that consider athletic talent. "It's important for their notoriety, their reputation," said Taylor, a professional disc jockey in Raytown, Missouri. "And keeping physical activity in the limelight is a real need as well."
Some who work in college admissions say they face business realities that the public doesn't always appreciate. Fielding a talented sports team can boost revenue. Helping legacy students can encourage alumni to donate. All that adds money across campus, said Stefanie Niles, president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
"Is it fair? Is it right? Those are different questions than the fact that it is a reality," said Niles, who is also vice president for enrollment and communications at Ohio Wesleyan University.
Race and ethnicity
Overall, Americans show little support for the consideration of race in admissions. Just 27% say race and ethnicity should be an important factor, while 4 in 10 say they think it is. That's alarming to backers of affirmative action, which has faced a flurry of legal challenges recently.
A federal judge is now weighing a lawsuit arguing that Harvard should stop using race in its decisions amid allegations of bias against Asian Americans. At the same time, the Trump administration has opened inquiries into the use of race at Harvard and Yale, and it recently ordered Texas Tech University's medical school to stop considering an applicant's race.
Niles, of the admissions association, said she suspects the public doesn't fully understand why some colleges give an edge to racial minorities. She said it's meant to create a campus where students can encounter diversity of all kinds, from race and economic background to geography and political viewpoint.
Still, the polls find the issue is largely drawn down racial lines. About half of black Americans say racial background should be important, while just 22% of white Americans do.
Tia Green, 34, of Lexington Park, Maryland, said that in an ideal world, race wouldn't be a factor. But as long as minorities face longer odds to succeed in education, she supports it.
"Everything shouldn't be based off of race, but if we're going to be real about the world that we live in, there is prejudice, there is racism," said Green, who is black and works for the Defense Department. "Everyone should have access to education, bottom line."
Americans appear to be divided by age when it comes to the importance of standardized tests, like the SAT and ACT, the polls find. Among those 50 and older, three-quarters say test scores should be important, while just about half of those under 30 agree.
Such tests have come under scrutiny following accusations that some parents in the bribery scheme paid to rig their children's entrance exams. But even before that, a growing number of colleges were moving away from reliance on the tests, often making them optional as a way to promote equity and draw a more diverse mix of applicants.
Sklarow, of the consultants group, said the polls seem to mirror a shift in attitudes as younger generations recognize that standardized tests may unfairly benefit white students and those from wealthier backgrounds.
"I think that it's just reflecting greater public awareness that these tests are not infallible," he said. "I think a lot of older folks viewed it as a good, objective measure, and now we know that there is all sorts of bias that comes in as part of testing."
About the poll
The AP-NORC polls were conducted March 28-April 1 among 1,009 adults and April 11-14 among 1,108 adults using a sample drawn from NORC's probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 4.3 percentage points in the first survey, and plus or minus 4.1 percentage points in the second.