Closing the Backdoor and Nailing Shut the Sidedoor: An Admissions Cautionary TaleJay Halfond | Professor of the Practice, Boston University
Rick Singer’s brazen business channeling bribes from wealthy parents to coaches and test proctors has unleashed a wave of self reflection across the academic landscape. The backdoor has long existed—donations to universities, false diagnoses of learning disabilities to gain unfair advantage, tutoring and admissions help, contrived internships and other extracurricular padding on applications. However, Singer invented a clever, far-less-legal “sidedoor” into academe. He found pathways, not carefully audited nor guarded by those susceptible to bribery.
As I think back over my several decades in continuing and professional education, I realize many of us were gatekeepers at the backdoor—which could easily have led to sidedoor schemes.
The Rug Under Which Things Were Swept
When I first interviewed at Boston University’s Metropolitan College (MET) in 1997, I was surprised to see a crowd of young students sitting outside of the counseling office waiting to see an advisor. MET’s focus was on older, part-time students, or so I thought. The assistant dean told me that many traditional-age students were officially matriculating in MET, as well as thousands of others taking individual MET courses. When I joined MET as associate dean, I began to study this counterintuitive phenomenon.
As a degree-granting college within Boston University, MET had become the official home of hundreds of full-time undergraduates. These fell into three categories. First were athletes. Even after Boston University ended its football program in 1997, coaches still were channeling players in hockey and other sports into MET. Evening classes were conducive for athletes’ practice schedules and MET’s majors and requirements (in particular, MET’s lack of a language requirement) were appealing. Second, the international admissions director and other admissions officers used Metropolitan College as an academic alternative for children of very wealthy families, whose academic profile did not meet university standards.
The third category of full-time undergraduates consisted of those who had failed out of one of BU’s other colleges and then immediately applied to MET to continue their studies.
All three categories permitted hundreds of traditional-age students enrolling full time (other than the athletes, all paid full, non-discounted tuition) to use MET as their home base. This benefited BU since MET was not part of what was reported to those who accredited or ranked the university. This benefited students by providing access to BU’s full array of courses and services, without having to meet or maintain the academic standards of the institution. This benefited MET by bolstering its student headcount and revenue.
Few of these students took many courses in MET. Their advisors had become adept at providing a vista on the entire university’s offerings. Coaches, admissions officers and advisors in BU’s other colleges had also become enablers in directing students towards MET. In short, an ecosystem no one questioned had emerged, which transformed a college designed to serve adult learners into one under which various, potentially embarrassing categories of students could be concealed.
Closing the Backdoor
We were entrenched in an ecosystem unconsciously constructed over the years. Though legal, these practices perverted the mission of Metropolitan College, misled external reviewers and created a false impression of selectivity and high academic standards. This also drove older students away as well. Not only had MET become home, at least superficially, to hundreds of traditional-age students, it served as destination for thousands of others who routinely took evening classes towards their undergraduate degree. There were no barriers in either direction to manage the movement between full-time and part-time programs. MET had, in short, lost its identity.
I studied the numbers of MET’s full-time students, and the flow from other BU schools into MET. This involved millions of dollars (in 1997 dollars) of potentially lost revenue annually if we closed this backdoor. That could further result in an opportunity cost for courting wealthy families in the Middle East and Southern Asia, as well as for the performance of various high-profile sports teams. Major changes would impact MET’s overall enrollments, and its ability to populate programs and undergraduate courses, perhaps to the point of making MET less competitive and viable as a home for older, part-time students.
Fortunately, Boston University was financially flush enough to assume the risk for restoring MET’s integrity. The provost agreed to champion several changes.
First, he instructed the athletic department, the admissions directors and the other deans not to channel students towards Metropolitan College. Freshmen would need to qualify directly for one of the other schools at BU. Upperclass students failing out of their school could not expect MET to serve as their safety net. MET raised and reinforced its intra-university admissions standards for those who wanted to transfer within BU into MET. We encouraged those dismissed for academic reasons at another school at BU to take a few years off, so that their work experience would become a valued criterion for re-admission.
Second, I was permitted to implement a “majority rule” for all MET students. The majority of their coursework each term would need to be in courses offered by Metropolitan College. This tested the sincerity of students, so MET would not be exploited as a superficial rubric. This took time to re-educate academic advisors at MET and throughout the university to stress with students that this was a firm new policy. MET needed to be the genuine home of its students.
Third, the provost instructed the other schools to manage the flow of full-time students into individual MET classes, by limiting students to only one MET course during each of their last four semesters as undergraduates.
In return, I committed to replace this lost enrollment and revenue by recruiting more post-traditional students over time. This occurred even more immediately than I ever could possibly have imagined. I was proud to be part of a university that did not require a scandal to address a systemic problem.
There by the Grace of the Market
While these changes took several years to implement, they set the stage for a new era of corporate partnerships, more graduate degrees and certificates, a deep plunge into distance learning, extensive international outreach, and a renewed focus on academic quality and faculty development. Several successive MET deans were able to build a college worthy of Boston University. MET’s financial contribution doubled and enrollments grew by 50 percent over the first decade of this century.
The loss of traditional-age undergraduates decimated MET’s undergraduate programs and courses, especially in the liberal arts, though the effects were partially offset through international partnerships that brought visiting undergraduates to campus.
I would still be lobbied by administrators, parents, and iconic coaches to make individual exceptions, but I was generally able to reason with them (as a parent myself) about how we were not serving young, full-time students well by enrolling them primarily in adult evening courses. Sometimes, these students would slip through. (I was later both proud and embarrassed to realize that the most decorated college hockey player in the country was enrolled through Metropolitan College.)
The emphasis on athletic success, fundraising, revenue and rankings can seep into the least likely areas of academe, including colleges of continuing and professional education. An earlier version of Rick Singer might well have targeted the 1997 Metropolitan College as a potential sidedoor into Boston University. I would like to believe that we would not have been susceptible to this corruption. Without realizing the full implications of our actions, perhaps we reduced its likelihood.