Perceptions of College Admissions Practices

Americans would like to see change in the college admissions process, particularly when it comes to the emphasis colleges place on factors other than academics. Overall, 38% consider the college admission process to be fair, 36% say it is unfair, and 25% say it is neither fair nor unfair, according to two surveys conducted by the Higher Education Analytics Center at NORC and the AP-NORC Center following the Operation Varsity Blues admissions scandal.

Most Americans think high school grades and admission scores on standardized tests such as ACT and SAT are – and should be - the most important factors in determining college admission. Eighty-one percent say a student’s performance in high school is important to colleges when making admission decisions, and 76% agree that it should be critical to the admission decision. Similarly, 75% say standardized test scores are important when colleges consider applications, and 68% say they should remain important.

Many say a family’s finances should be less of a factor when evaluating college applications. While 44% think donations made to the school are considered by colleges when determining a student’s admission, only 13% say it should have any significant bearing on admissions. And 46% think colleges give weight to the family’s ability to pay full tuition, while only 23% think that should be a consideration.

A relative who is an alumnus of the college is an important factor in admission according to 37%, but only 11% think legacy status should be given much consideration. Athletic ability is viewed as important to colleges by 54%. Fewer, 32%, think colleges should make athletic talent an important factor in considering college applications.

Questions on college admissions were included on two omnibus polls using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based panel, AmeriSpeak®.

First, online and telephone interviews using landlines and cell phones were conducted March 28-April 1, 2019 with 1,009 adults for the Higher Education Analytics Center at NORC. Then, The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research conducted a survey April 11-14, 2019 with online and telephone interviews using landlines and cell phones with 1,108 adults. To achieve an unbiased assessment of respondents' views on the importance of different college admissions factors, questions from both surveys were presented in a random order to each respondent.

Principal Investigator

Ann Davoren
Research Scientist


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