What the College Admissions Scandal Reveals About US Higher Education

What the College Admissions Scandal Reveals About US Higher Education main image

The college admissions scandal, in which parents were caught paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to get their children into the best US universities, raised many questions about how higher education institutions in the United States decide between applicants.

In March this year, Rick Singer pleaded guilty to four felonies and admitted to having cooperated with federal prosecutors in Massachusetts. Singer had masterminded a scam to help wealthy college applicants pay their way into top undergraduate programs either by fixing their standardized test scores or lying about their participation and prowess as an athlete to gain recruitment and thus a spot in a class. Celebrities and well-known professionals were caught up in the scandal, and many of them are facing charges in court.  

Recently, Robert Zangrillo, a Miami financier accused of committing fraud and bribery to get his daughter into University of Southern California, subpoenaed USC “for records detailing its admissions process and to what degree, if any, it is influenced by donations,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

What we know

Zangrillo allegedly paid $200,000 to Singer and $50,000 into an account controlled by USC administrator Donna Heinel in an attempt to get his daughter accepted to the school. Zangrillo is accused of fraud and bribery but has pleaded not guilty, and Heinel, who has been fired from USC, is being accused of racketeering and conspiracy. She has also pleaded not guilty.

“The subpoena is an early indication that parents charged in the college admissions scam intend to take aim at a sensitive – and to this point secretive – calculation: how presumably meritocratic decisions on whom to admit or reject can be weighted by an applicant’s wealth,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

Truly, the admissions process is shrouded in secrecy. Admissions committees work behind closed doors and do not reveal much about why one person gets accepted and another does not. They send out form letters to indicate rejection without explaining where each student failed. Yet, there are some things we know for certain about admissions:  

Competition is fierce

Over the years, the admissions process across the board has grown more and more competitive. USC, for example, admitted just 11 percent of those who applied in 2019, which was a record low for the school. This kind of stat is similar to other universities of the same caliber.

Clearly, this kind of exclusivity puts pressure on applicants – and their parents. In fact, considering those statistics, it’s no wonder wealthy parents felt the need to pay their way into schools or that lower-income applicants feel hopeless or left out of the system.

Wealth makes a difference

When the news broke about the scandal in March 2019, Inside Higher Education ran a story about the ways in which wealth influences college admissions. To some degree, people have long known that big-time donors can get special treatment when their child or grandchild is heading off to university. However, it’s more than those giving millions to the school.

“At USC and at Georgetown, Stanford, and Yale Universities – others among the private universities allegedly the target of admissions bribes by wealthy parents – [students from families] in the top 1 percent exceeded those in the bottom 20 percent of family income by three to four times,” according to Insider Higher Education.

The implication of this story is that those who come from families that don’t qualify for financial aid and can afford hefty tuition have a better chance of getting in than those who cannot afford the bills outright.

While schools say they want to enroll more students from lower-income levels as part of their desire to create a more diverse campus and classrooms, they do not actually follow through.

There are ways to level the playing field

Hope is not completely lost, however. The overwhelming majority of educators got into the business to teach people and provide them with more opportunities. Truly, they want to give those deserving a chance to better themselves, carve out fulfilling careers, and create wealth for themselves. As a result, admissions committees do take their jobs seriously and provide a chance for the most capable and interested applicants to prove themselves.

So, mom and dad’s checkbook might be able to help. But it’s not the only way to get into a good school. In the case of undergraduate admissions, the school will consider SAT and ACT standardized test scores, high school GPA, application essays and interviews, recommendations, extracurricular activities, and personal character and achievement.

Ultimately, they want to know the applicant is a good fit for the program, can handle the academic rigor, and will be a good investment of the school’s time. In other words, the admissions committee asks, “What will this applicant bring to the table as a student and later an alum?” 

When everyone faces this kind of scrutiny in an honest fashion, then the process is fair and the playing field is level.

Change is coming

Scrutiny can start a revolution. There’s no doubt that the college admissions scandal put the spotlight on admissions and what it really takes for kids to get into college today. Certainly, the schools are facing criticism for their lack of transparency and their willingness to turn education into a business. Still, they know that to remain relevant and vital, they will have to vindicate themselves in the eyes of the general public.

Also, they recognize diversity is key to creating a truly transformative experience and one that will help graduates succeed well into the future. Combined with a desire to do better as educators and overcome this public relations nightmare, the need for diversity will lead to formative changes in the application process. Granted, education is known for making change at a snail’s speed. But it will come. It’s on the horizon. Just wait for it. 

This article was originally published on LinkedIn.

Nunzio Quacquarelli

Nunzio is the founder and CEO of QS. Following completion of his own MBA from the Wharton School, he has gone on to become a leader in education management with over 25 years of experience in the industry. He is truly passionate about education and firmly believes in the QS mission to help young people to fulfill their potential through educational achievement, international mobility and career development. 

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