When admission to college is 'guaranteed'

When admission to college is 'guaranteed'
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The still-unfolding college admissions scandal is already remarkable for the audacity of its scope. Dozens, and perhaps as many as 700 wealthy parents, including two actresses, the founder of a private equity firm, and American Lawyer’s “Dealmaker of the Year,” paid millions of dollars to William “Rick” Singer, the founder and chief consultant of The Edge College & Career Network, to prepare applications, hire professionals to take SAT and ACT tests under their children’s names, and bribe varsity coaches to designate them as recruited athletes. 

As he announced indictments “in the largest college admissions scandal ever prosecuted,” Andrew Lelling, U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, indicated that the case revealed “the widening corruption of college admissions through the steady application of wealth.”

At a time in which students from families with annual incomes of more than $630,000 are 77 times more likely to attend an Ivy League school than individuals from families earning $30,000 or less, and many selective colleges enroll more undergraduates from families in the top 1 percent of income than from families in the bottom 60 percent, Lelling’s claim has stoked already pervasive concerns about a “separate college admissions system for the wealthy.”

In my judgment, a substantive debate about whether the children of donors should get more favorable consideration for admission, and, if so, how much, is worth having.

That said, I believe the scandal teaches a somewhat different lesson about the values and behavior of a swath of affluent Americans.

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After all, Lelling also maintained, “We’re not talking about donating a building… we’re talking about fraud.” And Singer’s “pitch” was based on the assumption that the system was not all that corrupt. In a promotional video, he told potential customers that even with a seven figure gift to endow a professorship or establish a research center, they could not buy a seat at their target university, especially when the grades and standardized test scores of their children were well below those of students accepted by the institution under “normal” circumstances.

And then Singer used the magic word. What made his services “so attractive to so many families,” he acknowledged, “is I created a guarantee.” In the hypercompetitive environment at elite schools, rich parents — who will settle for nothing less than the best (and most prestigious) school for their children — wanted certainty. Aware of how difficult it is to get, they were willing to pay a lot of money for a guarantee.

Gordon Caplan, who allegedly wired $75,000 to Singer to arrange a fabricated ACT score of 32 for his daughter (whose highest practice result was 22), we can assume, was not the only client who was “not worried about the moral issue here.”

“Keep in mind, I am a lawyer,” he allegedly told Singer, in a wire-tapped call, “So I’m sort of rules oriented.” Caplan expressed concern about the possibility of getting caught, but accepted Singer’s assurance that he would be safe.

Singer delivered on his promises. He exploited vulnerabilities in the system, in which admissions staff do not have the time or resources to fact-check claims by or about applicants, including grades, standardized test scores, athletic prowess, racial and ethnic identity, extracurricular activities, letters of reference, and personal essays. Surprisingly, given the number of people involved, Singer’s scam went undetected for years. 

What, then, should be done?

Colleges and universities might begin to deter scams by conducting random audits of applications; investigating discrepancies between SAT, ACT, and AP scores and high school grades; requiring verification by high school teachers and guidance counsellors, and ensuring that at least two people review the qualifications of recruited athletes. 

As I have suggested, administrators also should think hard about the impact of legacy status and donations in elbowing out smart and high-achieving students from economically disadvantaged and middle-class families and underrepresented minority groups — as well as on finances and the creation of multi-generational alumni communities.

And, of course, all Americans should confront a reality — and a culture — in which millions of individuals self-report that they have lied at work and cheated at school.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies, Dean of the School of Continuing Education & Summer Sessions, and former Vice President for University Relations at Cornell University. He is co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.