This January, a group of Stanford University students gained access to their admissions files, using the provisions of a little-known federal privacy law. The point of the exercise, they said, was to increase transparency and accountability in the highly secretive world of elite college admissions.
But in the face of a flood of students asking to see their files — Stanford reportedly received 2,800 requests — several elite schools are now scrubbing admissions data, destroying existing files and ending policies that would keep them on record once students are admitted.
Yale and Stanford universities have both officially — and quietly — changed their approach to admissions record keeping, the schools said, preventing many students who had requested the files from accessing the information. In accordance with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, students who requested the files before the change, which came about 15 days after Stanford students began publicizing the law, will be able to view them.
Stanford and Yale admit just 5% and 6.25% of students, respectively, in what can appear to outsiders to be a particularly obtuse and subjective process. Stanford rejected 40,000 applicants last year.
Harvard University is currently embroiled in a lawsuit over its admissions policies, with a complaint alleging it discriminates against Asian-American applicants by limiting the number of it accepts each year. Some had speculated that Harvard students' admissions records could shed light on the merits of the case. A Harvard spokeswoman said that the university still kept matriculating students' admissions records "indefinitely."
Both Yale and Stanford presented the changes as a return to original policies regarding admissions records: Before the files were retained digitally, paper records were "disposed of on a regular basis, simply because there was not space to store them all," said Karen Peart, a Yale spokeswoman.
Lisa Lapin, a spokeswoman for Stanford, said that the flood of requests prompted Stanford to "ask ourselves, 'Why do we need these records?' … They have not had any use to the university, there's no need to keep them, and we historically didn't keep them."
Peart said allowing students to view their admissions records could be compromising to the admissions process at Yale, "discouraging admissions officers from making specific and frank judgments about a student's application."
Stanford had previously tried to dissuade students from viewing the more sensitive parts of their admissions files by sending out a mass email which read, in part: "Please ask yourself: What benefit do I seek from reviewing these additional admissions records? … Will my life be better for having reviewed them?" The email contained a link to an essay in Time magazine by a former student, who recounted his own "deflating experiences" viewing his admissions records in the early 1990s.
The university also began more strictly implementing a policy that allowed students just 20 minutes to look through their files in person. Students were not allow to take photographs or make copies of the files, according to reports in an anonymous campus newsletter, the Fountain Hopper, that organized the initial campaign. Before the flood of requests, the university willingly handed over copies of the records, according to documents viewed by BuzzFeed News.
Mimi Doe, an expert in elite college admissions, said she wasn't surprised that Yale and Stanford had made moves to prevent students from viewing the files. "It's so typical," she said. "It's a business, it's a huge business."
But Doe, who runs a four-day, $14,000 "College Application Boot Camp" geared toward elite college admissions, said there was unlikely to be anything revelatory in any of the admissions files that were scrubbed by Yale and Stanford. "There's no big mystery," Doe said. "You know exactly what your application contained — there aren't any secrets. If you're the one student who got in because your father donated a library, you know it."
Molly Hensley-Clancy is a business reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC. She covers the intersection of business and education.
Contact Molly Hensley-Clancy at email@example.com.
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