College admissions system may be corrupt, but it isn't broken

College admissions system may be corrupt, but it isn't broken
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Wealthy families long have known how to play the college admissions game. In the “old days,” about a dozen years ago, to get a high school senior with less-than-perfect grades into most Ivy League or elite colleges cost about $2 million. (Harvard cost more, around $3.4 million.) But getting in as a “development prospect” — that is, by endowing a small building or professorship — was just one (very effective) category for special consideration for admission. Musical talent, legacy status, science fair winner, debate champion, remote geographic residence, racial minority and athletic prowess all could give applicants an edge.

But according to a just-unsealed federal indictment in Boston, scores of well-to-do families either thought that price tag was too high or the other categories too restrictive. Instead, the FBI claims they participated in one of two jaw-dropping illegal schemes allegedly orchestrated by a private college counselor, William “Rick” Singer of Newport Beach, Calif., who took in about $25 million for his efforts between 2011 and 2019. Singer has pleaded guilty to the charges.

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The first scheme apparently involved paying a thirtysomething Harvard graduate to take the SAT or ACT standardized test on behalf of high school students, or substituting the right answers for the students’ wrong ones. The parents first arranged for their kids to get a doctor’s note justifying special testing accommodations of extra time and an isolated exam room. Then Singer paid off people administering the tests at two different high schools — one in Houston and the other in Los Angeles. The price to parents ranged from $15,000 to $75,000 per test; $10,000 went to the test-taker, $5,000 to the administrator, and the balance to the organizer.

The second scheme was more costly but guaranteed to secure admission for the student. This scheme involved varsity sports coaches affiliated with eight top colleges — Yale, Stanford, University of Southern California, Georgetown, University of California-Los Angeles, Wake Forest, University of Texas and University of San Diego. A few coaches accepted bribes, sometimes as much as $400,000 per student, to use one of their “slots” for recruited athletes on a non-athlete applicant. It typically cost the bribe-paying family more than twice that amount, once the orchestrator’s cut and additional fees were included.

This whole affair is sordid, but not surprising. Families go to considerable lengths — spending small fortunes on tutors, classes, special camps, summer enrichment trips and essay editors — to “legitimately” get a leg up in the college admissions race. That parents would cross the ethical line to secure a spot in a “name” college that is perceived to affect a person’s life trajectory is not really surprising. Having an Ivy League (or other selective school’s) college degree undeniably has advantages. But it rarely is the life-changing experience or moniker that people think it is. Yet, for the several hundred thousand high school seniors who apply to “top” schools every year — out of some 3 million high school graduates — and their parents, the stakes seem pretty high.

Thirty-five years ago, when I co-authored the first edition of “Getting In,” we capitalized on a middle-class neurosis: parents of smart kids wanted to level the playing field for their children competing against wealthy students often coming from private schools with parents and grandparents who attended a particular college. We revealed that good colleges were not looking for the well-rounded student; they were looking for the well-rounded class. That meant the admissions office sought a few kids to fill the orchestra, the dance program, the school newspaper, the debate club, each sports team, and esoteric academic departments. The smart, strategic move for an applicant was to position himself (or herself) for a niche.

Apparently there were just enough crooked coaches in second-tier sports at top colleges willing to sell a few coveted recruiting spots to equally unethical families. If the FBI accusations are true, this was a perversion of a system designed to build a more interesting mosaic of a class and more competitive teams. Hopefully, prosecuting those allegedly involved will discourage others.

The solution is not to do away with intercollegiate sports. Athletics can be an important part of the college experience. Nor is the answer to take recruiting and admissions powers away from coaches. Neither college presidents nor alumni want less-than-championship-contender teams representing their brand. This was a fraud, pure and simple, and the criminal justice system knows how to deal with that.

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From all indications, this college admissions scandal is not the tip of an iceberg. Others scandals, such as colleges fudging their numbers to gain a higher ranking, are far more widespread. But it does underscore the pressure that drives kids and their parents.

There are real controversies surrounding the American higher education system. For lots of reasons, colleges are willing to lower academic standards to promote racial preferences, eliminate any real academic requirements for some football and basketball players, jump through intellectual hoops to justify exclusion, and avoid the unfairness of legacy admissions.

Yet, the American university system remains the envy of the world. More than 440,000 foreign students pursued undergraduate degrees here in 2017 — all paying full tuition. Another 383,000 were enrolled in graduate programs, and 65,000 were in non-degree programs.  The marketplace is telling us that, for all its faults, ours is the educational product people want.

Calls to reform the admissions system already are flooding the media. Many are decrying the advantages wealthy families legitimately enjoy and illegitimately exploit. Unquestionably, college admissions may be corrupting: there is an unhealthy obsession about getting into the “best” college (often euphemistically referred to as the “right fit” college). And in some ways, the system may be corrupt. But it isn’t broken. It is functioning exactly as the people who run it want it to work.

Steve Cohen is an attorney at Pollock Cohen LLP in New York and a former member of the board of directors of the United States Naval Institute. He is the co-author of “Getting In: College Admissions in the Digital Age.”