We’re not even 24 hours into the repellent news story about a handful of wealthy people bribing their children’s way into elite colleges, but already social media is merging the sordid details of this story into a Grand Narrative of college admissions corruption. It’s a story about criminality for sure, but does it really say anything about the state of college admissions?
Like the Duke Lacrosse scandal, this one is food for those with strong opinions and an inclination toward outrage. Frank Bruni had a broad-brushed condemnation ready in mere hours. So is it true that elite college admission is for sale? Does the student with an SAT coach and an admission consultant push out a Mexican-American student from East LA with no such assistance? Does a million dollar gift prior to an application being submitted ensure a good outcome? Does a mother’s country club friend who sits on a college’s Board of Trustees get an admission guarantee with a wink and a nod over a gin & tonic? This may be a surprise, but in most cases, the answer is no.
Most elite colleges and universities have prioritized a leveling of advantage in the admission process. They have invested in outreach efforts to attract applicants from poor urban areas and rural areas as well. They have provided transportation to get those students to their campuses for junior year visits. They have added nuance to their evaluation of standardized tests and they have taken school environment into account in evaluating rigor and class selection. And most importantly, they have built up support structures on their campuses so that this new generation–in many ways finding a completely alien culture on elite campuses–can thrive in the same ways advantaged students do.
The idea that donations to a college is a fast track ticket in, is also to some degree a myth. Fundraising offices are often deliberate in creating firewalls between their offices and admissions, specifically to avoid any appearance of ‘dealmaking’. It is true that very large donors will get extra consideration when their children apply, but if a successful business woman endows a program in sustainability that will directly benefit society at large, how big a crime is the extra consideration?
But what’s most notable from my experience is the thoughtfulness in which admission officers take into account advantage in making decisions. They can sniff out “packaged” applications with ease, they will discount the admission-value of expensive elite summer programs, and they will boost an applicants rating when hardships are obvious. The resistance to valuing advantage permeates the admission process at most of the colleges in question.
There are still some big problems in elite college admissions. Legacy admissions, at many colleges, is indefensible as practiced. College athletics needs reform as it clearly advantages students from elite prep schools. Campus climates remain imperfect for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. And some faculty are slow to adjust to the new populations their colleges are serving. You’ll see improvements in these areas in the next decade–I hope.
This scandal appeared to occur without any college’s awareness. It was a scam. A crime involving a con artist “consultant”, a dozen or so parents lacking a shred of integrity, and corrupt athletic coaches. It wasn’t about the admission process.
If people want to express outrage over college admission, ignore the 1% of the population who attend these elite universities and focus on the B student from Mt Vernon OH or inner city St Louis who can’t even afford their state university. That’s the real scandal.