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The College Admissions Scandal Proves the System Is Broken

Forget Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman for a second — the real scam is the college admissions process

Students walk in an entrances of USC (University of Southern California) in Los Angeles, California, USA, 12 March 2019. The USC is one of the universities allegedly involved in a large admissions bribery scandal spreading nationwide on March 12th 2019

The University of Southern California was one of the universities that accepted students whose parents' were allegedly part of the scam.

ETIENNE LAURENT/EPA-EFE/REX/Shut

When I was touring colleges way back in 2007, a tour guide said something to my group that struck me as both totally right and totally wrong. “Getting into college is like picking out a puppy. It seems stressful at first, but at the end of the day, you get a puppy. You really can’t go wrong.”

At the time, I found this immensely reassuring, and to a large extent it turned out to be true, at least for me: I was lucky enough to get into my dream school and I had a wonderful experience. But after I graduated, I realized how privileged I had been in this regard. Most people applying to college are not immediately welcomed with open arms and encouraged to choose from an endless array of puppies. No, the vast majority of people applying to college are standing on the outside looking in, noses pressed against the window. Of course this woman would tell us — a group of largely white, middle class or upper-middle-class kids — that picking out a college is like picking out a puppy. That’s the kind of thing you only say to kids who are embedded in a system that was tailor-made to benefit them, and only them.

I was reminded of this earlier this week, when it was revealed that more than 50 people had been arrested as part of a massive college admissions scam. Thirty-three parents, including actors Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, were charged with fraud after allegedly giving William “Rick” Singer thousands of dollars to forge fake athletic profiles and alter SAT and ACT exam results, so their children could get into the school of their choice. Over the past few decades, Singer had allegedly greased the palms of test proctors, administration officials and athletic coaches at elite colleges and universities across the country in order to get the children of the wealthy into college.

When news of the scandal broke, and people started poring over the court documents, people understandably directed their ire at wealthy parents like Loughlin and Huffman for allegedly using their wealth to cheat the system — which, if the allegations are true, is clearly what they were trying to do. But there is also a problem with this argument. If we are going to say that these parents tried to circumvent the merit-based college admissions process by going in through what Singer allegedly referred to as the “side door,” then that implies that the college admissions system is a meritocracy to begin with. And it is not, not by a long shot.

When news of the scandal broke, a narrative quickly began to emerge: this was a story about the wealthy and undeserving screwing over the poor and deserving in order to get their dumb kids into college. To a degree, this appears to be true: the children whose parents allegedly paid Singer to get them into the best schools do not appear to have been the most qualified candidates, at least if we go by college admission standards. Court documents are replete with snarky details to support this narrative, such as footnotes referencing an applicant’s poor athletic or academic performance in stark contrast to Singer’s fabricated credentials, or even, in one case, a handwriting sample that showed a teenager’s endearingly childlike scrawl.

This widespread feeling of schadenfreude at the expense of the uber-wealthy is understandable, but misguided — particularly when it’s directed at the kids, most of whom reportedly knew nothing about the scam (nor, it must be said, are poor handwriting, low SAT scores, or having a low varsity tennis ranking indicative of your overall intelligence or value). It also elides the truth at the heart of why the alleged scheme worked so well: the college admissions system is racist. It is classist. It is sexist. It is almost entirely reliant on a set of breathtakingly outdated criteria, with the vibrancy and intellectual curiosity of an individual student being flattened into a set of numbers. It places way too much power in the hands of people who probably shouldn’t have it, such as athletics coaches who are solely operating out of self-interest. There are far too many barriers to entry for low-income students and students of color, and even if they happen to make it past those barriers to get a seat at the table, institutions are often woefully inadequate at supporting them.

We should get mad at the people who tried to exploit the system to benefit themselves and their own children; we should be even madder at people like Singer and the gatekeepers he allegedly bribed, who honed in on parental anxiety and devised a way to profit off it. But we should be much, much madder at the system itself, and why it was so damn easy to exploit to begin with.

Given how much these parents were allegedly willing to pay to place their children in elite schools, it’s easy to forget just how much the college admissions process is skewed in favor of the white and wealthy to begin with. Take, for instance, the SATs, the basis of which was inspired by educator Carl Brigham’s administering aptitude tests to World War I recruits. In addition to being an educator, Brigham was an impassioned eugenicist who was known for casually writing things like, “The army mental tests had proven beyond any scientific doubt that, like the American Negroes, the Italians and Jews were genetically ineducable.” (He later publicly disavowed his racist views.)

To this day, study after study has proven that the SATs are racially biased: black and Latino students consistently score lower than white students do, which many have argued is attributable to the exam testing a specific set of skills that white students are more likely to have — one Harvard study, for instance, found that black students score lower on the verbal section despite having equal academic aptitude to their white counterparts, in part because that section tests vocabulary words that white students are more likely to learn in school.

Far from being an objective measure of intelligence, SATs are far more useful at predicting a candidate’s racial and economic background, information that is already readily available to college admissions boards. And while many colleges and universities have intended to course-correct by eliminating standardized testing requirements, SAT and ACT scores still factor heavily into most of the elite schools’ admissions decisions — which is why such an integral part of Singer’s alleged scam was geared towards bribing proctors to changing kids’ test answers to raise their scores for them. (The fact that it was so easy for Singer to buy these people off should also make us skeptical of how much weight we give the gatekeepers of standardized testing institutions to begin with.)

The tremendous power of athletics coaches in colleges and universities has also been brought into sharp relief. It’s not exactly a secret that college athletics departments wield an undue amount of influence in admissions decisions (hell, there’s even a gag in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt about it, in which a college crew coach bullies the dean into letting Kimmy in, despite her lack of academic credentials). But the apparent ease with which Singer allegedly paid off the nine athletics coaches implicated in the case is mind-boggling — and the power given to these coaches by the admissions departments at elite schools is even more so. Because Singer’s scam allegedly revolved around creating fake athletic profiles for applicants, including staged or photoshopped images of the children using a rowing machine or playing water polo, the coaches and athletics department administrators (many of whom have since been fired) were in charge of trying to convince the admissions committee to give them a slot — and in many cases, they successfully did so without raising any red flags.

“A scam like this could exist only because competitive sports occupy a ridiculously large place in the admissions process,” New York Times columnist David Leonhardt writes, citing a study suggesting that athletes are 30 percentage points more likely to gain admission to an elite university than a non-athlete with a comparable academic record. This is arguably even more true for less high-profile sports like water polo and volleyball, which are the primary sports implicated in the scheme and which also tend to be comprised more of white, upper middle-class student athletes.

And this is not even to mention the fact that most schools have application fees ranging from $50-$100, thus posing barriers for low-income students to apply to begin with (though most do accept waivers based on demonstrated financial need). This is not even to mention the fact that college tuition costs are rising at both public and private universities; that women are openly discriminated against in the admissions process on the grounds that colleges must maintain gender balance, despite the fact that girls consistently academically out-perform their male counterparts; and that if low-income students of color are even able to get a foot in the door at elite institutions, they won’t necessarily be greeted with open arms by the mostly-white student body and faculty, and are much more likely to graduate with debt than their white counterparts.

All of this can (and will) be invoked as an argument against Huffman and Loughlin and every other rich parent who thinks they can manipulate the system. But no one seems to want to engage with the fact that these people have been manipulating the system for years, albeit in more respectable, legal ways: by funding new buildings, by calling in a favor to a friend of a friend on the admissions board, by lying about their ethnicity to benefit from affirmative policies, by starting a sham student organization senior year to make it look like you have more extracurriculars, by feigning symptoms of a learning disability to get extra time. And certainly no one seems to want to engage with the fact that if it is this easy to game the system, this easy to make yourself seem like a valuable addition by appealing to a very specific and arbitrary set of criteria, then that says more about the system than it does about the people using it to their advantage.

In his 2014 self-published book Getting In: Gaining Admission to Your College of Choice Singer wrote: “I’m one of the people who decides who gets in and who doesn’t. I am a practitioner of that mysterious art. And I’ll tell you a secret. It’s not an art. It’s a science.” He was absolutely right: the college admissions process is a system that can be gamed like any other, for those with the smarts (and, more likely than not, the wealth) to know how to game it. We just didn’t know how right he was.

There is a solution, but it is not an easy one: overhauling the college admissions process entirely and starting over from scratch. Some schools are already doing that in small ways by waiving SAT/ACT exam requirements, or adopting a more holistic approach to considering applications. But the financial pressures on many smaller colleges and universities are so high, and the structural barriers in place for low-income applicants so immense, that it is hard to imagine a world in which every parent and child can approach the college admissions process as if they are picking out a puppy, as if they have a world of equally fun and exciting and adorable opportunities at their fingertips. But just because it may be hard to imagine such a world doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try building it, regardless. 

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