Should the college admissions scandal make me angry?


A federal investigation uncovered how wealthy parents have bribed their children’s way into prestigious and highly-selective schools, like Georgetown University (pictured). Their illegal practices bring to light the numerous legal maneuverings the wealthy use to ensure back-door entrance into elite institutions, disadvantaging deserving, less-affluent student applicants

Joey Weslo, General Assignment Reporter

For my eighteenth birthday, my parents bought me a used acoustic guitar and hiking boots. Bruce Isackson, president of a Californian real estate firm, spent $350,000 to buy his daughter into the University of Southern California.

After federal prosecutors made public their investigation into the largest college admissions scandal in history, angry students filed a litany of civil and class-action lawsuits claiming the bribery and racketeering prevented them a fair opportunity of admission.

Over 50 people, including Hollywood elites, business magnates, admissions officers and athletic coaches are accused of using William Singer, a college admissions counselor, to bribe their children into highly-selective universities.

Among the implicated schools in FBI investigation “Operation Varsity Blues” are Yale, Georgetown, Stanford, Wake Forest, USC, UCLA and the University of Texas.

Overzealous parents using their wealth to perpetuate the family’s elite status is nothing new in college admissions. Well documented examples, like Charles Kushner donating $2.5 million to Harvard in 1998, to buy his son, Jared, admission have been dirty secrets for decades. Affluence and privilege have always sanctified a type of affirmative action for the wealthy. While top schools have rightfully turned to diversity in their selections, donor lists and legacy admissions still ensure segregation along economic lines.

How disadvantaged is the qualified applicant who doesn’t come from a family of trust funds and wealthy connections? Will the admission of less deserving rich kids really prevent me from attending an elite school?

Prosecutors allege parents paid Singer and his college consultant company $25 million to help doctor students’ admission tests, create false athletic profiles and bribe coaches and admission officers.

Singer used staged or photoshopped pictures of the clients’ children playing athletics in which they never actually participated. Singer also had parents seek fictitious learning disability exemptions for their children so they could take the ACT or SAT with extra time and in isolation. This allowed the company to tamper with the test answers or have a more intelligent person take the test for the student.

Bruce Isackson used the company to qualify one daughter as a fake rowing recruit for USC. In 2015, Isackson also traded $251,000 of Facebook Inc. stock to have his elder daughter recruited as a fake soccer player for UCLA.

Even U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a champion of using wealth to gain an educational advantage, condemned the fraud and bribery.

Every student deserves to be considered on their individual merits when applying to college,” said DeVos. “It’s disgraceful to see anyone breaking the law to give their children an advantage over others.”

However, what exactly qualifies as an advantage over other children? Should I be outraged at this egregious violation of the law, or should I direct my attention to the legal advantages given to affluent students? What are the true obstacles hindering equal consideration in admissions?

The admissions scandal seems perfectly made for instigating public outrage, yet, its exposure hardly seems shocking. All students are taught how competitive the field is. Does the admissions scandal really change how stacked we feel the odds are against us?   

Singer marketed his fraudulent practices as using the “side door” into prestigious universities. The investigation brings attention to the legal, and highly prevalent, ‘back door’ into college admissions.

Adam Serwer, a journalist for The Atlantic, noted the hypocrisy in the public’s outrage at the recent admissions scandal.

“It’s vitally important that rich people buy their way into the Ivy League the old fashioned way,” Serwer sarcastically tweeted.

Generations of wealthy and influential families have built the prestigious universities into the elite schools they are today. However, admission practices have always served to marginalize poorer applicants and segregate racial minorities. Such practices have propagated the consolidation of social power and influence and helped rich families prevent the loss of their elite status in the American business world.

With such high-stakes facing students to gain access to this coveted social status, the rich have positioned affirmative action as the true hindrance to equality in admissions.

Affirmative action has recently seen waning support in the courts. However, schools continue to argue diversity increases the learning benefits and overall experience for students.

Prospective students are left to wonder if the leg-up for the affluent and well-connected is more detrimental to the admissions of a qualified applicant. How do we best ensure an admissions process based upon merit rather than social status? Do legacy students and children of rich donors crowd out the highly-competitive field?

In the lawsuit, Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard (2018), plaintiffs argued elite schools’ admission practices using discriminatory racial quota prevents Asian Americans with higher test scores from admission.

Conservatives have demonized diversity selections as the real impediment to non-discriminatory admissions. Opponents of affirmative action have highlighted the artificial growth of racial makeups and instances of fraud, like T.M. Landry High School in Louisiana, falsifying transcripts for their African American students, and having students exaggerate their adverse social lives.

However, the New York Times reported, of the top 38 elite colleges in America, there are more students from the top 1% wealthiest families in America than the bottom 60%.

The disparity is made more shocking when you consider the admission rate for Harvard’s Class of 2022 was just under 5%, while the admission rate for legacy students was 33.6%. Along with legacies, athletes, children of faculty, and applicants on the Dean’s or Director’s List comprise 29% of all students admitted into Harvard.

Singer’s company took advantage of athletic admissions because even at Harvard, recruited athletes face an 86% admission rate. The secret told to parents should be, if you want your child to attend an elite university, teach them how to row or fence.

While some fear the special attention given to affluent children solidifies generational privilege, USC admissions have said, “We are proud to educate multiple generations of Trojans and, in any given year, legacy admissions make up 13-19% of each incoming class.”

To examine the prevalence of legacy admissions, Harvard researcher Michael Hurwitz analyzed 2007 admission applicants at the 30 most highly selective colleges in the country.

Hurwitz’s study found students who were “legacy” applicants (any familial connection to the university) received a 23.3% increase in admissions probability. “Primary legacy” applicants (parents graduated from the university) received a 45.1% increase.

With the most selective universities having an average base acceptance rate of just under 10%, this disparity can prove drastic in the applicant’s success. The highly competitive nature of admissions positions students of similar academic credentials against each other. In the selection process, any distinction becomes magnified.

If a non-legacy student faced a 10% chance of admission, an equally qualified primary legacy student would face a 55% chance.

Hurwitz’ study found legacy status mattered more for highly-qualified students with greater SAT scores. His report stressed legacy status mattered less for rich kids with poorer grades.

Hurwitz also noted, of the 290,000 plus applications he analyzed, only about 6% of students qualified for legacy status.

Yes, legacies are given preferential treatment, but if you were denied from a highly-selective school, the vast majority of students accepted were simply more qualified than you.

A Buzzfeed article titled “Confessions of a College Admissions Officer,” dispelled the notion that having money guarantees admission. The officer stated schools are not desperate for money; dumb rich kids still primarily get rejected. The officer stated it takes tens of millions of dollars in donations to get your child noticed.

However, the officer does admit to arbitrariness and preferential treatment in the selection process. Students whose parents are connected with a trustee, are friends of the president, kids of faculty, or whose parents have made large financial donations are flagged as “important to the university” and considered by a separate admissions committee.

The Dean’s and Director’s Interest Lists at Harvard have become infamous for applying special treatment to wealthy donors and people of interest to the school.

However, these students are still in the extreme minority, and the vast majority of those accepted had test scores and academic credentials qualifying their application.

This positions the question: do admissions offices depend too heavily on standardized test scores? Does this over-dependence increase or decrease diversity?

The University of Chicago has become the first elite school to allow applicants to opt out of providing scores from the SAT or ACT. Joining schools like DePaul University, the admissions process values GPA and extra-curricular credentials more highly than standardized test scores. They believe standardized tests favor more affluent students who can afford coaching or classes to increase their scores. This puts minority students at a disadvantage and decreases diversity on campus.

Critics say standardized tests allow schools to equally evaluate students from different schools, backgrounds and states.

Would changing admission processes decrease or increase discrimination in the selection process?

If elite schools valued high scores less, the kind of fraud committed by Singer and his company would prove ineffectual in gaining an advantage in admissions.

People who are feigning outrage and students who are filing lawsuits should take a second and view the entire admissions process. Exactly what is the problem you are trying to root out? If you truly have been denied admission to a less qualified student, are you sure your anger is directed at the right target?