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The College Bribery Scandal: A Path Forward

By Joyce E. Smith

This week, the news media featured extensive coverage of criminal indictments alleging fraud and bribery aimed at securing students’ admission to selective colleges and universities across the country.  

While, at this point, no NACAC members on either side of the desk have been named in the investigation, the story is still a shock and a challenge to our profession. Members, institutions, and sister organizations might take a moment to consider the context of these acts and what can be done to help restore trust in the college admission process.

We understand too well the pressures that can be brought to bear on the admission process, on both the postsecondary and secondary sides, and from both inside and outside our institutions. The current scandal has come to light at a moment when the US college admission process seems to be under challenge on several fronts – as Harvard University is on trial for alleged discrimination against Asian American applicants, and an impassioned debate is underway concerning the essential fairness of policies such as Early Decision and legacy, and NACAC’s own code of ethics is the subject of a “restraint of trade” investigation by the Department of Justice.   

The scandal also draws into stark relief the role of wealth and privilege in college admission and in our society in general. While this week’s news reveals an extreme case, where the indicted individuals are accused of trying to influence admission decisions in a clearly illegal way, we know that wealthy people have always enjoyed many advantages in the process, such as the ability to pay for tutoring, test preparation, and application coaching. For the truly wealthy, there is the opportunity to make sizable donations, fund scholarships, or endow buildings or faculty seats that may or may not influence decisions. We know that economic status affects one’s educational choices at every stage of life.

This case also sheds light on what some have called the “commodification” of higher education, where gaining admission to a selective institution becomes the goal itself, and prestige and status matter most of all — and where securing bragging rights becomes more important than finding the college or university that is the best fit for the student’s life and career plans. Parents and students alike need to understand that college is not a commodity to be bought or sold, and that there are deeply-rooted phenomena in our culture that allow wealth to be used to preserve privilege, particularly in areas that are “public goods,” such as education.

We recognize that the shameful behavior revealed in these high-profile indictments is not common. Most colleges work diligently to admit and serve the full range of applicants, and NACAC’s members remain committed to integrity within the admission process. We also recognize that colleges and universities can be large operations comprising many different divisions that, by necessity, rely on trust and respect in their dealings with one another. Whatever the structure, our members assume that we can trust the counsel and recommendations of other campus representatives on prospective students and their unique talents or abilities, and we assume our colleagues throughout the institution work with the same values, integrity, and ethics as we do.

The problems associated with wealth and privilege in our country have been well understood and require comprehensive solutions that focus not only on educational inequities but also extend well outside higher education. Our hope is that this extreme case will inspire discussion among stakeholders across our country, including policymakers, university presidents, administrators, and others, about fairness and equity in higher education in general and the college admission process in particular.

These issues require the input of a wide range of persons of different perspectives so that we can better understand the scope and realities. Our members’ voices will be vital as this conversation proceeds.

 

Updated 3/26/19

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