Views on the News: Scandal
On March 12, federal prosecutors released the names of dozens of celebrities and social media influencers who illegally arranged to have their children admitted to several elite colleges and universities. Many commentators have pointed to this scandal as evidence of a false meritocracy, and that college admissions is more of a pay-to-play system than one based on hard work. Do you think the college admissions system should be reformed, and how do you think this scandal reflects on college admissions as a whole?
Prof. Michael Appell (HELLER)
There’s a silver lining to the admissions scandal! For one thing, a heavy dose of Brandeis sunlight will serve as an admissions disinfectant – for at least a short time. Colleges and parents will now be on high alert for cases of fraud and bribery. (Although once the headlines fade we can expect the shenanigans to resume in some mutated form.) An inconvenient truth: Colleges should and must attract wealthy students from wealthy families. That’s because most colleges (including Brandeis) have woefully small endowments to pay for all the qualified students who can’t afford them. Every qualified student who is “full pay” frees up funds for a deserving scholarship student. Every wealthy student whose parents endow a generous scholarship brings us closer to the day when colleges will have endowments large enough to become truly need blind.
Michael Appell is a senior lecturer in the Heller School specializing in corporate social responsibility and is the assistant director of the MBA program.
Prof. Susan Curnan (HELLER)
Code-named "Operation Varsity Blues," the biggest bribery scheme in college admissions prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice, exposes the simple, historic truth that money matters. Not right but no surprise either. This is an area where universities can, and must, do more to guard against any such measures that undermine fairness, transparency and integrity. Many of the defendants heading to court this week will promise action to improve audits of their admissions and athletic departments. That's necessary but not sufficient. The scandal reflects a bigger, deeper problem in our society. As Justice Louis D. Brandeis wrote, "Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman." This particular scandal shines a light on the growing inequalities in this country and the misuse of wealth, power and privilege by parents of under-qualified students. Inequities in access, opportunity and outcomes in post-secondary education further deepens the social and economic divide among the haves and have-nots and has lifetime effects on quality of life. This kind of "rigging of the system" is, most of all, a terrible disservice to students — both those who get in through a "side door" but are not equipped to succeed, and those who were locked out, or had to struggle greatly to get in, due to inequities throughout our education system.
Susan Curnan is an associate professor at the Heller School and the director of the Center for Youth and Communities.
Prof. Mari Fitzduff (HELLER)
Fraudulent admissions set up problems for students, a university and society. Students who do not qualify on standards will find themselves at a huge disadvantage when trying to complete their course work — and may be tempted to use nefarious ways to conduct their assignments. In addition, the capacity of a university to ensure intellectual and/or professional quality will also be damaged if it becomes known that such admissions or assignment dishonesty (by students or faculty) has been detected as part of their work. Given the extra tuition benefits that accrue to those who are wealthier in our society, it is incumbent upon us all to ensure that the benefits of extra tuition and extra exam preparation skills, as well as first generation scholar schemes, should be made freely available to all of those whose capacity indicates that they, and society, will benefit from an opportunity and the resources for them to avail of third-level education.
Mari Fitzduff is a professor at the Heller School, specializing in peace process and public policy on diversity issues, and is the author of Why Irrational Politics Appeal — Understanding the Allure of Trump.
Prof. Susan Eaton (HELLER)
The admissions scandal that dominated much of the news last week is not so much an exception but an extreme, but not terribly unsurprising, example of the way the wealthy and privileged have been able game the system of college admissions for decades. It is easy and perhaps even fun to cast judgement on these overly entitled celebrity families and then move on to the next juicy scandal. It is more difficult and more important to our democracy for us to use this scandal as an opportunity to precisely identify the tangle of rules, norms, structures and socially-constructed hierarchies that privilege the white, the wealthy, the famous, the connected and which permit, even encourage, them to hoard opportunities that are increasingly vital for economic stability and mobility in a highly stratified society. It is no secret that money, fame, connections and white identity confer great advantages in securing educational opportunity, whether this comes in the form of the fanciest, most exclusive private school money can buy or a mother making a big donation to her alma mater in the hope of getting her son in. The series of racial and class-related injustices that families face on the road toward college admissions has been documented time and time again by academic research, through journalism and within the lived experiences of so many young people who must struggle, scrimp and sacrifice to get into and get through college. It's long past time to look beyond the celebrity scandal and call out the myth of meritocracy that's allowed too many elected officials, educators and privileged families themselves to overlook these everyday injustices.
Susan Eaton is a professor of the Practice and the director of Sillerman Center for the Advancement of Philanthropy and the Heller School.
Prof. Theodore Johnson (HELLER)
A reported false meritocracy in some college admission practices troubles me. It sends a message that entry into some elite colleges is evidence more of financial rather than intellectual capital. However, some wealthy families — concerned more about image and bragging rights — are spending large sums of money to bend the rules toward admitting their sons and daughters into certain choice institutions. As I looked through various mission statements of many top-rated U.S. Colleges and Universities, many have noble objectives such as: “mind enrichment,” “developing broad and critical thinking,” “intellectual transformation.” Loosely summarized, these fit neatly into an honorable and shared set of values with a moral center of learning and striving toward self and institutional improvement. But what values are taught in a practice of “pay to admit”? Good societies rely on a shared moral culture that rewards honesty, integrity and transparency. Years ago, as a TA, I was once asked to consider compromising those values and to reward a student with an undeserved grade simply because the parents were large contributors to the institution. I refused. Once that downward slope begins, there is no end. Such a compromising practice should never start by holding the line on honesty from the beginning — especially in the admission process. In that instance, universities will maintain the integrity which makes them attractive from the outset.
Theodore Johnson is an associate professor of the Practice at the Heller School, specializing in conflict resolution and coexistence studies.