Ask the Ethicist: Communication Between College Admissions and Fundraisers

Dear Ethicist,

I’ve seen a lot in the news about the college admissions scandal: many parents across the country, including a few celebrities, paid thousands of dollars to pay off SAT proctors, bribe coaches, etc., to help their children get into college. It makes sense for these fraudulent activities to be punished with jail time and for university officials who took bribes to step down. However, I’ve always been under the impression that for some students, it’s typical for their wealthy parents to make a big donation to the college; however, the donated money doesn’t go into people’s pockets, but rather to programs, scholarships and new facilities at the college. Even though it seems a little bit ethically dubious, donation for admission is a typical practice, isn’t it? If so, is it ok for fundraisers to speak with the admissions office regarding the children of big donors?

Signed,

Don’t Want to be Aunt Becky

Dear Not Aunt Becky,

While we all believe that our children deserve to attend the school of their dreams, there is no way to ensure college admission — and that includes through big donations. In a 2019 article for The Atlantic, Richard Kahlenberg, who studies legacy admissions, called these big donations a more “genteel form of bribery,” and that they are “fraud and bribery’s lawful cousins.” While these donations may be officially legal, there are some ethical technicalities.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) protects the privacy of student education records in the United States. This includes students’ grades and other personally identifiable information (PII), including students’ addresses and family members’ names. FERPA allows “school officials” within the institution to have access to students’ education records without consent if the official has “legitimate educational interests” in the information. How does this connect to fundraising?

It is legal for wealthy parents to donate to a university with the hope of securing admission for their child. However, a large gift should not signify admission. In other words, it should not be a “pay-to-play” situation. Even still, considering the optics, any sort of large donation before admission is not ethically sound.

In order to prevent breaching FERPA, your institution’s FERPA disclosure should define “school official” and “legitimate educational interests” in a way that includes the fundraising shop. The FERPA disclosure should also include the types of PII that are shared with school officials (name, address, date of birth, degree information, athletic team participation, etc.). To make sure your institution’s FERPA disclosure is broad enough, contact your admissions office or legal counsel.

Fundraising departments are allowed to be in contact with campus partners, including admissions. Best practice would dictate that these information transfers should happen after a student has accepted their offer of admission. Parent prospecting and alumni fundraising are not problematic once the applicant is officially a student, and the data transfer should only include basic PII.

 


Do you have a question for the Apra Ethicist? Send a note to Connections Managing Editor Kristin Fields (kfields@aprahome.org) for consideration.

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