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Donor Admissions: How It Works Now

(For students returning to campus, we are re-printing a few highlights from last term.)

Preferential Admissions.jpgThe influence of money in the admissions process has been an aspect of Dartmouth that people have wondered about for a long time. The fact that special attention is given to the children of large donors is nothing new: undergrads can confirm that proposition just by looking at the last names of many of their classmates which appear on buildings and among the members of the Board of Trustees. However, it seems that as with many other areas of the College, this arguably necessary corruption has been extended significantly in the past few years. From a tiny share of each class — say about 1% — a decade or two ago, it now appears that 4%- 5% of incoming freshman are given special admissions consideration due to large gifts to Dartmouth by their parents. In fact, longtime head of Development Carrie Pelzel used to joke aloud that her job was much easier when alumni had kids coming into the college application phase of their lives.

In her book A Is for Admission: The Insider’s Guide to Getting into the Ivy League and Other Top Colleges (1997), Michele Hernandez ‘89 described the ongoing policy regarding major donors’ offspring in Admissions during her four years (1993-1997) as Assistant Director of Admissions at the College:

Hernandez Development.jpg

Hernandez was writing in 1997 about the period of time when Karl Furstenberg was Dean of Admissions (“King Karl” ran the show from 1992 to 2007). In a 2004 interview with The D, Furstenberg himself confirmed Hernandez’ insider revelations:

[Dean of Admissions Karl Furstenberg said] There are legacies, and then there are “development cases,” and the two are separate. Legacies receive that designation automatically from the admissions office if their parent holds a Dartmouth degree. Development cases, on the other hand, proceed differently.

When an important development case — usually involving a big donor — shows up, the alumni relations and development office inform the admissions office of an application that should receive special attention.

But Furstenberg said such cases are few and far between.

“There are typically 10 or fewer development cases each year. There is a fairly high standard to be treated as a development case. I mean you really have to donate a building or something. Schools with big endowments don’t really give much advantage because they have so much money.”

From 1%, the number of donor admits has soared in recent years. Today the cooperation between the Development Office and Admissions works as follows: Development creates a tracking list of applicants who come from families who are large contributors. Development officers then meet with Admissions staff to review Development’s list against Admissions’ application list, which includes the applicants’ high school record. Many admit decisions are made at this meeting. Sometimes discussions are easy because the applicant had good credentials; however when the applicant is weak, Development officers need to push the candidate. Most often these days Admissions officers accept their wishes; only very occasionally they do not. The bottom line is that the amount of money that a family gives to Dartmouth is a meaningful factor in the process, but not a 100% guarantee.

Currently about 20-25 names make the Development Office’s Admissions list for early admits, and later an equivalent number of candidates are also reviewed for regular admissions. Depending on the year, as many as 50 applicants are considered through this special process. Most, though not quite all, are admitted. Also, heavy alumni volunteer involvement is considered, but this work does not carry as much weight as the financial contributions of major donors. The first round of meetings are internal within the Development Office and Admissions staffers — then subsequent meetings are directly with Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Maria Laskaris ‘84.

Though I cannot confirm the exact timing of the rise from 1% to 4%-5% of incoming students in the acceptances of donor children, it seems likely that this change occurred when the Trustees and the Kim administration adjusted upward the number of legacy admits in the Class of 2014 by approximately one third. Since then legacies have remained at over 14% of each incoming Dartmouth class, as the Dartmouth Factbook notes:

Legacies 2002 Comp.jpg

Addendum: Though the longtime head of Development, Carrie Pelzel, has left her post to be replaced by Bob Lasher ‘88, nothing has changed recently. This policy is set by the President and the Board of Trustees.

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