What should we make of the college admissions scam?

By Rajkamal Rao



Stanford University. Image: Rao Advisors

This week saw the Department of Justice prosecute the largest college admissions scam in the country's history.

The details of the scam showed that the perpetrators thought they were not in America but in some banana republic. Sit-ins taking the SAT/ACT for students or doctoring score sheets, parents faking the mental conditions of kids to be granted special accommodation privileges to take the tests, doctors writing fake prescriptions and certificates to confirm these medical conditions, eager consultants Photoshopping images of student faces into the pictures of established athletes and creating fake athlete profiles, athletic coaches in colleges accepting bribes to recommend students with fake profiles to college admissions committees - acts like these are common in other countries.

But the United States proved again that flawed though it may be, its relentless pursuit of justice caught the bad guys after all. These self-serving, unethical and narcissistic people will spend years in prison and will wonder each day if an Ivy League admissions offer was really worth it all.

How serious is all this for your teenager?

Actually, it's not serious at all. The college scam got a lot of attention for a couple of days but as it happens in our 24x7 news cycle, the story has slowly started to wither away. Other breaking events such as the Boeing 737 Max 8 grounding and the horrible Christchurch terror attacks have taken hold.

More than 99% of parents and kids would never think to cheat in the manner described by the U.S. Attorney's office in Boston. Even if some of them did, they wouldn't have the resources. Those in the scam paid upwards of $50,000 to secure a 1400 score on the SAT, something that most of our students do for free by practicing on Khan Academy. The entry point for making donations to the top schools - and receive favorable consideration - was set at $10 million. This wealth threshold does not even represent the top 1%; it probably involves the top 0.01%.

Advocates of eliminating all college admissions tests - such as FAIR - will try to exploit the scandal but they will fail. There is substantial evidence that both high school GPAs and scores on college admission tests are excellent predictors of academic success. The University of Chicago may have decided to go test-optional, but the rest of the elite group of schools will continue to use SAT/ACT tests to evaluate student quality. Four million students took the exams this year alone.

Also, the second cohort of scam participants tried to get in through the athletic back door. This shows a weakness of admissions policies of U.S. schools because college sports are a huge revenue maker for them. Head coaches in the Big Ten conference often make more money than the presidents of other colleges.

As long as ESPN continues to beam college sports, student-athletes will always be in demand. And even if athletic coaches are under additional scrutiny in the wake of the scandal, there will always be a disproportionate number of under-qualified students who will make the top schools because of their so-called athletic abilities. Athletes are known to be significantly preferred over other students who exhibit the same proficiency in other extracurricular activities, such as debates, drama, or music.

According to NACAC, more than 8 million high school students play a school sport. But of that group, less than one percent will go on to play sports at the collegiate level. And even fewer of those will ultimately go pro.  So unless your teenager is not an athlete angling for an athletic scholarship, nothing about college admissions has really changed. Basic college admission factors such as grades, strength of high school courses (AP/IB, Dual Credit, Honors), SAT/ACT scores, college essays, class rank, extracurricular activities, teacher and counselor recommendations, demonstrated interest in the schools that you wish to attend - are fundamentally the same as they were before the scam.

Our takeaway

The basic rules for obtaining admission to the top colleges have not changed.  The scam - and the intense social media attention that it generated - has shone a spotlight on corrupt admissions practices and this should help clean up the system a bit.

Meanwhile established practices which many consider unfair, such as legacy admissions (when you're given bonus points during application evaluation because a sibling or family member attended the same school) and athletic preferences will continue.

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