Ethical College Admissions: Quid Pro Quos

Legislation designed to deal with issues related to the admissions scandal raises issues that go well beyond those indicted, writes Jim Jump.

June 10, 2019

The Operation Varsity Blues scandal is the gift that keeps on giving for college admissions. Those of us wanting more attention given to college admission have certainly gotten our wish, and it is only a matter of time until Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin star in a Lifetime movie about the scandal.

Last week news stories suggested that former National Football League quarterback and University of Southern California athletic director Pat Haden is being investigated for his ties to Operation Varsity Blues mastermind Rick Singer. But another development last week could more significantly impact the intersection of wealth and admission to college.

Legislation introduced last week by U.S. senator Ron Wyden could bring new scrutiny to the practice of wealthy families making donations to colleges and universities to grease the admissions skids for their children. Wyden announced his intention to draft legislation back when Operation Varsity Blues first came to light.

Wyden’s bill, dubbed the College Admissions Fairness Act, has several components. The bill would require any college or university receiving federal funds to develop a written policy declaring that it does not consider donations or the ability to donate as a factor in the admissions process. Donors will be able to deduct the full amount of charitable contributions only to colleges with such a policy. Donations to colleges without a written policy would have a deduction cap of $100,000 over a six-year period prior to and when the student is enrolled. Finally, the legislation would require colleges and universities to report the number of applicants, accepted students and enrolled students who are children of donors.

It’s too early to know how Wyden’s legislation could impact colleges and universities in fund-raising and admission. Given the dysfunction in Washington, it’s hard to envision that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would allow it to come to a vote.

Although inspired by the Operation Varsity Blues scandal, it’s also not clear that Wyden’s bill would have done anything to prevent the scandal or solve the underlying problem. Then again, that’s true of lots of legislation. Several years ago my then congressman trumpeted his support for a balanced budget amendment. I told him I would be more impressed if he could produce a plan to actually balance the budget, even for a single year. Of course he couldn’t.

Rick Singer sold his clients on a plan for “side door” admission. That involved laundering bribes to athletic coaches through Singer’s nonprofit foundation in exchange for coach support for their children to be admitted as athletic recruits in sports the students had never played. Both bribery and money laundering are already against the law.

The term “side door” was used to distinguish what Singer was doing from a more traditional process, referred to by Singer as the “back door,” where wealthy families make donations to an institution just before their children enter the admissions process. Singer’s side-door process was a bargain, in that families could achieve their objective with only a five- or six-figure expenditure rather than the seven figures required to get in the back door.

Singer’s scheme was an elaborate criminal conspiracy that is indefensible, but it raises some important questions that higher education has preferred to ignore. Is side-door admission any different from back-door admission? Should there be more than one admission door? Should wealth be a plus factor in the college admissions process? Should wealthy parents be able to purchase admission slots at the nation’s most selective colleges and universities through strategic philanthropy?

Answering those questions requires answering more fundamental questions about the nature of the admissions process. At a philosophical level, selective college admissions is an exercise in distributive justice, where the goal is to find a fair way to distribute a scarce good or resource, in this case a spot in the freshman class. It is easy (and tempting) to say that selective admission should be based on merit, but merit is an elusive concept.

Is ability to pay a just way to allocate scarce places in a student body where there are 10 or 20 times as many applicants as spaces? The answer is the same as to every question related to college admission -- it depends.

It depends on whether you believe in prosperity theology, the idea that wealth is a product of goodness, in which case Singer and his clients were demonstrating merit. It depends on your ethical theory. If you are a utilitarian, allowing the wealthy to buy admission for their children through philanthropy might be defensible because their donations benefit other students and the university as a whole.

It also depends on whether you believe that education is ultimately an economic good. Is education a product like food or durable goods, where distribution is regulated by the marketplace and ability to meet price? Or is education more like health care, a fundamental human right that isn’t economic in nature? (Of course whether health care is an economic good is itself debatable.)

From a practical standpoint, higher education is already at least partly an economic good, with admission to college partly guided by economic considerations. Colleges use the admissions process to achieve institutional goals, and net tuition revenue is high on that list. As pure as we might want higher education to be, it is ultimately a business driven at least partly by economics. We can only hope that is not the only driver.

How does that play out in admission? Need-blind admission is an endangered species, replaced at many institutions by need-aware or “need-peek” admission. On the margins, and when going to wait lists, students without financial need get preference.

There is also a history of the wealthy purchasing admission for their children through philanthropy. Jared Kushner first achieved notoriety long before marrying into the Trump family when he was admitted to Harvard shortly after his father pledged $2.5 million. A recent Boston Globe article highlighted how Ivy League institutions endow their athletic teams and reported that there have been at least six cases where individuals endowed teams at Yale shortly before their children were admitted. Coincidence or quid pro quo?

Does Wyden’s College Admissions Fairness Act go far enough? All it does is dictate that colleges have a written policy that past or future philanthropy will not be considered in admission. But is there any way to ensure that the policy is being enforced? Holistic admission provides a shroud preventing us from knowing what was compelling about a particular applicant.

Should the wealthy not only get admission preferences for their children but also be able to deduct the donations? Both the National Association of College and University Business Officers and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education have opposed Wyden’s proposal as hurting the ability of institutions to attract tax-deductible charitable contributions.

But is strategic philanthropy by parents whose children are prospective students truly philanthropy? If you are receiving a quid pro quo for a donation, are you making a charitable contribution or a purchase?

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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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