Schools of higher education in the United States are no doubt in a reflective mood about the meaning of institutional integrity. On Monday, the FBI announced 50 indictments related to fraud and bribery in the admissions process of several elite universities. More indictments are expected.
The federal charges point a finger at both wealthy parents who cheated to get their children into prestigious schools as well as school workers who assisted them, especially athletic coaches. Yet while the institutions seem blameless, they do bear ultimate responsibility for the incentives that drove the scandal – and the solutions to prevent a similar one.
Few universities today see themselves as a vehicle for learning virtues to live a full life. Most now aim to ensure a lucrative career for graduates and to signal social worth for them. Education has become more a consumer commodity and less a guide to civic values and moral progress. The mere acceptance into a top-flight school has become an end in itself followed by receiving a diploma that bestows status.
In 1966, The American Freshman Survey found 86 percent of entering students saw higher education a way to discover a meaningful approach to life. Less than half wanted to be “very well off financially.” By 2015, the survey found 82 percent preferred the aim of making money while only 45 percent sought meaning. No wonder so many parents try to rig the admissions process to give a child an unfair leg-up.
The competitive incentives to cheat on applications, testing, and other parts of the process are huge. In addition, many schools give preferences for admission not based on merit. In a 2015 survey by Kaplan Test Prep, a quarter of admission officers said they felt pressure from their schools to accept an applicant who didn’t meet the requirements.
The answer to the illegal or unethical manipulation of admissions is to make sure schools are a community of learners – including teachers – dedicated to character formation, not just intellectual achievements. The message must go out to all staff in higher education that values such as honesty and trust are part of the entire school experience. They are a public good that can be nurtured in the thinking of young people. Some colleges, such as Tulane University in New Orleans, promote the “core values” expected in campus life, including in the admissions process.
When schools provide constant models for integrity, they can inspire staff, students, and parents to see education as developing qualities of thought. The incentives to cut corners should go away.