College Admissions Scandal Leaves Lasting Scars

Entrance gate into Harvard Yard at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Though the matter has been fiercely debated, the American education system is generally believed to be one of the best in the world. Students from around the globe come to study here, and sometimes to stay. Every major university has a significant contingent of interesting students from other countries, enriching the learning environment for all. Competition to get into American colleges and universities was, and still is, stiff.

It is beyond debate that students from wealthy families have an advantage when it comes to college admissions. At the most obvious level, those families can afford the high price of an American education. More than that, students from wealthy families generally have educational advantages as they grow up. They are the ones who attend rigorous private or public schools that are well-funded. They are also the ones who, if necessary, have private tutors, take special classes to prepare for tests, are given music and art lessons, attend special athletic camps and enjoy family trips to all parts of the world. They are truly privileged and, if at all qualified, are admitted to colleges and universities that can further their career goals.

How very sad it is then that parents of some students have found it necessary to cheat to get their children into college. The scandal is now well-known. Wealthy parents from across the country participated in two scams—one to doctor their children’s performance on standardized tests for college admissions and another to encourage their recruitment for college sports teams when the students did not have qualifying athletic skills. Indeed, in some cases, the students had apparently attended schools that did not even field teams in the selected sports.

This is sad on so many levels. First, that there are coaches at respected colleges and universities willing to cheat in this fashion; willing to “recruit” student-athletes while knowing the students did not deserve this treatment. One wit has suggested that perhaps the appropriate sentence for such a coach would be to insist the inadequate student be compelled to participate in that sport, thus harming the team’s performance. More appropriately, the coaches should be fired, if they have not already quit, and they should be tried as the criminals they have shown themselves to be.

Second, how sad for the students. For those whose test scores were altered without their knowledge, what does this tell them? That their parents lack confidence in their ability; that their parents need their children to succeed at a certain level. But is this for the students’ good, or for the parents’ own perceptions of their worth? Either way, or both, it is a distortion of the parent-child relationship. And it turns parents into criminals, probably with profound and devastating effects on the lives of the families.

Students who willingly participated in the sports scams have also now been turned into perpetrators of fraud. That students thought it was a good idea to impersonate real athletes in order to gain admission to college is hard to believe. Is it the general perception that all higher education sports programs are this corrupt? And does it matter to a student that he or she was admitted to an institution only through deception? Perhaps there is a social scientist out there who will follow these students through their lives to determine whether this was a one-time error or will become a pattern for their lives.

Some have pointed out that it is almost an American tradition for wealthy families to donate large sums of money to colleges and then have children admitted to those colleges. Is that the same thing? One would hope these children were academically qualified to study at these institutions. But even if there is a question there, the bottom line is the college received a benefit, a benefit that apparently has been enjoyed by other students. It might be an enhanced scholarship program, a building or the like. Whatever it was, it survived the individual student and was an improvement to the institution. Contrast that to a coach taking a $400,000 bribe to encourage the admission of a student who did not even play the sport in question. The only beneficiary of that process is a fraudulently rich coach. The college does not benefit, and there is a good argument that the ill-prepared student does not benefit either, let alone the moral injury he or she has sustained.

Now what? The parents and coaches are going through the criminal system now. Will any of these entitled people be punished? Everyone will be watching. If they are not, it will be hard to understand why.

And how will this be prevented in the future? That will be the challenge for all American colleges and universities now. Several have been tainted by this scandal, and it is up to them to recover their reputations. The harm to the parents’ reputations is probably beyond recovery.

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