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America to elite colleges: Shape up (but please let us in).

Why We Wrote This

Analyzing what’s wrong with college admissions became a pastime for Americans this week. At the heart of the discussion is a desire for fair opportunities to get ahead. 

Ben Margot/AP
Students walk on the Stanford University campus in Santa Clara County, California. In the first lawsuit to come out of the college bribery scandal, several students are suing Yale, Georgetown, Stanford, and other schools named in the case, saying they and others were denied a fair shot at admission.

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When the college admissions scandal erupted this week, it landed in the middle of a societal crisis of sorts. Finding out wealthy people were buying their way into elite institutions, while not surprising to many, fed the breakdown in faith people are experiencing about America being a land of opportunity, observers say. Even though only a few students can get into prestigious schools, there’s still a sense that the process should be fair and promote social mobility.

Getting there from here may take time. But ideas about how to reach those goals are already emerging: eliminating tax breaks for donations made to schools if the donor’s child is in or nearing enrollment, for example. Also being raised: getting rid of preferential treatment for legacy students and reducing federal loans to force schools to lower prices to attract students. 

The common thread among the reactions is a focus on fairness. “Our profession doesn’t need a scandal to remind us of our ethical obligations,” says Todd Rinehart, who oversees enrollment at the University of Denver. “The silver lining in this scandal is that more schools might take a deeper dive to analyze inequities and barriers that exist on their campuses.”

Photoshopping a student’s head on an athlete’s body. Bribing proctors to fix exam scores. The charges in the college admissions scandal read like a made-for-TV script.

But beyond the immediate flow of outrage, calls are coming to hold a prism up to the spotlight and examine a whole rainbow of critiques of higher education. One is focused on the seeming reluctance of wealthy campuses to promote social mobility rather than replicate privilege. Another seeks to tamp down the pressure placed on teens to land a spot at a tiny number of elite schools.

Many who would like to see reforms feel impatient for change, but it can be slow in a system comprising thousands of diverse and autonomous institutions.

“Higher education, for a host of complicated reasons, has become one of those social institutions that people love and hate at same time,” says Barmak Nassirian, director of federal policy at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

The larger societal backdrop, he suggests, is a breakdown of people’s faith in America as a land of opportunity, which is “taking a back seat to a more grim reality of economic anxiety. People are looking for pathways…. Society should be able to tell its youngsters what it is they can concretely do to get ahead.”

Beyond just catching people who go to the extreme of breaking the law in order to get their kids through a “side door,” many say there’s a need for scrutiny of elite schools’ admissions practices, their relationship with donors, and their competition in college rankings. Low-income and first-generation students continue to face steep barriers to top schools.

Members of Congress from both parties have called for hearings and more oversight in the wake of the scandal.

“I will soon be introducing legislation that would end the tax break for donations made to schools before or during the enrollment of children of the donor’s family,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, in a statement March 13. “If the wealthy want to grease the skids, they shouldn’t be able to do so at the expense of American taxpayers.”

Brian Snyder/Reuters
William 'Rick' Singer leaves the federal courthouse after facing charges in a nationwide college admissions cheating scheme in Boston on March 12.

A silver lining? 

College admissions officers share the goal of a fair process that broadens access to college, says Todd Rinehart, who led the rewrite of the ethics code for the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) and oversees enrollment at the University of Denver.

“Our profession doesn’t need a scandal to remind us of our ethical obligations…. The silver lining in this scandal is that more schools might take a deeper dive to analyze inequities and barriers that exist on their campuses,” he writes in an email interview.

Admissions officers haven’t been implicated in the federal case against 50 people. Dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues,” it is the largest such investigation by the FBI, allegedly involving $25 million in bribes to get students into top schools.

But the relationship between admissions and athletic departments is a focal point of discussion because college coaches – in sports such as water polo, tennis, and sailing – are among those accused of taking bribes to put students on their list of recruits.

William “Rick” Singer, CEO of the Edge College & Career Network LLC (“The Key”), a college consulting company, said he was at the center of such schemes and pleaded guilty March 12 in Boston to racketeering, fraud, money laundering, and obstruction of justice. The institutions, such as Yale, UCLA, and Georgetown, were not targets of the investigation, and no students have been charged.

But even selective admissions practices that are legal are in need of reform, says Daniel Golden, author of “The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges – and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates” and senior editor at ProPublica.

“There’s a series of rules I would love to adopt if I was the ‘czar,’ ” he says. “I would eliminate legacy preferences … [and] preferences for recruited athletes in sports that only rich people play.” He would also make admissions officers recuse themselves when they know an applicant’s family.

The schools haven’t adopted such ideas, says Mr. Golden, a graduate of Harvard, because “they’re scared to imperil fundraising.”

Rare criminal cases shouldn’t be used to paint the whole system as corrupt, Mr. Rinehart and other higher-ed administrators say. Athletic recruits, legacy applicants, or students with special talents “may be given additional consideration, but that doesn’t always equate to offers of admission,” he says.

As the husband of the University of Denver’s gymnastics coach, Mr. Rinehart recuses himself from the review of any gymnastics prospects.

If someone suspects an ethical violation in a college’s admission process, they can report it to NACAC for investigation.

On Wednesday, March 13, some students filed a class-action lawsuit seeking the return of application fees from the eight schools named in the charges, saying rejected applicants deserved a process free from fraud. And a mother whose son was rejected from one of the schools filed a class-action suit against dozens of the accused individuals.  

“The collateral damage is the kids. That’s the sad thing,” said Donald Heller, an attorney for Mr. Singer, who hung his head as the two left the federal courthouse in Boston after the hourlong hearing. “He’s remorseful for getting involved,” Mr. Heller added. The charges could carry up to 65 years in prison, though Mr. Singer is cooperating and hoping for leniency.

Obsession with select schools 

While damage may have been caused to students whose parents were charged, the broader concern is about the degree to which people fixate on brand-name schools.

“Underlying all of this is an unhealthy and unnecessary obsession by some parents to push their children into a select number of colleges even though our country offers many excellent choices among the best colleges and universities in the world,” Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the Senate education committee, said in a statement emailed to the Monitor.

Among similar applicants, those who attend elite schools and those who attend less selective schools end up earning about the same later in life (although it does make some difference for low-income students), researchers have found.

For such students, it’s not the college but their “ability and motivation and willingness to work hard [that] are the primary factors affecting success and satisfaction,” says Joshua Dunn, a political science professor at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs.

Changing mindsets, regulations

But that message is hard to get through to students and parents who think they have a shot at those coveted elites. The highly selective colleges are partly to blame because they court way more students than they will ever accept, says Sally Rubenstone, senior contributor for College Confidential, an online advice and discussion forum.

“I can’t tell you how many times a student has said to me, ‘Well, I wasn’t going to apply to Harvard, but I got this letter suggesting I apply, and now my dad says I have to,’ ” she says.

The fee-based college-advising sector could be ripe for regulation, especially in the wake of this scandal, but with such a high ratio of students to counselors in high schools, many families will continue to pay for help in choosing, applying, and financing college.

One refreshing trend, Ms. Rubenstone says, is that more are becoming wary of taking on too much debt. “I get questions from students who say ‘I got into my dream school, which is an Ivy, but I can also go to this public university on a merit scholarship.’ ”

Taking another view of mounting college debt, Mary Clare Amselem, policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, advocates for reducing federal loans to force schools to lower prices to attract students. To get higher education to become less oriented around fancy degrees and more responsive to the workplace, she also proposes to “revamp the accreditation system to encourage innovation.”

The current model focused on brick-and-mortar campuses “makes it very difficult for innovative new providers to come in … to train the future workforce,” she says. “They have a very hard time competing with the Harvards of the world.”

Noble Ingram contributed to this story from Boston.

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