updated 6/5/2009 2:10:30 PM ET 2009-06-05T18:10:30

All college applications are equal. But some are more equal than others.

A Chicago Tribune expose in the past few days about how the University of Illinois gives extra consideration to well-connected applicants has set off a storm of protests, prompting the school to change its practices and sending politicians who made use of the rules running for cover.

But the truth is, many universities — public and private alike — give special treatment to some degree to the sons and daughters of big donors, politicians, trustees and others with control over the school's purse strings or other clout, admissions experts say.

"The admissions offices are essentially being held over a barrel," said David Hawkins of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. "How can they really say no when the directives come from the very top of the institution?"

Whether formalized or not, "virtually every selective college, public or private, has some kind of list" like the one maintained by the University of Illinois, said Daniel Golden, whose 2006 book "The Price of Admission" exposed admissions practices that favored well-connected applicants.

Golden's reporting focused mostly on elite private universities like Duke, Stanford, Brown and Harvard. But the Illinois story shows how far "the problem goes of colleges essentially trading admissions slots for favors," he said. "Here you have a flagship state institution essentially making a lot of slots available to candidates who aren't as strong as some they reject."

Returning the favor
In the mid-1990s, the Los Angeles Times detailed hundreds of requests by University of California regents and politicians on behalf of applicants. Not all the applicants got in, and many who did get accepted didn't need the help. But the Times found some were admitted over more qualified candidates, and the university acknowledged back-channel pull could make a difference in a small number of cases.

In interviews this week, officials at several public universities acknowledged there is no absolute wall between admissions officers and other parts of their institutions, such as the fundraisers and lobbyists. But they insisted they have tight rules and no separate category for applicants, such as that maintained at Illinois.

At the University of Florida, Zina Evans, associate provost for enrollment management, said that when fundraisers signal an interest in a candidate, the only favor they receive is a courtesy heads-up when the decision is made.

The school tells applicants it doesn't accept letters of recommendation, and she said they aren't considered in the regular admissions process. However, she acknowledged such letters can come into play if a decision is appealed.

At the University of Virginia, university fundraisers are not supposed to approach admissions staffers directly about candidates. However, Carol Wood, assistant vice president for public affairs, acknowledged in an e-mail it sometimes happens.

UVA's president's office may also get involved. When a request for help arrives there, a staff member decides "if it is appropriate to ask the dean of admission to take an additional look at a student's application," Wood said. She emphasized there is no guarantee of admission.

Crossing the line
Several experts said the system described at Illinois may have crossed some important lines. The university, the Tribune reported, considered hundreds of connected applicants as a separate set of applicants called "Category I" that was not publicized.

Illinois insists no unqualified students were admitted, and it is impossible to say how many would have gotten in otherwise. However, the Tribune found that they were accepted at a higher rate than their test scores would predict.

"I had never heard of such a formalized process of circumventing the public rules the university has articulated itself," said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of AACRAO, a professional group for admissions and other college officials. "It is over the top in terms of the obviousness with which they were treating some people quite differently."

Among the applicants on the clout list at Illinois was a relative of Tony Rezko, a key figure in the corruption scandal that brought down former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. The admissions office initially rejected the unidentified relative, but the Tribune reported the decision was reversed following an e-mail from university President B. Joseph White that noted the governor's backing.

Last week, White issued a statement calling it a sound and common practice to keep track of "expressions of interest in particular applicants" by alumni, politicians, trustees and others. But on Monday he said the university would drop the Category I system pending a review.

Also on the university's to-do list will be rebuilding the public's trust.

"We have lots of students who complain every year they can't get into the university," said Lianne Musser, college coordinator at Lyons Township High School, in suburban Chicago, which sends about 85 students to the university each year.

"The feeling is, if it were a private university you might expect some people would have more sway — donors, politicians. But in a state university, the expectation is that people would have an equal chance."

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