Development cases are a set of preferences in university and college admission, particularly in college admissions in the United States, separate from merit, athletic, racial and legacy preferences, whereby applicants from wealthy families are more likely to be granted admission to selective universities based on the ability of their family to make large donations.
The practice is not widely discussed by universities that use it, but is reported to be used by a number of top-ranked schools, Ivy League and otherwise, and is particularly associated with Duke University (which acknowledges its use) and Brown University (which does not comment), especially since the 1980s.
A development case is an application to an undergraduate institution that is set aside during the admission process for further review. In these cases, the merits of admitting a student based on their academic performance, test scores, and extracurricular activities are dampened by the financial standing of his/her family. With development cases, a student whose academic performance and test scores are not enough to merit admission, the decision to admit the student is instead dependent on the expected donations his/her family might be expected to give.
Student X and Student Y are applying to University Z. The interquartile range for the SAT scores of admitted students is (2000, 2200), and the same range for unadjusted GPA is (3.7,3.9), hence 50% of admitted students from last year's pool scored between 2000 and 2200 on the SAT and 50% of admitted students from last year's pool graduated with GPAs between 3.7 and 3.9. Student X graduated High School with a 3.9 and an SAT score of 2200, while Student Y graduated with a 3.7 and 2000, respectively. Without taking family wealth into account, Student X would probably be granted admission, while Student Y would probably not. However, if Student Y comes from a family of billionaires, he/she would probably be more likely to gain admission, possibly even more so than student X.
Mechanics of Admission
Most elite universities (including the Ivy League as well as others) claim that they base their admission decisions on a wholistic approach to each application individually. While this may be true to a certain extent, almost all of these universities assign scores (typically 1 to 7, but theoretically any scale can be used), with one end of the scale being high achievers and the other end the low achievers. While colleges typically do look at each application in addition to GPA and SAT/ACT, these numbers are usually put through an algorithm to determine a score. Hence, using the previous example, a student with a 7 would probably be admitted, and his application scanned only for major problems (cheating, criminal offenses). A 5 would be more thoroughly read, and the decision would be more difficult to make, while a 1 would have his/her application thrown in the trash. An application that is a development case, however, would be more likely to be admitted given their index number, and as such, a non-development case 6 might have a comparable chance of admission as a 4 who is a development case.
Development cases are used legitimately, according to universities that admit to using them, in order to secure better funding. The cost of denying admission to a candidate (who would otherwise be admitted) to make room for a development case is outweighed by the benefit of having a student from a wealthy family as an alumn, and can be expected to be more generous in donations. However, expected donations are difficult to predict, and using long-term data, have been shown to be of negligible importance to funding in general. In addition to this, the university loses some degree of respectability by favoring the rich over the smart, and some deserving applicants are denied
Most applicable top tier schools are susceptible to this practice, although the admissions teams typically keep the mechanics behind their process as secretive as possible. In addition to Ivy League Universities, other top-ranked universities, including Duke University, Stanford University, The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Rice University and Vanderbilt University have had their admission practices exposed by former admissions officers. The most devious cases of using development cases, however, are found in top-tier schools with lackluster finance, including Brown University and Duke University.
- "Ivy admissions prompt frenzy: Shift away from early-action programs may result in lower matriculation yield at Yale", Yale Daily News, by Caitlin Roman, April 3, 2008 – 'a "development case" — admissions-speak for a student whose parents will donate significantly to the school.'