The indictment of dozens of wealthy parents, including several Hollywood actresses and business leaders, along with the top college athletic coaches they allegedly bribed, tells a shocking story of corruption and deception in college admissions. If the charges are true, these privileged but desperate parents sought to ensure spots at elite schools for their children by pretending they were top flight athletes, helping them cheat on standardized tests, and paying off college officials, among other things.
Well-known designer Mossimo Giannulli was among those charged, along with actress Felicity Huffman. Coaches allegedly pocketed millions of dollars in some cases for their role in helping get the children admitted.
But let’s not kid ourselves. This is simply the extreme and egregious (and, prosecutors say, illegal) edge of a college admissions process that is already heavily weighted with subtle and unsubtle forms of favoritism for the rich, empowered and connected. The offspring of major donors generally receive favorable treatment at private colleges, as do the children of alumni, who tend to be a far more privileged group than other applicants.
Furthermore, the parents of affluent children commonly hire private college-admissions counselors who sometimes edit or rewrite — or even write — student essays for them and coach them intensively through the process. These techniques are not illegal. In 2016, journalist Jia Tolentino wrote in the publication Jezebel about her years supporting herself by charging wealthy families $150 an hour to write or rewrite their teens’ essays.
In a more extreme example, the college counseling company Ivy Coach charged one woman $1.5 million to smooth her daughter’s path to an Ivy League college.
The admissions advantage given to athletes also helps rich kids nab coveted spots at elite schools. According to a 2016 report by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, “The popular notion that recruited athletes tend to come from minority and indigent families turns out to be just false; at least among the highly selective institutions, the vast bulk of recruited athletes are in sports that are rarely available to low-income, particularly urban, applicants.” It turns out that football and basketball players are far outnumbered by those engaged in sports that aren’t found in most urban public high schools: fencing, crew, sailing, water polo, equestrian events and the like. Once admitted, the report said, these athletes underperform academically.
Wealthier parents have also gamed the part of the college application in which students show that they have engaged in meaningful community service, often by sending their children on high-priced trips to villages in developing countries, where they help build playgrounds or coach kids’ soccer in between their recreational tourist activities. At the more ambitious end, Richard Weissbourd, lead author of a Harvard University report on problematic college-admissions policies, said he knows of wealthy parents who shelled out money to start a nonprofit school in Botswana just so their daughter could claim on her college application that she had created it; another family did the same with a clinic in Bali.
Any students currently in college as a result of outright bribery should have their admission revoked. Whether or not they consciously participated, their presence at college is based on fraud — and the seats they’re filling could be taken by other students with legitimate credentials.
But colleges cannot claim to be the hapless victims of parental manipulation of the admissions process. Despite their supposed belief in a system of merit-based admissions, the reality is that they have created and tolerated a lopsided system that, despite some efforts to the contrary, continues to benefit the rich over potentially more deserving students with lesser means.
Colleges could start fixing this by eliminating the admissions preference for children of alumni, by demanding strong academic performance from all applicants including athletes and by forbidding students to use paid professional help to complete their applications. Students in better-funded schools would still have advantages, but not by as much as they do when they hire private outside counselors. Applicants should have to sign a statement that their essays represent solely their work, and that they understand their admission will be revoked if it's found otherwise. Applicants would still lie here and there, and it is not clear what meaningful enforcement there could be. But at least students — and their desperate parents — might hesitate if they knew they'd be committing fraud.
At the very least, it would send a message that colleges are serious about leveling the slanted playing field of admissions.