October 17, 2019; Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Chronicle Review”
It’s been more than six months since we learned the sordid details from Operation Varsity Blues and Rick Singer received his 15 minutes of fame. We were shocked then about the unscrupulous college admissions advisor and his clients who, desperate to get their children admitted, gamed the system, paid bribes and made questionable donations. Indictments, trials, plea bargains, prison sentences and public scorn followed. But the system that encouraged them remains in place.
At the time the story broke, Steve Dubb, writing for NPQ, asked us to look beyond the individual story: “The question that remains is whether we will take this cultural crisis at the heart of our sector seriously. Or, will the latest college admission scandal be dismissed, once again, as just a few bad apples in an otherwise functional system?”
According to Daniel Golden, writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education, we have moved on, ignoring larger systemic problems. “Colleges have portrayed themselves as helpless victims,” Golden says. “They have no one to blame but themselves.”
So the parents charged in the current case followed customary practices of the entitled: hiring a private counselor, getting test help and participating in a patrician sport. The difference is that they allegedly took blatant short cuts: The counselor was unscrupulous, a stand-in secretly took the tests, and the applicants didn’t play those sports. But, without the tilted system of preferences already in place, the parents would have had to choose a different route—or actually let merit determine their children’s college destiny.
In an earlier Washington Post article, Golden made even more biting claims.
Such allegedly criminal tactics represent the logical, if extreme, outgrowth of practices that have long been prevalent under the surface of college admissions, and that undermine the American credos of upward mobility and equal opportunity. Although top college administrators and admissions officials were apparently unaware of the deception, their institutions do bear some responsibility for developing and perpetuating the system that made it possible.
Institutions of higher education, both public and private, are ravenous for philanthropic investment. Combined with the presence of more applicants than openings, this creates an opportunity for wealthy parents to make gifts in search of a place for their children at the front of the line.
Facing such daunting odds, some rich parents worry that a big gift to one school may no longer be enough. From 2011 through 2017, the latest year for which public filings are available, Wall Street tycoon David Shaw hedged his bets by ponying up $1 million a year to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford, at least $500,000 a year to Columbia and Brown, and (starting in 2013) $200,000 a year to MIT, for a grand total of $37.3 million. His two older children both enrolled at Yale; the youngest is still in high school.
Such gifts don’t go unnoticed. “The University of Virginia’s fundraising office flagged applicants from wealthy alumni and donor families for special treatment,” Golden writes. “Entries on a ‘watch list’ urged that one such candidate, initially rejected, ‘must be’ wait-listed and ‘if at all possible’ accepted. The terse explanation: ‘500k.’”
Beside the direct power of donated wealth, one can see more subtle touches to tip the balance of the scales of admissions. It’s common to hear cries of unfairness over schools’ affirmative action efforts to include more people of color and those of more limited wealth. But more important to the decision of who gets into a school is who our parents are: “legacies,” the children of alumni, remain the population that benefits most from this brand of action.
The wealthy can also take full advantage of early-admissions policies, which privilege those who don’t need to apply to multiple schools in search of the best financial aid package. They can pay for help in preparing their applications and in studying for standardized tests. They can round out their profiles by competing in high school athletics and participating in other extracurricular activities without the pressure to hold a part-time job or care for siblings.
With little visible movement to change these underlying features of the admission system, there is little reason to believe we will not soon see headlines of Operation Varsity Blues II. The opportunities for bribery and scamming remain in waiting for the next unscrupulous parent or adviser.—Martin Levine