Readers: this blog is set in the future (sometime after the year 2020). Each entry assumes there has been a 5th revolution in the US — the Revenge Revolution. More about the Revenge Revolution and author, How the 5th US Revolution Begins and About the AuthorOccasionally I do a “sense check” about the likelihood of a Revenge Revolution.  Entry #318 is the most recent “sense check.”  One more note — sometimes I write about another topic that does not quite fit the theme of the blog.  Those comments are available on the page titled “JRD Thoughts and Comments.” 

In the entry describing the coming technology tsunami (#319), I suggested a way for the US to help mitigate the impact of the inevitable tsunami was increasing support for public education. How does the college admissions process fit into the discussion of the US preparing for the coming technology tsunami?

The topic seems appropriate for two reasons: (i) as noted in several blog entries, the US needs to increase the percentage of students with either an advanced technical degree or a college degree; (ii) the public discourse about the college admissions process is missing a key component.  That overlooked component allows many students to attend certain higher-end academic institutions.

The rhetoric about the college admissions process ratcheted up in March 2019 with a number of articles published about parents using influence…and/or cash…to help their children get admitted to various colleges/universities. Some of these activities involved cash bribes and a few high-profile parents have been charged by the FBI.

After the FBI charges were made public, many media “talking heads,” pundits, not-so-privileged students and others claimed to be outraged by the activities of the parents. “Such practices are unfair!” “What about the students whose place in the college/university was taken by one of the privileged?” “The admission process needs to be based more on meritocracy!” Some further claimed the admissions process was racist.

Seriously folks? You’ve been living under a rock if you don’t think it’s a long-standing practice for parents to leverage connections and to “bribe” the administration to get children into prestigious schools. For decades, academic institutions have tweaked admissions standards for certain students. If parents were willing to say make a healthy donation to the school or there was a long history of family members attending the school, then students were often admitted under somewhat different standards.

I recall in my high-school days learning that the brother of a classmate that I’d known since the first days of grammar school had been admitted to a rather prestigious college. When I asked how, my classmate laughed and said “Simple, my dad paid for a new building.” Does anyone really think George W. Bush was admitted to Yale, then the Harvard Business School on his own merit? And, hmm, maybe the Donald falls in that same category.  Wonder why he insists his transcripts not be released?

However, what seems to be new in this story about privilege is the academic institution is getting cut out of benefitting from the bribe. Yale, for example, apparently was unaware their long-term soccer coach was on the take and willing to recruit for the team each year a couple of players who would not be admitted to Yale based on academic merit. If the coach only had given Yale part of the take.

What seems more prevalent than cash bribes, although the proactive is not new, is having someone other than the student take the SAT or ACT. What is new in the last decade or so is the parents claiming the student has some type of learning disability, which then allots more time to complete the test. While using “stand-ins” and claiming “learning disability” are unethical, such practices should be fairly easy to stop.

Some who are outraged at a few privileged students skirting the normal admissions process have also claimed that athletes granted scholarships did not skirt the rules because the scholarships were based on merit. Really? Merit for what? Playing basketball? Playing football?

Okay, the individuals might be gifted in a particular sport but how many of these athletes are gifted academically?  5.0%?  10.0% tops.  Last I looked, the primary role of a college or university was academics, not athletics. Colleges and universities are accredited based on academic standards, not the success of the football team or the basketball team.

Let’s see if I get understand how the athlete is admitted based on merit. A student is admitted to say Duke University under a scholarship to play basketball. The first semester the student does not attend class, fails all subjects and is put on academic probation. The terms of the probation state if the student’s GPA doesn’t improve in the second semester, he will be ineligible to play basketball, and might be subject to expulsion.

The student continues to play basketball through the second semester – and Duke hopes the NCAA tournament – but like the first semester fails all classes. The penalty? Even if the student-athlete is expelled, what does he care? His goal was never a college degree. His goal was to get drafted by an NBA team. The Duke coaching staff, the University’s administration and the student knew from day one he was going to be a “one-and-done.” But the student was admitted anyway.

So tell me how the “one-and-done” student-athlete was admitted to Duke based on merit? Merit to help the basketball team but not admitted based on academics. For those claiming such athletes are enrolled based on their merit, while other students are admitted based on privilege and not merit, please stop the hypocrisy.  (Want to read about a real-world example of the hypocrisy of one-and-done? 19 05 15 NYT NBA Draft and Rights to Duke Freshman)

A final thought, which no one seems to talk about…and to me is a critical component of the discussion. Admitting a limited number of students from very wealthy families is a benefit to all students at the institution. Why?.  Go back to my classmate whose parents donated a building as a trade for her brother’s admittance. Yes, it was a deal for the privileged. But from a broader perspective, for many years students at the college benefited from the cost of a building not being part of their tuition.

A question we should be asking is, “How many students who otherwise could not afford to attend an Ivy League or other top-line school have benefited from the wealthy contributing to the endowment of the college/university?” Maybe the students who are attending such schools only because of a scholarship should ask themselves, “Would I be able to afford to attend without subsidies from the institution’s endowment?” In almost all cases, the answer would be “no.” So for the not-so-privileged students, please swallow your pride and be grateful that someone is subsidizing your education.

Thus, from my perspective, the so-called “admissions scandal” for the privileged has two very different sides. First, no question that illegal bribes are out-of-bounds and should be prosecuted. However, those who claim using a back-door or side-door route to admission is unfair need to be careful about wanting to make the admissions process the same for everyone. Instead, take a deep breath, step back and be thankful for donors who help build buildings and who donate generously to the endowment that is allowing more students to attend a college or university they otherwise could not afford…and allowing the US to prepare more effectively for the on-coming technology tsunami.