A story broke today that may have a major impact on higher education. A slew of wealthy individuals have been charged by the U.S. Department of Justice for participating in fraudulent behavior surrounding their children’s college admissions applications.
According to the Justice Department, clients paid a man named William Rick Singer between $250,000 and $6.5 million to do all manner of things to improve the applications — fabricate test scores, fake other records, and even Photoshop or stage photos to make their kids seem like elite athletes.
Crazy, right? I know. Check out the story for yourself here: www.aspenpublicradio.org/post/us-accuses-actresses-others-fraud-massive-college-admissions-scandal.
This is shocking, but there is a longstanding tradition of kids getting into college, not on their own merit, but because their parents wrote their admissions essay or because they are “legacy” recruits at Ivy Leagues.
We talked some in class about the ways in which economic privilege helps students get into college, like being able to pay to take the SAT multiple times or hiring a private tutor to help study. Yes, this stuff is outright lying and fraudulent. It is illegal, criminal. But I’d argue it comes from a long tradition of people using money to influence higher education admissions, including alumni who make very significant donations and expect their children to attend. Is a large donation any morally different than hiring someone to lie on an application? Just because it is legal doesn’t make it right.
This is the kind of culture that gives higher education a bad name. How can we have the trust of the public if they see this kind of privilege play out in both legal and illegal ways? And we wonder why the public thinks of university professors and administrators as elitist.
It is high time that Ivy League legacy admissions comes to an end, and universities that conduct alumni interviews as part of the admission process (where alumni interview prospective students and their recommendation carries significant weight) need to reconsider the biases that explicit in using alumni for this task rather than a trained administrator. (There are currently some lawsuits against Harvard claiming several alumni interviewers were biased against Asian applicants: www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/affirmative-action-lawsuit-against-harvard-judge-s-hands-n971776.)
Maybe the most radical response to the most recent fraud charges will be admissions no longer relying so heavily on those aspects of the application that CAN be faked — test scores. Maybe applications should focus on formal interviews and require sample submissions of high school work. Maybe students should write their essays in a controlled environment on campus? Or face-to-face or Skype interviews should be conducted between potential students and admissions officers (not alumni).
We need to believe that everyone who attends a college or university has gotten there on their own merit. If that is not true, it calls into question our research, our relationship with the public, and the quality of our degrees.