Ethical College Admissions: The Language of Scandal

Is it an "admissions scandal" or not? Jim Jump considers the words and their importance.

April 8, 2019

One of my greatest parenting challenges when my children were little was helping them understand the nuances of language. My son confused the concepts of “wanting” and “needing,” apparently believing they were synonyms. He didn’t want for much, but his “needs” were endless.

Then there was the distinction between “wanting” and “really wanting.” Both my children responded to the word “no” with the supplication, “But I really want it,” as if really wanting something imposes an extra level of moral obligation to provide it. To their dismay, it didn’t.

I’ve thought back to that simpler time several times in recent weeks. As my students and parents deal with college decisions, I recognize that the college admissions process represents for many students the first time in their lives when they can do everything right but not get what they need, want, really want or even deserve. As such, it is great preparation for adulthood.

I’ve also thought about language and the concept of “really wanting” as I’ve followed developments in the Operation Varsity Blues scandal. I’ve tried to avoid the temptation to make that scandal the only focus of this column, although I suspect there are enough column topics to fill a month of Sundays (or, in the case of "Admissions Insider," a month of Mondays).

Last week we had the first round of court appearances by many of the defendants. I was struck by how many of the perp-walk pictures resembled photos of campus tours, with the only difference being that those walking backward were not tour guides but reporters and photographers.

What leads parents to engage in a criminal conspiracy to secure a place for their children in an “elite” college or university? Is it entitlement, a belief that the rules don’t apply to me, or is it the belief that where your child goes to college is a measure of your success as a parent?

Or is it arrested moral development, a failure to mature past the point where you understand that “really wanting” something doesn’t mean you deserve it? In a recent column I quoted Oscar Wilde that there are two tragedies in life, one not getting what you want and the other getting it. Wilde doesn’t mention really wanting something. Is not getting what you really want a greater tragedy, or is the tragedy the fact that you really want it in the first place?

Last week we also learned about a different example of athletic-recruiting related sleaze, apparently unconnected to the Operation Varsity Blues scandal. A Maryland businessman paid nearly $1 million to buy the home of the fencing coach at Harvard University, Peter Brand, paying nearly $400,000 more than the assessed value of the house. The buyer’s son applied to Harvard a year later and was admitted as a fencing recruit. Unlike the Operation Varsity Blues examples, the student is on the Harvard fencing team, but the businessman sold the house 17 months later for a loss of more than $300,000. Perhaps all coincidence, but probably not.

Before that story broke, I received an email from an admissions dean for whom I have great respect. He is concerned that the Operation Varsity Blues scandal is being labeled as an “admissions scandal.” That is the case even within the profession, and he pointed out that the National Association for College Admission Counseling had used that phrase in a headline in its “Today in College Admission” biweekly news summary. He didn’t call me out, but its possible I’ve been guilty of that as well.

He argues that the scandal was an athletic scandal, and that labeling it as an admissions scandal will have serious consequences for college admission and those of us in the profession. He worries that the progress that numerous institutions have made on access and affordability are endangered by the media attention given to wealthy parents buying admission places for their children and the resulting public belief that Operation Varsity Blues reflects the reality of the college admissions process.

I think he’s right. While it is true that the object of the criminal conspiracy was to obtain admission to college, and in that sense a it is “college admissions scandal,” using that term is misleading and potentially damaging. If it’s an “admissions scandal,” it’s a scandal of omission rather than commission, with admission officers giving coaches too much trust and power. “Bribery scandal” or “Operation Varsity Blues scandal” are both alternatives we might use more appropriately.

Cognitive scientists deny that language influences thoughts, but as someone who believes that both words and ideas have power, I’m not totally convinced.

At the very least, the language we use to describe an issue may frame the way an issue is understood.

That’s why we have euphemisms like “enhanced interrogation” for “torture,” “alternative facts” for “lying,” and United Airlines “reaccommodating” passengers for “dragging them forcefully off a plane.” Several years ago I saw a résumé for a head of school that described one of his accomplishments as “right-sizing” the school, an interesting way of spinning the fact that enrollment at the school had dropped by 200 during his tenure. Do we want “athletic recruit” to become a euphemism?

One of the concerns I’ve had about the coverage of the scandal is the narrative that this case proves that college admission is corrupt. That argument has been made by those inside and outside the profession aiming to reform the admissions process by eliminating practices such as early decision, legacy preferences and college admission tests.

Certainly all of those things, and many other practices as well, deserve scrutiny as we see how the present system can be not only gamed but hacked. Certainly college admission is imperfect, perhaps even flawed, but concluding that it is corrupt is an overreach.

That is not to say that the scandal, however we might refer to it, shouldn’t be cause to take a hard look at how college admission functions. Are there other vulnerabilities that might corrupt the process? Should we be rethinking practices that reward those who are already privileged? Do we want college admission to reflect our culture, or do we want to be countercultural, lessening or even removing the influence of wealth and privilege?

I hope we won’t shy away from those hard conversations. That’s what I really want.


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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