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When I saw that celebrities were involved, I knew that this admissions scandal would be different. It was going to go viral. The colleges involved would be forced to take action and every university across the country would have to defend its admissions process.
For those of us who work in the college prep industry, none of it was surprising. We know better than anyone the reality of college admissions: they’re unfair.
At the most selective universities, in particular, there are always students who have an
advantage. It’s not always in the form of an outright bribe – it’s even more bizarre than that. Some students have a birthright to certain colleges. Their applications are reviewed with an asterisk because these kids have legacy status. There are also student-athletes, whose applications are looked at with a pair of rose-colored glasses because they might not bring anything to the classroom, but they will bring ticket sales to the athletic department. And let’s not forget that all schools have to balance the objective and subjective evaluations of each applicant and the reviewers of these applications are all people who bring their own biases and preferences to the table. So yeah, it’s messy.
So what can schools learn in the fallout of the college admissions scandal? Quite a bit, I think.
#1 – There is an overemphasis on test scores.
Standardized tests like the SAT and ACT are supposed to give colleges an objective measure of each student’s academic skillset, but let’s be honest: they’re testing nothing more than test-taking ability. And as it turns out, a lot of brilliant students struggle with multiple-choice exams.
But what’s particularly important to consider is that these tests are supposed to be an equalizer, and they’re quite the opposite. As we saw in the scandal, some parents can afford to cheat the system.
There’s also a much larger class of parents who can afford expensive test prep to teach their children test-taking strategies to improve scores.
And once again, low-income families are stuck with the short end of the stick. At best, they have access to free resources. And a lot of free resources are really great. But they’re only useful to students if they can afford the luxury of free time and don’t have to work after school.
Colleges look at test scores because U.S. News looks at test scores. Check out their process and it’s pretty obvious that [spoiler alert] college rankings are total bullsh*t.
I think that in the wake of the scandal, all colleges should be re-evaluating the weight of test scores on their applications. Subjective data points like college essays aren’t perfect either, but I think it says a lot more about a student when she takes the time to answer additional (and optional) essay prompts to display her interest in a university than when she has high test scores.
#2 – College athletes are held to lower admissions standards. And academia pays for it.
Before you come out and accuse me of saying that college athletes are stupid, I’m going to stop you right there. I’ve worked with absolutely brilliant college athletes. I’ve seen students who shine in the classroom and on the field. Academic prowess and athletic ability are not mutually exclusive qualities in a person and I think there are plenty of students who are exemplary in both.
But since the scheme often involved faking sports ability to have more lenient academic evaluations, we have to talk about this loophole. The reality is, college sports are a recruitment pool for professional leagues, and the professional leagues get access to this pool of talent free of charge. Colleges bankroll the athletic department at the expense of the core of their institution: academics.
Many colleges allocate superfluous funding to their athletic departments, chartering private flights every week and putting students up at nice hotels, while academic departments on campus struggle to find the funding to cater small events. They pay coaches millions of dollars each year while some professors have to take on side hustles to pay the bills. Some schools have even tried to tack additional fees on student bills to give athletic departments more spending money.
And the reality is, most student athletes won’t even play in the professional leagues. And for those students, they’re counting on their education to help them land a job after college, not their sport. So when athletes are admitted into universities that they are not academically prepared for, they struggle. I was talking to one of my college professors this morning and she told me how unfair it is to these student-athletes, how they constantly have to play catch-up in school, and how professors are expected to put in extra hours to ensure that they pass.
I think student-athletes make a great addition to the university environment. I think that athletic departments bring a lot of school spirit and a sense of community to campuses. But I also think that schools need to consciously evaluate who wins and who loses when they substantially lower the bar for student-athletes.
#3 – An emphasis on diversity is more important than ever.
What blows my mind about the scandal is that the students involved probably would have benefitted more from an education at an “average” college than any elite university. For these impossibly wealthy students, college might have been their only opportunity to come down from their penthouse suites and make friends with average, middle-class Americans. But their parents paid to ensure they could stay in their comfortable bubbles and they missed that opportunity.
The wealth gap is not going away, but colleges are in a unique situation to do something about it. Students have access to need-based federal financial aid, schools have access to wealthy donors who are happy to provide scholarships, and non-profit universities can accept grants and donations, so they are not dependent on tuition to run. That’s the perfect combination for giving low-income students an opportunity, but a lot of schools are blowing it.
In their admissions policies, schools should make a conscious effort to improve their diversity. Colleges might consider a top 10 rule like Texas, giving automatic admission to students in the top 10 percent of students at every public high school, which creates an even more racially diverse pool of students than simply considering race in a holistic review does. They might also look into a mix of need-blind and need-aware policies to create income diversity on campus. Need-blind policies don’t consider wealth at all when accepting students and need-aware policies look into wealth, but only to ensure that any accepted student will have all financial aid needs covered if they choose to attend.
These affirmative action processes aren’t perfect and they’re not equal, but they’re very close to equitable. Equity gives each student what she needs to be successful, and colleges have a real chance to balance the scales by choosing to accept a freshman class that is more reflective of the diverse American populace. To those who would say that this isn’t fair and that race shouldn’t be a factor for consideration, I’d like you to remind you that these exact same affirmative action policies are what helped women gain access to higher education and career advancement not long ago, and I rarely hear anyone protesting positive discrimination for gender equality.
The last takeaway from this scandal is for parents.
It is not healthy to let your kids overinvest in any single college. It is not healthy to let them believe that admissions to a single school will make or break their success for the rest of their lives. It is not healthy to go to extreme measures or cheat the process to get them an acceptance.
At some point in your child’s life, she is not going to get what she wants. There will be some job, some promotion, some person that she wants but cannot have and it will break her heart. But she’ll be better off if she has a backup plan and a supportive family behind her.
Colleges definitely have a lot of room for improvement, but so do prep schools, social circles, and parents.
To any high school student reading this, I want you to know one thing:
The value of your education is based on what YOU make of the educational opportunities that YOU have, no matter what school you attend.