A Separate and Unequal System of College Admissions

A Year Inside College Admissions
By Jeffrey Selingo

Privilege, Deceit & the Making of the College Admissions Scandal
By Melissa Korn and Jennifer Levitz

Money talks and privilege walks. In the case of college admissions, it saunters through wrought-iron gates, past signs emblazoned with “Welcome Class of” and into seats at convocation. Timely and engaging, “Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions,” by Jeffrey Selingo, and “Unacceptable: Privilege, Deceit & the Making of the College Admissions Scandal,” by Melissa Korn and Jennifer Levitz, detail how college admissions is rigged in favor of the privileged and how it came to be gamed even further.

Announcing charges against celebrities and corporate executives, as part of the cheating investigation known as Operation Varsity Blues, the U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts said, “There can be no separate college admissions system for the wealthy.” I laughed, mirthlessly, almost missing his equally dubious claim that “there will not be a separate criminal justice system either.” His words jolted me back to when privileged classmates informed me that I was admitted to Amherst College because I was Black or poor; they couldn’t decide which. They saw my biography as my hook. Yet they refused to see their pedigree as theirs. Instead, my peers offered evidence of hard work, their words buoyed by blind faith in meritocracy.

In “Who Gets In and Why,” Selingo challenges the facade of that meritocracy. Through revealing interviews with industry leaders and observations of admissions committee deliberations at three schools, Selingo unpacks the myriad ways that colleges’ desperate attempts to climb up in the rankings further open doors to students from more affluent families. Universities want to raise their profile, knowing that selectivity is a key measure in rankings. They also want to lock in their full payers early, a desire that may only grow stronger as colleges grapple with budget deficits brought upon by Covid-19. They accomplish both objectives through early decision, the process where students apply to one college and commit to enroll if accepted. Many of the nation’s top-ranked colleges admit a third to half of their incoming classes that way. Selingo, a journalist and former editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education, witnessed how early-decision applicants receive more attention and are admitted at two or three times the rate of their peers.

Only 5 percent of applicants apply through the early-admissions route. Everyone else vies for the remaining spots. This two-round system drives the overall admit rate lower, overstating exclusivity. Why don’t more students apply via early decision? The answer is mostly arithmetic: If you are like the majority of families who need to compare financial aid packages, you simply can’t.

There has always been a separate and unequal system of college admissions. Through “Unacceptable,” Korn and Levitz grant us access to its seedy underbelly. From the social-climbing antics of Rick Singer, the mastermind behind the cheating scheme, to the velvet-gloved F.B.I. raids of celebrities’ homes, they take us along the roller-coaster ride of Operation Varsity Blues. Piercing the veneer of perfection worn by Hollywood A-listers and corporate elites, Korn and Levitz show how wealthy families bribed their way into colleges like Stanford and the University of Southern California rather than bet on their children’s potential.

“Some people go through the back door,” Singer told parents. “I go through the side door.” Rich parents already know the back door: donations that prime colleges to say yes come admissions time. New names on benches and buildings on campus often have curious — perhaps convenient — timing. But philanthropic giving is not a sure thing. These parents sought guarantees.

Korn and Levitz, both reporters for The Wall Street Journal, document how Singer carried out his plans and how parents were in on the fraud, even writing off $400,000 bribes as charitable donations. Wealthy families often hire expensive SAT tutors and college consultants to shepherd them through applications. In ways that dominated headlines for much of last year, Singer took the job many steps further. He instructed clients to sit for the SAT at specific locations — even if it meant traveling from California to Texas — so that an inside man could take the test for them. Parents pressed doctors for A.D.H.D. diagnoses to secure additional time on standardized tests. To seal the deal, Singer and parents doctored photos and fabricated dossiers that called clients nothing short of future all-Americans.

“Who Gets In and Why” and “Unacceptable” outline the role that legacy and athletic preferences play in admissions, and force us to grapple with whether their dominance is truly fair. Drawing on sociological research, Selingo notes how the former is a holdover from when elite colleges discriminated against Jews. Today, legacy admissions is a powerful fund-raising strategy; part carrot, part stick, it is a key way that schools keep alumni involved. Children of alumni have a 25 percent higher chance of getting admitted than nonlegacy applicants with the same SAT scores.

Korn and Levitz document in painstaking detail how Singer’s “side door” scheme was possible only because of the near sovereignty of athletic coaches. They reveal how Singer, knowing which sports to target, bribed water-polo and crew coaches to fill their rosters. Korn and Levitz debunk the myth that all college sports teams make money, and Selingo reminds us that most N.C.A.A. athletes are not the Black bodies we see on television. Many teams struggle to break even, and athletes — like their legacy counterparts — are whiter and more affluent than their classmates. They are also three or four times as likely to be admitted as everyone else.

Despite enrolling children in high schools with resources that rival colleges’ and in activities that extend development beyond the classroom, parents indicted in the admissions investigation said they had cheated to give their children a fighting chance at a good life. This, of course, was not about mobility; some of these children had trust funds. This was about bumper stickers and bragging rights. Part of me ached for more than a narrative version of court documents from Korn and Levitz. At times their accounting of events appears to extend sympathy to recently divorced parents looking to assuage their guilt about the toll the separation took on the family. That stands in stark contrast to the public damning of parents who falsified addresses to register children in crime-free primary schools.

Selingo has a bone to pick not only with parents involved in Operation Varsity Blues, but with all families who believe college admissions is about elite institutions or bust. “In your college search,” he counsels, “worry less about specific name brands and even majors and worry more about acquiring skills and experiences.” Using his own story of going to Ithaca College, Selingo argues that the economic payoff of a top-tier school might not be worth the stress, time or exuberant price tag.

For children from more privileged families, Selingo is right: From the odds of graduating to earnings in adulthood, college selectivity does not matter much. Selingo is wrong, however, to claim that this point applies to everyone. The very economists he cites offer “notable exceptions.” For Black, Latino and first-generation college students, the effects of attending a selective college “remain large.” In fact, these groups aren’t even exceptions; they are growing in demographic representation in higher education. Latinos are entering college at unprecedented rates, and elite colleges serve as mobility springboards for first-generation college students. Their heeding of Selingo’s prescient advice for the privileged could further deepen racial and socioeconomic stratification in higher education, to the detriment of the disadvantaged.

Despite these critiques, “Who Gets In and Why” and “Unacceptable” both speak to the current political moment, particularly when we consider the other, perennial debate in college admissions: affirmative action. Students for Fair Admissions maintains that Harvard University discriminates against Asian applicants. In August, a Department of Justice investigation accused Yale of discriminating against whites and Asians. It remains to be seen if ballot initiatives to overturn affirmative action bans like Proposition 209 will survive vitriolic backlash. Such bans and similar efforts masquerade as attempts to restore fairness and equality to college admissions. These books invite us all to a conversation about preferences in college admissions, but they put the privilege-hoarding pathways for the elite front and center. The lesson: Turning a blind eye to how money puts full fists on the scale permits affirmative action for the rich to run amok.

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