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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

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Competition Is Bad for Education: Admission Bribery Scandal Edition

How could I not offer two, maybe even three cents on the news of the day?

March 13, 2019
 
 

It is hard to know where to begin with the big story of cheating and bribery in order to gain admission to elite universities.

There are the rubbernecking aspects, actresses and business leaders ensnared by the indictment, including Lori Loughlin, who with her designer husband, Mossimo Giannulli, paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to gain admission for their daughter to the University of Southern California, a daughter who was less than indifferent about the educational aspects of college to begin with.

There are the stories of parents faking learning disabilities for their children to gain access to accommodations that would allow for the cheating to happen. The saddest story may be the parents who went to great lengths to hide the fact of the cheating from their own child, arranging for him to take a fake test.

Or another one, about non-athlete children having their faces photoshopped onto the bodies of actual athletes as proof they belonged in a pool of applicants deserving special consideration.

We could talk about the greed, venality, corruption, and cluelessness that abounds in the details shared in the charging document. The bribes were even couched as charitable donations which allowed the parents to deduct them on their taxes. It’s simply gross.

My jaw dropped a little deeper with each page, but it is important to distinguish between shock and surprise. I was shocked that we are finding out about these schemes, while being entirely unsurprised that something like this was going on.

This is merely the illegal version of the rather common practices wealthy, almost universally white parents use to stack the elite admissions deck for their offspring. William Singer, the chief perpetrator of the fraud pitched the scheme as a “side door” to admission, an alternative to the “back door” of institutional advancement (meaning above board donations) that can’t offer a “guarantee” and are usually more costly.[1]

SAT tutors, admissions consultants, private schooling from the cradle, legacy admissions, crew, field hockey, Grandpa’s name on a building. This is how the so-called meritocracy is supposed to perpetuate itself, not bribery and side doors.

U.S. attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling said, “The real victims in this case are the hardworking students,” who were presumably denied admission to these elite universities because of the fraud.

True enough, but not the whole truth. The full list of victims would include the following: Everybody.

As is my tendency, I immediately try to see these things through a systemic lens. Yes, the perpetrators are wrong and gross. Yes, they deserve whatever punishments are coming their way, but to truly understand the roots of this harm and fully appreciate the scope of those who are harmed, we have to go deeper.

Competition is bad for education, bad for learning, bad for students, bad, ultimately, for educational institutions as well.

Competition is wasteful and inefficient, and leads institutions to engage in deliberately obstructive practices to hide the trust cost of attendance to students.

Competition has squeezed poorer students not just out of admission at elite private universities, but public flagships as well, as demonstrated by a report from New America Education.

Students competing for scarce slots in magnet schools or college feeders experience increased stress and anxiety. Even the “winners” are losing.

I’m thinking about an even larger class of those who are harmed. How about black and brown children who are subjected to emotionally abusive practices at so-called “no excuses” charter schools so they may fare better in an admissions competition that will always be stacked against them?

Recall the story of T. M. Landry College Prep of Louisiana, which was faking transcripts in order to get their minority students into elite schools. This is a consequence of the same dysfunctional system that begat Aunt Becky bribing a dude to get her YouTube star daughter into USC. The difference is that those minority students were subjected to “a culture of fear with physical and emotional abuse, students and teachers said. Students were forced to kneel on rice, rocks and hot pavement, and were choked, yelled at and berated,” while the daughter of the star of Garage Sale Mysteries had to experience the challenge of working around not being able to remove any of the standard-issue USC dorm furniture, while still creating an Instagramable space.[2]

How about the harm done to public institutions which are required to compete for prestige in order to be deemed worthy of support, all while doing more with less, year after year.

I am grateful for the news of this scandal because it is a window into how messed up the system truly is, but it would be a shame if we fail to use this to look at these problems at a systemic level.

Some initial thoughts on the implications of this news:[3]

1. Let’s just end using the SAT and ACT as admissions criteria. They’re biased, students who can afford coaching get an unfair advantage, they have little correlation to college success, and now they’ve proved central to a fraud. How much more do we need to act?

2. All schools should immediately cease to cooperate with the U.S. News & World Report rankings. Coincidentally, this year’s data was released the same day as the scandal broke. Everyone in education knows the data is largely meaningless as a reflection of the on-the-ground quality of education, so let’s just stop with the nonsense. Sure, this is more symptom than disease, but every little bit helps.

3. Let’s have a good, hard talk about whether or not public money in any form should be going to these elite private institutions. As of 2015, Stanford, whose sailing coach was implicated in the indictment, receives a taxpayer subsidy equivalent to $63,000 per student. Compare this to UC-Berkeley, which receives only $10,500 of taxpayer subsidy per student.

These subsidies are often hidden in tax breaks and other schemes.

4. Let’s invest in public education.[4] I will use a specific example that applies more broadly. You can get a great education at College of Charleston, my most recent employer. It is a fine school with great students and wonderful faculty. It is not without faults -- no place is -- but it is an example of a public institution trying its best to provide educational opportunities to their students.

The amount of money spent on the admissions cheating and bribery scheme ($25 million) is 50% more than the annual contribution of the state of South Carolina to CofC’s bottom line.

Seventy-five percent of applicants to CofC are admitted. The opportunity is not particularly scarce, but the resources to support the students in our non-elite public institutions sure are.

There are thousands of institutions like this across the country, including our community colleges which are providing educational access for many students who are the least resourced. We should be working to make the path much smoother for those folks, and if it means taking elite privates down a peg or two in the process, consider it past due payment for services already rendered.

They’ve been sponging off the rest of us for long enough.

[1]Page 78 of the indictment. If you haven’t read it, you really should see it for yourself. I cannot do it justice.

[2]Solution: “I covered a lot of stuff with blankets, like my chair. I used the marble tapestry to cover the large bulletin board on my wall that we were not allowed to remove.”

[3]If people have other things we should be considering, please add them in the comments.

[4]And tax the rich to do it, rather than having billionaires like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg who claim to care about education launder their money through quasi-philanthropic giving.

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