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Norman Sperling
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Auction a Few Undergrad Admissions

© Norman Sperling, March 27, 2019.
[Norman Sperling has taught in about a dozen colleges and universities, from open-admission to highly selective.]

The only thing new about the college admissions scandal is that now it’s considered scandalous. People have always used their resources to better their children’s futures.

Formalizing what colleges already do can improve its ethics. Auction a small number of undergraduate admissions, with much of the proceeds benefiting financial aid. Bids are in addition to all other college expenses; the auction costs extra, it’s not just a different route to paying what they would anyway.

For sports, celebrity speakers, and theater performances, colleges already sell seats at different prices. Admission is simply more important and lasts longer.

For winners to fit in, only accept bids sponsoring wait-listed or rejected candidates who
• already applied normally
• the admissions office deems likely to graduate, and
• did NOT apply for financial aid. (If families need aid, they can’t afford this auction. Wait-list applicants who get in anyway save the college that much aid.)
Never identify winning students publicly, just as aid awardees, on the opposite end of the financial scale, are not identified. Some peoples’ attitudes might be colored by money.

Auctions should not compromise the quality of the student body, because all applicants are expected to graduate. It should NOT invite grabbing money from students who will likely flunk out. If auction-admitted students are slightly weaker, their family’s eagerness may make up for that.

This auction trades on the perceived value of each institution’s diploma. Administration would trace that perception over the years. Higher quality generates higher bids. Each college should run mathematical models to optimize auction income. This is partly mathematical but strongly psychological. Every college already has experts in both factors.

Don’t reveal the winning bids or their total. Keep all bidders fearful of failure, so they’ll bid their highest. If only auctioning 10 seats (my guess), bidding should go high, but the college only receives the 10 highest bids. If auctioning 100 seats, people wouldn’t bid as high (they only want to come in 99th), but the college gets a lot more winners. Factor in the cost to run the auction. The fewer the seats, the higher the bids, whose total should greatly overmatch the “long tail” who try to come in 99th.

Cash is not the only form of payment to consider. Barter services (like a celebrity fundraiser), goods (computers, wine ...), present or future buildings, whatever would benefit the college. Independent, realistic appraisers should determine barter values.

Alumni and parents receive fundraising appeals forever. Most seat-auction-winning students will probably pitch in additional money over the years. These donations, coming from prosperous families, are likely to be above average, and higher value than those of the next 10 from the wait-list.

Colleges that auction a few admissions to formalize what they already do, with standards and ethics specified up front, can convert the present scandal into ongoing benefits.

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