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The real college admissions scandal is what’s legal

The fraud only worked because the whole system is corrupt.

William “Rick” Singer departs federal court in Boston
William “Rick” Singer, founder of the Edge College & Career Network, departs federal court in Boston on March 12, 2019. Singer pleaded guilty to fraud charges.
Steven Senne/AP
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

The details of the revelations that wealthy parents allegedly paid a consultant hundreds of thousands of dollars to portray their children as successful athletes, thus giving them a leg up in elite college admissions, are enticingly, delightfully juicy. (Jane Coaston’s explainer has some of the best anecdotes, including students being portrayed as top recruits in sports they’d never even played.)

But underneath the celebrity gossip and the choice anecdotes is the inescapable conclusion that the whole business of being admitted to elite colleges in America in 2019 — and make no mistake, it is a business — is corrupt all the way down.

When the Justice Department held a press conference Tuesday to announce fraud charges against dozens of people, including consultant William “Rick” Singer and actress Felicity Huffman, FBI special agent Joseph R. Bonavolonta described the scheme as “a sham that strikes at the core of the college admissions process.”

But what it revealed is just how rotten that core is. If the only goal of the college admissions process in America were to create a perfect educational environment for students — not to appease wealthy donors or boost the school’s brand through athletics — the fraud wouldn’t have worked at all.

The real scandal, as they say, is what’s legal.

The scheme only worked because college admissions in America is broken

The underlying logic of the scheme was this: Wealthy parents wanted to get their kids into elite colleges, but their kids had so-so grades and test scores that wouldn’t qualify them for admission through the usual process. Happily for them, college admissions isn’t a level playing field.

The children of alumni get a leg up. So do the children of major donors; a recent lawsuit over Harvard’s admissions policies revealed the details of how they are treated as much as revenue generators as they are for their potential as students. And athletes are routinely admitted with lower grades and test scores than other students.

None of these advantages in the admissions process typically attract as much attention and outrage as the most notorious admissions preference: race-based affirmative action. That outrage rarely considers that, legally, affirmative action cannot exist merely to help individual students overcome discrimination. Colleges, according to the Supreme Court, can consider race in admissions only to educationally benefit all students on campus by creating a racially diverse environment, and only if considering race is the only way to create that environment.

There is no similar requirement to justify the admission of legacy students, donors’ children, or athletes. It does not matter if Jared Kushner — who got into college on the back of a $2.5 million gift — added anything to his classmates’ time at Harvard. It is enough that it was in Harvard’s interest to admit him.

Singer allegedly exploited the admissions preference for athletes by turning mediocre high school students, through bribery and photo editing, into mediocre students with athletic promise. It worked.

There is no academic reason for that preference to exist. Athletes with lower grades and test scores can slip into a freshman class because an excellent athletic program is very much in the college’s interests. (Most students who benefit from these preferences are already white and well-off: They’re from families who could afford to support years of tennis, golf, or lacrosse.) Good sports teams win championships, and championships win the university money, recognition, and the goodwill and donations of alumni. In some sports, and at some of the colleges targeted in the scheme uncovered by the Justice Department, the spoils extend to TV contracts worth billions of dollars.

The influence of athletics in the university extends far beyond football and basketball: Colleges that try to eliminate a “non-revenue sport,” like wrestling, fencing, or gymnastics, risk offending deep-pocketed alumni with fond memories of their college years on the wrestling mat; colleges whose swimmers or soccer players succeed can end up covered in borrowed Olympic glory. (Those colleges will soon be advertising themselves with a new slogan: “Olympians Made Here.”) All that revenue only rarely trickles down to the students, the ones whose bodies are actually on the line.

Singer’s scheme, as described by prosecutors, likely harmed a handful of truly talented athletes who lost their places in a college’s freshman class to a student whose athletic record was allegedly faked with bribes and photoshop. They should rightfully feel injured.

For the rest of us, it’s worth remembering that Singer’s plan only worked because colleges are willing to give athletes an advantage in the first place. In a world where colleges put the academic interests of all students first and foremost, desperate parents would likely still be willing to pay unscrupulous consultants. But their money would be wasted.

The crisis of confidence in higher education

One response to the fraud case has been incredulity not at its existence but at its intricate and seemingly superfluous criminality. If you’ve got hundreds of thousands of dollars to spare and a kid with a subpar academic record, the thinking goes, why not just make a big donation to their college of choice and win your child’s admission (and get a tax deduction to boot)? Why mess around with this whole cloak-and-dagger business of paying test takers, bribing coaches, and photoshopping pictures?

The answer, according to the complaint, is that merely getting a “second look” from the admissions committee, the kind a big donation could buy you, wasn’t enough; parents wanted the ironclad guarantee that only a college coach’s sterling recommendation could give them. (Pause and think about that.)

But the mere fact of bribery was not, on its own, shocking (including to me). Colleges are increasingly seen for what they are: another system that the wealthy can game.

At 38 colleges, including Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, and the University of Pennsylvania, there are more students from the top 1 percent of families by income than the bottom 60 percent (families making $65,000 or less per year), according to a 2017 New York Times analysis.

Many of these students, one presumes, won admission not through big donations and bribes but from the years of advantages that accrue from wealth: good schools, test prep, tutoring, private sports and music lessons, and so on, and none of the toxic stress that comes with poverty.

Others got there by less scrupulous means. The details of the legal schemes the wealthy undertake to get their children into top schools can be just as intriguing, and damning, as the Justice Department’s court filings: A lawsuit on Harvard’s admission practices recently revealed that the college maintains a secret list of applicants who are the relatives of major donors.

One student whose family donated $1.1 million got a special campus tour from the former head tennis coach — “we rolled out the red carpet,” he said, according to the Harvard Crimson. It’s not clear if the student was eventually admitted, but students on the donor list have a 42 percent acceptance rate. Harvard overall accepted 4.6 percent of students in 2018.

And $1.1 million is less than one family paid Singer to win admission to the University of Southern California, whose endowment is about one-eighth the size of Harvard’s. The details of the scandal the Justice Department uncovered are notable not because rich people try to buy their way into higher education, but because these particular rich people went about it all wrong.

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