The photo my student posted on her finsta following the disclosure of the biggest college admissions scandal in history caught my eye. She had superimposed her smiling face atop a picture of an ivy league squash player. It was a crudely Photoshopped image, and that was the point. The caption read: “Harvard Class of 2024!”
I was glad this young woman could laugh about the scam that continues to capture national attention and fuel daily headlines. Everywhere I go, even if people don’t know I’m a college counselor, this scandal is a hot topic of conversation. Moms, Dads, high school students, and kids attending college all have something to say about it. Most people are seething and eager to see justice done. It’s not fair. It’s immoral. It’s not how it should be.
Needless to say, I agree that all of the individuals involved should be punished for cheating the system (and, apparently on their taxes). Many normal families do need help navigating the increasingly complex and anxiety-producing college testing, selection and application process, but Rick Singer, the person behind the scheme, chose to break the law to get his students into particular schools. There’s no grey area in this case. No one thinks the man is being unfairly treated. The outrage and ridicule is real and deserved.
The Scandal Highlights a Real Challenge
While much of the attention has been focused on the two actresses charged with various crimes, the case is important on many other levels. More than anything, it has affirmed all of our fears about college admission. With acceptance rates in the low single digits, it’s become so tough to get into top schools that some of the richest risk breaking laws to secure a spot for their kids at elite universities. And, as most articles highlight, the problem will only grow. Each year, more American students apply to the same schools. In addition, a larger number of foreign students are also applying, further ratcheting up the competition.
Why not just go to any old school? Why obsess about schools atop the US News & World Report college rankings? Many parents believe that attending an elite university is paramount, and often their children have adopted that worldview. Besides getting to know professors who can open doors to well-paid and illustrious careers, these institutions offer students the chance to meet hard-charging classmates. Together, this will help people build important network connections as they enter the workforce.
While everyone thinks of Harvard and Stanford-level schools as elite, it’s interesting to note that many institutions Singer targeted were not in the Ivy League or at that level, such as UT-Austin and Wake Forest. While both are great universities, acceptance had generally been considered easier to obtain. However, these schools have also gotten much tougher to get into for even high-performing students. For instance, the University of Wisconsin-Madison has received over 51% more applications during the past five years, while NYU has been flooded with 47% more in that same period, according to USA Today. Scarcity is a fact at many colleges, and everyone knows it. That reality leads to parents making terrible decisions, such as paying Singer to cheat the system for their children.
The Real Issue: The Harvard Case
Despite this, the Singer scandal is not what parents should be worried about the most. His outrageous behavior highlights an existing and growing problem. There is, however, another legal case that has the potential to have a massive, long-term impact on college admissions. Right now, Harvard is in the middle of a lawsuit about its admissions practices. The case, which many think the university is likely to lose, alleges that Harvard discriminates against Asian Americans. Supposedly the university has quotas for various groups. Why? The goal it to achieve “racial balancing.” Instead of letting in as many Asian Americans as are qualified, the school accepts other black and Latino applicants with lower numbers in order to promote diversity.
Many believe that affirmative action is actually a huge positive for higher education because students benefit from diversity on campuses. In such an environment, the idea is that classroom discussions are far more vibrant and that there are more dynamic opportunities to learn as students from various backgrounds express varied points of view. At CK4U, we happen to think that schools with only the “smartest” students would be limiting.
Even if you are not a fan of affirmative action in principle, recognize that without some form of it, we’d have even fewer boys at almost every type of school but the engineering power houses. According to the U.S. Department of Education, total undergraduate enrollment in the U.S. in 2017 was 56.3% girls. That is a noticeable increase from 45.6% females at American colleges in 1970, and this trend is predicted to rise. College admissions, based off of testing and grades, is essentially built for girls. I often say, “smart girls are a dime a dozen.” That’s not meant to denigrate high-performing young women, it’s just a fact. A high school female with excellent grades and awesome SAT or ACT scores is just one among hundreds or thousands applying to any given school. As a result, elite colleges like Vanderbilt have to accept fewer girls who apply than boys in an effort to keep the gender ratio close (currently, it’s at 51% female). In 2017, even Brigham Young University admitted that it has given preference to male applicants. If colleges had to accept only those with the best numbers, boys as well as many other groups would be severely impacted.
As a college counselor for over 12 years, I, just like you, find the Singer story riveting. Yet, as we devour the next article that bashes the wealthy or pokes fun at misguided Hollywood parenting, remember not to forget the real issue: the overturning of college admissions that the Harvard’s case poses. A ruling against the university could not only negatively alter the atmosphere on campuses across the country, it would also likely raise the anxiety of parents and prospective college students even more. If that happens, the Singer scandal might just be the first of many of its kind.