That Aunt Becky was named in the complaint made it a lock that it would be front page news, but charges against 33 “affluent parents,” not to mention college coaches and others, put the lie to the cries that the only unfairness in college admissions was the dark hole of diversity. It’s a cesspool all around.
When it was time for my son to go to college, I did everything possible to “game” his admission, from prep courses to training with the best fencing coaches to enhance his interests as an athletic recruit. What I did not do is what Willke Farr co-chair Gordon Caplan is alleged to have done, buy my kid’s admission.
I didn’t even know such a thing was possible, but to be honest, if I was ever inclined to bribe someone, it would be for the benefit my kids.
While much of the indictment reflects some obvious crimes, such as team coaches taking bribes to admit kids who never sailed in their life as sailing team recruits, and proctors giving answers for standardized tests, the alleged crimes of the parents emit a different odor.
The key distinction here is not just the amount of money, but the recipient. A donation is made to a college, while a bribe is paid to an employee who, in effect, is stealing an admissions slot, hawking it and pocketing the proceeds. (To comply with tax laws, donors also cannot engage in an explicit quid pro quo with a college. The well-rehearsed pas de deux of donations and admissions must be made to appear as a voluntary exchange of gifts, not a binding deal.)
From the perspective of the obsessed parent, does it really matter who gets the money? They’re paying it out one way or the other, and the only thing they want to know is whether the investment will pay off.* Parents inclined to do everything in their power to facilitate their child’s admission to college have a cottage industry available for them, from helping students to get better SAT or ACT scores to writing their college essays.
If it’s available, and parents believe it will help, some will do it. Some will pay a great deal of money to do it. And some will pay that money directly to a guy who guarantees admission, especially when they can write it off as a charitable deduction.
The allegations underscore the urgency many American parents feel about securing a place for their progeny at a selective college. In an era when most Americans are struggling to succeed economically, many of those who have prospered are terrified that their children will not get every opportunity to replicate that success.
Is it unfair that some parents have the financial ability to give their children benefits that others cannot? There’s a laundry list of “side doors” to college admissions, even if most people don’t have a firm understanding of how they work. Most of the “tricks” add points to the student’s potential admission score, rather than provide an assurance of admission. Even a legacy applicant isn’t getting into Harvard with an 800 SAT, unless daddy can build a really, really big library.
But from legacy to athletic recruits to diversity, it’s all unfair if some other kid has a leg up on your kid.
This is infuriating for parents and students who chose to play by the rules in seeking college admission — or had no choice but to do so. But no one should be under the illusion those rules are strictly meritocratic.
Merit is not easily defined. American colleges have long valued athletic ability, a quality rarely considered in college admissions elsewhere in the developed world. Schools similarly may value artistic talent, or other forms of merit not closely correlated with grades or standardized tests. And colleges have a legitimate interest in emphasizing various forms of diversity.
To a great extent, college admissions has brought this on itself. Had it been grades and standardized testing scores alone, we could compare apples to apples. But it’s a black hole for parents and students. How does one “play by the rules” when there aren’t any rules, when no one can say with certainty that they’ll be admitted to the college of their dreams? It’s that uncertainty that pushes parents who have the wherewithal to help their children to do more, pay more, if it gives their kid the edge.
Wealthy families often spend heavily to groom their children as candidates for admissions to selective colleges. Private school tuition, tutoring and test preparation classes, campus visits and coaches who help to write personal essays are all advantages largely unavailable to less affluent students, irrespective of innate talent. Paying for tutoring is different from paying someone to take a test for you — but students without money don’t have either option.
There is a substantive difference between doing everything possible to enhance a student’s likelihood to be admitted versus bribing the coach or cheating on the SATs. That the opportunity to do so is denied poor students is a dubious way to frame the problem. Would it be better if poor students had a way to bribe people as well? As grandpa always said, rich or poor, it’s good to have money. It’s one of the reasons people strive to achieve financial success, so that they have the resources that make life a little easier for themselves and their progeny. Nobody dreams of a future of poverty for their children.
Whether students are admitted because their parents paid for a boathouse, or because their parents bribed the sailing coach, it is still the case that merit alone is not deciding the issue.
This begs the question, is there such a thing as objective “merit”? Is merit one thing, or a thousand intangibles. While wealth isn’t merit, is skin color, or country of origin, or overcoming horrible obstacles? Is it unfair that kids from wealthy families can’t write essays about their experience of being homeless that bring tears to the admissions reader’s eyes?
A handful of parents tried to shortcut the system and got nailed for it. What they stole isn’t entirely clear, as it looks little different than what every other parent tries to game in their own way. But if it’s wrong, as it clearly appears to be, what of the rest of the black box of admissions that’s no more “fair” to anyone, despite every effort to game the game to the extent they possibly can?
*For about a year of a parent and student’s life, which college they go to becomes an obsession. Whether it should, or is a delusion, is another matter.