When the University of Illinois rejected her son, Erin Reum called admissions officers in hopes of getting his application a second look.
She thought maybe the Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School senior could appeal the decision. She was wrong."They said there's no such process," Reum said.
But, in fact, an unadvertised appeal process did exist for well-connected applicants, some of whom had weak academic credentials but the endorsement of a state lawmaker or university trustee, a Tribune investigation revealed Friday.
In the wake of the newspaper's stories, officials at the Urbana-Champaign campus now say they will make the appeal option more public.
University spokeswoman Robin Kaler said officials already had been working on formalizing the appeals process. She said students will be able to appeal online beginning with the next admissions cycle.
"I think we need to make it better known that you can appeal," Chancellor Richard Herman said.
He acknowledged that it could become overwhelming. Of the 26,000 students who applied for the fall 2009 freshman class, for example, slightly more than 9,000 were denied.
"Look, we are going to be limited by our capacity to respond," Herman said. "It's not a perfect answer, but it's an imperfect system."
The Tribune investigation found that in the last five years, subpar applicants gained admission to the U. of I.'s undergraduate program as well as competitive graduate programs with the sway of state lawmakers and university trustees. About 800 undergraduates have landed on the clout list -- known internally as "Category I" -- since 2005. Some applicants had their denial decisions reversed after trustees, lawmakers and others in powerful positions sent e-mails or placed calls on their behalf.
Between 100 and 200 students a year submit appeals, Kaler said. Some students learn about the option informally by calling the admissions office. It is not mentioned on the school's Web site or in rejection letters.
"If we had an appeal process that was very simple and clear, we would probably get 5,000 appeals. Every student would want to send an appeal in. So we do not publicize the appeal process to anybody," said Keith Marshall, associate provost for enrollment management. "And if a student or parent calls and says, 'I got denied. What do I do? Can I appeal?,' we then tell them about the appeal process."
But several families have contacted the Tribune in recent days to say they were never told they could appeal.
Among those who wish they had known is John Cooney, a Buffalo Grove High School parent whose son was shut out of the U. of I's business school and the less competitive Division of General Studies despite his 4.6 grade-point average, 31 ACT score and a ranking in the top 25 percent of his class.
Cooney fired off e-mails to U. of I. admissions officials and a high school counselor. "I asked, 'What else can we do?' They said, 'Nothing.' I felt at a total loss," said Cooney of Arlington Heights. "They just stonewalled me."
Likewise, Denis Walsh said he was never told about an appeals process when he contacted the university's admissions office in February after his son, a student at Notre Dame College Prep in Niles, was denied entry to the engineering program despite a 34 on the ACT and a 4.27 grade-point average.
His son ultimately decided to walk away from a $30,000 annual scholarship to the University of Chicago so he could enroll in the U. of I.'s Division of General Studies in hopes of transferring into engineering as a sophomore.
"If I can give it a second chance, I might as well try," the younger Denis Walsh said.
The situation was different for applicants who had the backing of politically appointed university trustees or state lawmakers, according to university e-mails and other documents obtained by the Tribune.
The university's two legislative liaisons routinely told lawmakers to encourage their applicants to appeal, records show. In at least one case, a university trustee forwarded an appeal letter from a Chicago applicant who had been denied this year. The student was admitted.
In February, Terry McLennand, a university lobbyist, wrote to the chancellor: "I am also going to send a 'reminder' list to [Keith Marshall] of those cases that we discussed having to deny at this point, but might be able to review at a later date in the admissions process if they appealed," he wrote.
In another February e-mail, McLennand lays out the process: "As directed in the past, those cases involving an applicant that has been denied, we have advised the legislators to suggest the student send in a written appeal of the denial decision, and 'state their case' as to why the decision should be reviewed. Our office has always been instructed that an appeal is a necessary step in order to keep any application 'alive' in the system."
The e-mails also show that university lobbyists -- whose influence depends on pleasing lawmakers -- are included in discussions about whether to admit borderline students.
While it's unclear from the documents how many of the students would have gotten in on their own, records show that Category I students who gained admittance had lower average ACT scores and class ranks than admitted freshmen as a whole.
David Hawkins, director of public policy for the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said it's possible to have a sound admission practice with or without an appeals option. But whatever is in place should be the same for all applicants.
"Transparency in the admission process is an important component of ethical admission practice," Hawkins said.
Several high school counselors said they expect that more students will request a second look next year if they are denied admission to the U. of I.
But unless there's new information to add -- a better ACT score or improved grades, for example -- don't count on a new outcome, Marshall said.
"We don't come up with a different decision because they say, 'We really, really want to get in,'" Marshall said.
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