Comments in response to the current national conversations about university admissions

I suspect that many of you over spring break have been reading stories and op-eds about the college admission fraud scandal that was revealed two weeks ago. It’s a sordid story, involving faked test scores, fraudulent application information, and bribery of athletic coaches.

But let’s be clear about the nature of this case. It involved relatively sophisticated criminal fraud, something in which I believe most people – students or parents – would not participate. Admissions officers, even very experienced ones, can be fooled by someone who sets out to explicitly and cleverly falsify their information.

Unfortunately, no university – or any institution – can guarantee that it has a firewall in place to detect all cases of egregious criminal behavior. UW–Madison received almost 44,000 applications this year, which is a lot of information to read through. But we strive to have checks in place to reduce the risk of being victimized by scams and to identify such behavior more quickly when it occurs.

All of our students go through the same admissions process. There’s no separate admissions for our student athletes. They have to meet the admissions criteria just like everybody else.

The discussion following this scandal has also reopened the debate about legacy admissions and about the privileges that students from wealthier families have when applying to college.

There are many things that make me proud to be at UW–Madison. One of them is our long tradition of open doors to all students in the state. As many of our alumni can attest, we admit students from all backgrounds across the state and – particularly for students from lower-income families or who are first-generation college students – we give them knowledge and open up possibilities that they would not have dreamed of at an earlier age.

That was the point of creating state-affiliated public universities – to provide educational opportunities to all students who are ready to attend college.

As state funding for public universities has decreased, tuition has risen. High quality university-level education isn’t cheap. We need top scholars on the faculty, a first-rate library, excellent IT services, and facilities in which students can learn effectively both in the classroom and in labs. If the state is paying less, attendees will have to pay more…or grateful alumni will have to provide more scholarship aid.

We’ve done a number of things to make sure UW–Madison is accessible to any student from Wisconsin who is admitted. Over the last six years, through our alumni giving campaign, we’ve added more than 3,000 new scholarships. Furthermore, we’ve allocated a growing share of internal resources to scholarship aid…our UW-provided aid has grown from $13.9 million in 2000 to $93.8 million in 2018.

As a result of these new dollars, we’ve created several scholarship programs aimed at making UW–Madison affordable to all. Best known among these is Bucky’s Tuition Promise, which started just this past year, and which promises four years of funding for tuition and fees for all Wisconsin students who come from families in the bottom half of the Wisconsin income distribution (that means their family income is $58,000 or less.)

We need to keep building our scholarship aid. And I was pleased that Governor Evers proposed to increase state aid to low-income Wisconsin students, a proposal I hope the Legislature will approve later this spring.

Another reason I’m proud to be at a public university is that these schools typically do not give any extra points to legacy admits. If you want to get into UW–Madison, you’ll have to rely on your own record, not the record of your parents. Being the child of a UW alum or being the child of a major UW donor, as grateful as we are for both, doesn’t give you extra credit in the Admissions Office. Some of our alumni are disappointed and angry every year when their child does not get into UW – believe me, I receive those angry letters.

This is enforced by the fact that the chancellor or other senior UW leaders don’t have any direct involvement in admissions decisions. (In fact, senior leaders at other public universities have lost their jobs for trying to help particular students gain admission.) I am regularly approached by parents or friends of prospective students, and my preemptory response is always as clear as I can make it: “I do not participate in the admissions process. You should contact the Admissions Office directly if you have information for them.”

I am proud of the fact that I can look any student at UW in the eye and say to them, “You’re here because your record of accomplishment and promise made you someone we want on campus.”

It’s true that some prospective students have more advantages growing up, which may make their admission application look stronger…maybe they went to a high school with more advanced classes or their parents could afford to send them to test-prep courses prior to taking the ACT. That’s one reason why we run enrichment programs in Madison and Milwaukee aimed at taking students who might not otherwise expect to attend college or who would not be prepared without some extra help. And that’s also why we use a holistic admissions process. We don’t want to have to build a class based solely on test scores or solely on grade point average, or solely on any one measure. We weigh the opportunities a student had against what they did with those opportunities.

All of that said, some students who may want to come here don’t get in. While we admit about two-thirds of all Wisconsin applicants, some of our applicants are turned down. And some students don’t even try because they don’t think they can get in.

That’s why being part of the UW System matters. Some students will do better at one of the other excellent four-year campuses. And some students are better starting college at a two-year technical college or UW branch campus – it can be less expensive, closer to home, and can give them some of the study skills and academic preparation that they might lack coming out of high school. We work hard to make transfers into UW–Madison easy for those who want to come here. In fact, we have transfer agreements with most two-year Wisconsin schools, so that students who complete an associate’s degree with a certain grade point average and who have taken a certain basic set of general education courses are automatically admitted to UW–Madison.

Anyone who works in the admissions office of a major university will tell you that admissions decisions are an art and not a science. We want a class of students who can succeed at UW–Madison, but we know that we may need to provide some additional help to those whose high school preparation might have been a little less strong.

Consistent with our Mission Statement, we seek a student body that reflects diversity in all its forms. Part of a college education is the opportunity to meet students from very different backgrounds than your own. We want students who grew up on dairy farms, in small towns, in big cities, and in different countries to learn from each other. And we want students to meet persons with different gender identities, racial and ethnic backgrounds, political beliefs, and religious backgrounds. And yes, we want some students with particular exceptional talents, including those with special athletic skills or artistic skills.

I and others here at UW work hard to make sure that we make UW–Madison accessible to Wisconsin students whose background indicates they can succeed here. I’m proud of this university’s 171-year record of serving students from across the state.