Since the whole rest of the world has by now weighed in the college admissions-bribery scandal involving, among others, the children of Felicity Huffman and former Full House star Lori Loughlin (aka Aunt Becky), I’m going to throw in my two cents as well. Actually, it’s more like a dollar, but you get the point.
In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past few weeks, a number of extremely wealthy parents have been implicated in a scandal involving passing their children off as athletic recruits to a variety of prestigious colleges (including USC, Yale, NYU, Stanford, and Georgetown) in order to guarantee their admission. The scam also involved procuring extra time for standardized tests and then falsifying test results (either paying a third party to sit for the exam or enlisting a proctor who changed incorrect answers).
At the center of the scandal is William Singer, a college consultant in Newport Beach, CA, who bribed athletic department members in order to place students—who in many cases did not even play the sport they were supposedly being recruited for—onto the coach’s list, an act of fakery that at its most absurd involved photoshopping students’ heads onto pictures of athletes’ bodies. The various admissions offices subjected the applicants to no real scrutiny, and the ploy was only uncovered by chance, as part of an unrelated investigation. (If you’d like a complete rundown of the players involved, The Daily Intelligencer has compiled a very helpful list.)
Now, for anyone who has even a passing familiarity with how cutthroat the elite college admissions process has become, none of this should come as any surprise. Any loophole, no matter how small, will eventually be exploited by those savvy and rich enough. But aside from that, permit me some additional thoughts.
First, it is extraordinarily telling that this whole sordid mess was perpetrated not by the applicants themselves—who in some cases genuinely appear not to have even known what was going on—but by their parents. It’s almost too easy a shot to take, but I just can’t resist: this is the ultimate in helicopter (snowplow?) parenting—organizing one’s children’s cheating. If nothing else, this sheds a fairly predictable light on just where so much of the hysteria driving the admissions process comes from. (I’ve taken to saying that students applying to elite colleges need to understand that they’re not really competing against their peers, but rather against their peers’ parents.) One has to wonder how many eighteen-year-olds would be perfectly happy to jaunt off to State U. with their friends, if only their parents did not feel that overwhelming need to slap a Cornell decal on the back of the family SUV and impress all the neighbors.
Much has been made about Olivia Giannulli’s role as a social media influencer, but really, it’s the parents who were concerned that having their children attend less-than-stellar colleges would be damaging to their brands.
To any well-meaning adult who might argue that the hysteria over the Ivy League is misplaced, that it’s possible to get a really first-rate education at any number of schools nowadays; or that from an earnings standpoint, it doesn’t really matter where well-off students attend college, I gently reply that you are missing the point. The scramble for elite colleges is not fundamentally about getting an education, or even making a lot of money or getting a good job, although those may be byproducts of an elite degree. Rather, it is about pure, raw status.
Yes, the middle-class is getting increasingly squeezed by obscene college costs, but this isn’t a story about struggling average Americans who did something desperate to get ahead—this is about seriously rich people cheating for the sole purpose of bragging rights.
When universities are branded as luxury goods and inflate grades to the point where basically no one fails out, this is what you get.
Second, while cheating scandals involving college-entrance exams are a worldwide phenomenon, it is a peculiarity of the American system that higher education is linked to closely to athletics. In fact, the whole mess is a far more direct indictment of the absurd advantage given to recruited athletes than it is of any other aspect of the admission process. Why were the students on the coaches’ lists not vetted more carefully by the admissions office? Why was no one paying attention to whether they were actually playing on a team once they got to campus? Why on earth should athletic accomplishment carry such outrageously disproportionate weight at (purportedly) academic institutions? And why is it taken for granted that this is an okay way for things to be?
No other university system in the world functions like this, and for good reason. Then again, in other countries people generally don’t have the same level of ambivalence about whether higher education should be, well…academic.
The anti-testing folks have quite predictably seized on the scandal to argue that there really isn’t that much of a difference between outright fraud and paying a lot of money for test-prep tutoring, and that therefore standardized testing should be deemphasized (or eliminated). This is a solution in search of a problem. Yes, testing fraud did occur (obviously), but largely so that students could be admitted on athletic grounds. A non-recruited, non-hooked applicant from a non-feeder school who paid for fraudulent scores, or who scored well only after thousands of dollars for tutoring, would still stand only a minuscule chance of admission at an elite college. There are advantages that get you baseline consideration, and then there are advantages that get you in; somehow that point keeps getting missed.
In a NY Times article entitled “Is the College Cheating Scandal the ‘Final Straw’ for Standardized Tests,” however, the fact that the scandal primarily revolved around athletics goes virtually unmentioned; the entire piece is focused on the assertion that because some students managed to cheat, admissions testing should be completely abolished. Huh? What about, you know, having better test security? Pieces in The Atlantic and WaPo likewise make anti-testing arguments.
Amazingly, I have not yet encountered one single article devoted to the argument that athletic recruitment should be abolished.
And as was reported in another NYT piece:
The charges against the parents, who include Hollywood actresses and powerful executives, have exposed how thin the line is between admissions help that most middle-class families consider not just legitimate but de rigueur, like sending a child to a Kaplan class for SAT help, and outright fraud, like paying a ringer to take the test for the student.
Here is my response (which at last check was the top-ranked comment):
No, this is not a thin line; it’s a clear, thick one. The parents involved in this scandal paid thousands of dollars to have their children’s scores outright falsified. That is in a fundamentally different category from tutoring, which requires students to put in the time studying between sessions and to actually sit for the exam. As a former tutor, I also speak from considerable experience when I say that tutoring isn’t a guarantee of anything, regardless of how much money is involved. If students don’t do their homework, if they don’t pay attention during sessions, if they get distracted during a test because the kid in the next row was tapping his pencil… that’s a lot of money down the drain. The parents in this case did not simply hire tutors because they did not want to leave anything to chance, and because they most likely assumed that even with tutoring, their children’s scores would still be too low. Yes, test prep obviously helps *some* students immensely (as does equally expensive subject tutoring, which allows well-off students to bolster their transcripts), but please don’t conflate these two issues.
Just once—once!—I would like to hear someone argue that because families can pay for school-based tutoring, then students’ grades should not be considered in college admissions. Obviously, that’s not going to happen, but… I don’t say this in jest. I worked for families who, on top of $50K/year (per child) in private school tuition, paid tens of thousands of dollars in additional year fees for their progeny to get tutored in multiple subjects. Their entire transcripts had effectively been gamed (and let’s not even get into the demands for extra credit, for exam retakes, for more heavily weighted participation grades…) But most people don’t even realize that this kind of thing goes on—it’s too outlandish, too far removed from the average family’s experience. And, needless to say, the wealthy do not exactly want to advertise these kinds of privileges. In contrast, SAT tutoring is a much more familiar concept, more broadly available, and thus a much easier target.
So strong is the belief in the miraculous powers of test-prep that alternate possibilities constitute what amounts to a blind spot in the minds of the chattering classes:
As Molly Roberts put it in a WaPo article about the scandal:
The plot has prompted a mix of outrage and cynicism. On the one hand, the level of deceit is appalling. On the other, parents pay for their children to attend elite educational institutions, albeit in ways that are legal, all the time — by making a major donation, say, or simply by hiring an SAT tutor. But it is in part because there are alternate routes the rich can take to the tip of the ivory tower that these parents’ alleged decision to fork over hundreds of thousands of dollars in secret is so perplexing.
In fact, there is absolutely nothing perplexing about this.Tutoring doesn’t always work; the parents in question understood this perfectly well—better, in fact, than the average NYT or WaPo journalist, it seems. In this sense, the irony of the whole scandal is that it’s actually a pretty good argument in favor of standardized testing. Even really rich people don’t normally risk going to jail if they are certain to get what they want by throwing a lot of money at a problem legally!
From a sociological perspective, though, the reflexive impulse to use standardized testing as the default whipping boy is kind of fascinating, especially since the holistic application process favors the wealthy at every single level. It’s like a tic in the American psyche; the notion of being judged by a test on which there are right and wrong answers (the horror!) is perceived as an intolerable threat to the individual’s right to believe whatever he or she damn well pleases.
I don’t hear anyone seriously suggesting that colleges stop considering extracurricular activities or essays because of the amount of money/assistance some applicants receive with them; or that former admissions officers be barred from accepting college-counseling positions at private schools; or that guidance-counselor letters be abolished since many public-school counselors must handle caseloads of hundreds of students, while private-school counselors may have fewer than 20; or that colleges be required to evaluate applicants without considering their school’s traditional relationship with that institution (reducing the feeder-school advantage); or that the College Board and the ACT screen implement a standardized, easily-accessible, free, and rigorous screening process for extra time, reducing the advantage for students whose parents can easily shell out $5000 for a full neuropsych workup. And so on.
No, those kinds of proposals are never even considered.
I suspect that when the well-off rail against standardized testing, there’s more than a modicum of self-interest at play as well. For some students, the SAT and ACT may be the first test on which they cannot beg for extra credit, or partial credit, or try to renegotiate their grade, or have their parents try to cajole/bully the teacher into giving them a better grade, or… well, you get the picture. At schools that have eliminated major exams (e.g., midterms and finals) in order to emphasize project-based or “collaborative” learning, students may have little experience preparing for cumulative exams at all, or even working independently and focusing for long stretches. It’s much easier to shoot the messenger than to deal with the implications of these possibilities.
Moreover, the fact that so many students now suddenly seem to require so much tutoring, even as the SAT has gotten easier, calls into question what on earth students are actually doing for all those hours a day in school. It should go without saying that parents should not need to pay hundreds of dollars an hour for someone to teach their teenagers that a statement beginning with a pronoun can still be a sentence; or that a semicolon is grammatically identical to a period; or what words like nevertheless and indeed mean. The fact that parents accept that these things are not covered in schools and are willing to dole out astronomical sums to have their children taught them suggests that something is really very wrong with the whole system. (I’ve asked it before, and I’ll ask it again: does learning the difference between a sentence and a fragment count as “gaming” the test? Half the time when people use that phrase, I sincerely don’t know what they’re talking about, and I’m not sure they do either.) That some of the students involved were scoring in the 19-22 range on their own suggests that they had really gaping holes in their knowledge. Legitimate tutoring wouldn’t have just (maybe) boosted their scores; it would have likely taught them some very important fundamentals. But making the exams optional would allow everyone to bury their heads even further in the sand.
The bottom line, I think, is that there is no way for a handful of elite colleges to compensate for the massive educational disparities that inevitably shape what students bring to the admissions process. At best, they can tinker around the edges; a true systemic overhaul would be too threatening to their finances as well as their coveted status among the upper classes. (Putting too heavy an emphasis on academics, for example, would be a turnoff to a lot of prep school kids who expect to work hard but not too hard—there’s a reason that the percentage of private schoolers at MIT is much smaller than at Harvard.) As institutions, they’re simply too conservative to take those kinds of risks. They’ve managed to make the balancing act work for a long time, and presumably they’ll take whatever small steps they need to take to contain the fallout, then put their heads down and wait for the whole thing to blow over.