On Tuesday, March 12, 2019, news broke of the arrests of 50 people, including SAT exam administrators, coaches at elite schools such as Yale, Stanford, and Georgetown, one college administrator, and 33 parents, for committing the largest college admissions scandal ever prosecuted. Millions of dollars in bribe money transferred hands to guarantee spots for students in sought-after colleges and universities.
What made it big news is that some of the parents are famous, including actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin. They allegedly paid a college admissions professional named William “Rick” Singer to pursue two routes to guarantee their children admission to top universities. Singer and his associates are charged with changing SAT or ACT answers and scores, and working with athletic departments to admit non-athletic students as athletes.
According to the FBI, the indicted parents paid between $200,000 and $6.5 million for “guaranteed admission.” Singer himself pocketed $25 million. “This is a case where they flaunted their wealth, sparing no expense, to cheat the system and set their children up for success with the best education money could buy — literally,” said Joseph Bonavolonta, the FBI special agent in charge of the case.
What This Could Mean
Let’s just address the elephant in the room. Did one of the indicted parents’ students take a spot for another student who may have deserved it more? In the aftermath of the news, there’s a lot of conjecture on social media about this idea. Is it true? Probably.
But out of the over 14 million college students in the U.S. in 2019, we’re talking about 33. Any student who was “displaced” by the bribery ring probably found a good path elsewhere.
Importantly, no students were charged in “Operation Varsity Blues.” Schools are more than likely frantically trying to discern the paths these students took, and will probably make individual decisions.
What we can project is a harder look at the transparency of college admissions processes, especially surrounding athletes, and more institutions becoming test-optional.
Google the College Board, the owners and operators of the SAT exam. The College Board also runs the AP exam and the CSS Profile. While it is a non-profit company, it is in no way not profitable. Reported revenue in 2017 was over $1 billion dollars.
Combine this information with today’s breaking news, and also with the growing number of colleges and universities who have become “test optional.” Standardized test scores at universities such as George Washington University, Bryn Mawr, Smith College, the University of Chicago, the University of Iowa, and Wake Forest University are optional. Admissions instead relies on the student’s four-year record and grades alone.
An April 2018 study using data from 955,774 applicants applying to 28 test-optional colleges and universities found that standardized tests “failed to identify talented applicants who can succeed in higher education.” A test-optional standard created new landscape, far from what they termed “a narrow assessment” of potential.
Athletes and Admissions
A star player with an interest in a specific college or university will always be attractive to an athletic department. Every institution wants a “national championship” in something. National attention creates great PR, which drives more interest overall. A higher profile school is great for everyone. In the U.S., sports are a way of life and Game Day is an exciting, proud tradition. There’s nothing wrong with pursuing the best and the brightest athletes to wear your school’s colors.
But moving forward, athletic departments and their schools will no doubt create new athlete scouting and vetting oversight rules. More oversight into this process, especially at the schools who employed the indicted coaches and administrators, will come about as a result.
The Haves and The Have Nots
Finally, say hi to the other elephant in the room. It’s no secret that the rich and powerful have always won the college admissions game. “Operation Varsity Blues” will not change what has been done for many years. Wealthy individuals will continue to name buildings, make gifts to campaigns, and create scholarships. There will be more endowments and department chairs. And those families will find preferential treatment when their children and grandchildren apply.
Most noteworthy, the difference between that practice and “Operation Varsity Blues” is one creates opportunity for the institution body as a whole. Better facilities, professors, or financial aid paths come about from this money. The wealthy have done great things for public and private institutions, and they will continue to do so, legally.
In contrast, “Operation Varsity Blues” lined the pockets of a few individuals, and 33 students from wealthy families got into college.
What are your best “hacks” for the back-to-school season?
— Felicity Huffman (@FelicityHuffman) August 25, 2016