As a senior in high school, I naively believed college admissions to be an equalizer. Any qualified candidate would have a fair shot at a school that fit his or her credentials. I understood that there were inequities, but the extent of the unfairness became clear upon arriving at Wesleyan. Well-off students received numerous advantages on their way to an elite education, including well-paid college prep professionals and tutors, legacy connections, massive parental donations, and private school pipelines to Wes. However, the above methods always stayed on the right side of the law.
Last week, an FBI investigation exposed a massive, well-orchestrated operation of fraud that placed under-qualified, wealthy students at some of the top universities in the United States. The crimes covered include racketeering, money laundering, mail fraud, and other charges against more 50 people, although evidence suggests the number of families involved could be as high as 800. The type of fraud detailed in the FBI report is astounding, with coaches and parents colluding to falsify admission via athletics, test administrators taking exams for students, and millions of dollars changing hands. The reaction to the scandal outraged parents and students, who felt ripped off. Others expressed surprise at the behavior of those involved, blown away that this sort of scandal was possible in American academia. Yet, although this scandal may be novel in its audacity and scope, college admissions has never been the meritocracy it purports itself to be.
While the attention the past week focused on the criminal nature of these wealthy parents, the underlying problem of inequity at elite universities has not been addressed. The schools involved have some of the worst track records of economic equity in the country. Yale University serves as an emblematic example for this issue. The Bulldogs’ women’s soccer head coach of 24 years and recent Yale Hall of Fame inductee Rudy Meredith allegedly pocketed $860,000 in bribes for reserving a spot on the Yale women’s soccer roster for the daughter of at least one father. While the bribery is out of the control of Yale admissions, what is in control for the University is the lack of economic diversity amongst its student body. Nearly half of Yale students come from the top 5% of the income scale.
Yale is, of course, not the only school in the bribery scandal with a dismal track record of admitting poor students. Georgetown University, another school caught up in the scandal, has far more students from the top 1 percent than the bottom 60 percent of the income bracket. Wake Forest, whose volleyball coach took six-figure bribes, posts similar numbers on student income inequity. While some of these institutions deserve credit for their push to rescind admission and degrees for those involved it is not enough to fix the underlying problem; a disregard for low-income students in favor of wealthier students.
Another aspect of the scandal focused on standardized tests, which have long been known to favor students from wealthier families. One astonishing detail exposes lawyer Gordon Caplan, who allegedly paid $75,000 for a test supervisor to doctor his daughter’s score to a 32, when she never scored higher than a 22 on the practice ACT. A different case involved 36-year-old Mark Riddell, who allegedly took exams for students at the cost of $10,000 per test as part of mastermind William Singer’s fraudulent operation. Low-income students have known for a long time that standardized tests are geared towards the well-off, with high-cost tutors available to assist the wealthy. But the extent to which these parents went to force their kids into top-tier schools calls into question the worthiness of the entire process.
The most concerning takeaway of the entire investigation is how the FBI stumbled upon it. Were it not for the selfishness of financial executive Morrie Tobin, who offered a tip on the scheme in search of leniency for his own fraud case, the scandal never would have reached the public. Are we supposed to believe this type of scam is an outlier? While Boston prosecutors only charged 50 people, Singer bragged in private conservations that the total number of students he pushed through reached 850. The only correct response for universities to this scandal is a full-scale audit by an independent party. However, an investigation of this sort is doubtful, as I’m sure when more details emerge the scandal will appear less and less isolated.
If anyone is looking for an example of legal, ethically questionable ways to get your child into a school, see Dr. Dre’s public comments from this week.
“‘My daughter got accepted into USC all on her own,’ Dre said on Instagram. ‘No jail time!!!!’”
Of course, the icon made no mention of the $70 million donation he made to the school in 2013.
I am not arguing that he shouldn’t be making donations, or that students with wealthy parents should be ignored for admissions. Regardless of any sort of scandal, the admissions playing field was never a level one.
This scandal is a blatant example of the structural inequality that allows elite colleges to serve the most wealthy in society, instead of the most qualified. An obvious instance of fraud like this one needs to be addressed, but it must not be allowed to obscure the legal fraud in the current admissions game. Universities can publicly denounce the bribery all they want, but until they review their own policies and aggressively recruit low-income students, the system will not change. Higher education is a weak meritocracy at best.
Jack Leger is a member of the class of 2021 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.