Commentary: College admissions scandal reminds students to seek the best fit for their educations

In this March 12, file photo, Newport Beach resident William “Rick” Singer, founder of the Edge College & Career Network, departs federal court in Boston after he pleaded guilty to charges in a nationwide college admissions bribery scandal.
(Photo by Steven Senne / AP)

In the last few months, there have been some widely publicized college admission scandals. Some of those indicted even trustees at the local Sage Hill High School, right down the street from my family’s house in Newport Beach.

Having known the president of Sage Hill, Gordon McNeil, since he was a teacher at Corona del Mar High School, I can say even a man of impeccable character and integrity such as McNeil and a high-quality student body can be faced with tough decisions concerning policy among a hyper-competitive environment that emphasizes prestige and rank.

Around the top circles, there is discussion of how to create a more-level playing field. At my prestigious Ivy League alma mater and similar schools, there is discussion of releasing names of legacy students, donors, etc. As a legacy student myself, I wonder how such a policy of preferential admissions affected me or whether changing things will create a different campus community in the future.

In China, the problem is amplified. Sadly, the Chinese education industry has an obsession with ranking, hiring based solely on someone graduating from a top-ranked university, and outright misrepresentation of results in order to lure more families to sign up for services or high schools attached to well-known universities. In reality, these are all privately owned services designed to make money, rather than promote Western standards of educational integrity, service, and community.

Sadly, many Westerners are complicit in such illegal and unethical behavior. With my own eyes, I have seen numerous people from the United States, United Kingdom and Canada claim they are fully hooded doctors of education when they are only students of a degree program.

So, what is the solution to this excessive amount of attention focused on getting into top-ranked schools? The first seems to be focusing on fit and quality rather than rank and prestige. I have worked hard to promote the merits of community colleges, such as Orange Coast College, showing that they can have all the major faculty, facilities and opportunities of a big-name school like UCLA.

The second, a deeper and more subtle approach, involves using information to change the narrative about college quality. In many societies, such as China, Japan, Korea, India or the U.K., ranking can indicate quality much more than it does in the United States. Rank often determines funding, quality of student body via national entrance exam scores and recruitment hiring. However, I have seen that in the U.S. system, it is individual programs within a university that get recruiting rather than the big-name university itself.

I champion community colleges because they are inclusive in the spirit of open university systems such as those in Europe, while also allowing credit to count for degrees at four-year universities. This allows for numerous low-cost opportunities with the opportunity to gain rank and prestige if someone can only forego it for a matter of years or even months.

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Former Newport Beach resident Joseph Klunder is a teacher, educational consultant and author in Beijing.

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