Ethical College Admissions: A Tragedy

Jim Jump considers the reports of abuse and application fraud by a private school in Louisiana that has been highly praised.

December 10, 2018
 

It is rare for the words “tragedy” and “college admission” to appear in the same sentence. Let’s hope that is always the case.

There are almost certainly students and parents who consider not earning admission to a particular college or university a tragedy, thinking that “tragedy” and “disappointment” are synonyms. I would argue that last spring’s revocation by the University of Texas at Tyler of scholarships promised to international students was a tragedy in its impact on those young people and the collateral damage for our profession.

It is too early to know whether the fraud perpetrated by those running T. M. Landry College Preparatory School also qualifies as tragedy. A Nov. 30 front-page article in The New York Times punctured the myth that the school has built a college-prep pathway carrying underprivileged students of color from rural Louisiana and delivering them to the Ivy League. That myth has been fueled by viral YouTube videos of T. M. Landry seniors opening acceptance letters from places like Harvard and Stanford along with favorable coverage from the Today show, Ellen and The Washington Post.

The Times investigation revealed a different, troubling reality behind the curtain. The school’s record of admission success is built at least partly on falsified transcripts and made-up student accomplishments. Michael and Tracey Landry, the founders of the unaccredited school, describe the curriculum as “based loosely on a Montessori model,” according to the Times. What that seems to mean is that students teach themselves using computer programs and YouTube videos, going to class when and if they choose, with most of the high school program consisting of ACT preparation. At least some of T. M. Landry’s graduates who have attended elite colleges have found themselves totally unprepared for college work, and some younger students are two years behind where they should be in basic skills.

What is most troubling are allegations of a culture of physical and emotional abuse in the name of preparing students for the real world. Michael Landry, who pled guilty to a count of battery in 2013 and received probation, has admitted that he hit students, but other witness accounts report that students were choked, berated and forced to kneel on rice and hot pavement for long periods of time.

What we have here is not an Underground Railroad success story but rather a train wreck. And what we need is a college admissions equivalent of the National Transportation Safety Board to determine what went wrong.

Was T. M. Landry a con from the beginning, or did it take a wrong turn at some point? The school began as an effort to homeschool five students back in 2005, and it wasn’t until 2013 that it received its first Ivy League acceptance. Did the viral videos, one of which attracted eight million views, the national publicity and the money (the school and the Landrys were apparently the recipients of a quarter million dollars in donations from around the country) corrupt a laudable effort to help poor kids, or was the corruption there from the very beginning?

At least one of the underlying causes is the myth of the charismatic teacher or coach. That myth extends as far back as Socrates, and a staple of Hollywood screenplays about the classroom and sports is the powerful individual who pulls together a motley band of underachievers and turns them into champions. Take that storyline away and there would be almost no films made about teaching.

One of those movies was based on the life of Marva Collins, who won acclaim in the 1980s for her work with children who had been labeled unable to learn by the public school system in Chicago. Her school, Westside Preparatory School, was featured in a story on 60 Minutes, and apparently Ronald Reagan considered appointing her secretary of education. Collins believed in exposing children to the classics, and I recall the 60 Minutes piece interviewing 8-year-old students in her school who named Shakespeare and Plato as their favorite authors. Collins was clearly an inspirational teacher who deserved praise for her belief in and commitment to her students, but the implication that her elementary students were able to read Shakespeare, really read Shakespeare, didn’t ring true. But the story, and the movie, weren’t as compelling without the “miracle teacher” myth.

What role did that myth play in the positive press given to T. M. Landry? Clearly the T. M. Landry success in placing students into college, and specifically certain colleges, was a feel-good story in the “too good to be true” genre. Did any of the journalists who perpetuated the T. M. Landry story do even perfunctory research to figure out the real story?

And what about college admission offices? There has been little comment from the colleges involved. Several have declined to comment on the performance of the T. M. Landry graduates on their campuses, and that is appropriate to protect the privacy of those students. A couple have debunked Michael Landry’s claim that he and the school had “special relationships” with elite colleges (he told students that admission officers were observing them via T. M. Landry’s security cameras). But were college admissions offices among the victims or among the contributors in this situation?

I hope there is self-scrutiny taking place on a number of campuses. I have often wondered if admission officers can tell the difference between an application that is genuine and one that is curated or even faked. This situation raises that question.

Were there warning signs that were missed? Should colleges have investigated how an unaccredited school in rural Louisiana was suddenly producing Ivy League-caliber students? Once the pipeline started, the very fact that T. M. Landry had sent graduates to other elite universities probably became its own justification for admitting applicants from the school.

Some critics have seen this case as another indictment of affirmative action and higher education’s belief in racial diversity. I hope that doesn’t become the focus of this case. If anything, the issue is the quest to find the “diamond in the rough,” coupled with the belief in higher education being a path to social mobility. I hope that commitment won’t go away.

One admission issue this case may highlight is how little time admission officers spend reading an application. The pressure to get through applications in a marketplace where having too many applications is a metric of prestige inevitably means that applications don’t receive thoughtful scrutiny and that things will be missed.

The college admission process has always been based on trust, and I hope that will never change. But con artists count on marks to trust and perhaps even want to believe the con. The T. M. Landry case illustrates that Reagan’s mantra to “Trust, but verify” holds true not just in foreign affairs but also in college admission.

Bio

Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Va. He has been at St. Christopher's since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women's basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

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