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When I first heard about a federal investigation of cheating and rigging of the college admissions process on behalf of wealthy people willing to pay, I completely misjudged the ramifications. I was not surprised.
Why was I not surprised? I was not surprised because admission to elite colleges and universities has long been rigged, though not as blatantly as the latest scheme. In the present story, ringers were paid to take the tests, and test answers were changed by proctors on behalf of students whose parents paid the price. That’s awfully blatant.
The old-time rigging was more subtle. Start with legacy admissions. If the college had eight applicants for every place, a student whose parent or sibling went to the same institution was likely to be admitted despite his or her grades or scores. That’s unfair.
Then there is the rigging that occurs when the college puts too much weight on the SAT or ACT, which favors students from wealthy homes, who have gone to the best schools and had advantageous life experiences. Numerous studies, including some released by the testing companies, acknowledge that the GPA (grade point average) is a better predictor of college success than the college admission test taken on a single day. That is why more than 1,000 colleges and universities have become “test-optional.” Go to the Fairtest website to see the list of test-optional institutions of higher education.
The scores on the SAT/ACT are also affected by tutoring, which is a function of parental income. So, not only do wealthy families begin with a big advantage, they can multiply their advantage by paying for tutors who are skilled in training students to raise their scores. Tutors can be very expensive. They may costs hundreds of dollars an hour. This skews the admissions process yet again towards those with money.
It would have been far simpler for the families involved in the present scam to pay a tutor $5,000-10,000, and they would have not been investigated by the FBI.
But there is one more way to get preferential treatment. Give a large gift to the college or university shortly before your child applies for admission. Daniel Golden, a journalist then at the Wall Street Journal, now at ProPublica, wrote a book in 2006 called The Price of Admission, about how wealthy people gave money to get their children into elite colleges. He referred to a little-known family named Kushner in New Jersey. A real-estate developer named Charles Kushner, who had graduated from New York University, made a gift of $2.5 million to Harvard in 1998. Not long after, his son Jared was admitted to Harvard.
I also quoted administrators at Jared’s high school, who described him as a less than stellar student and expressed dismay at Harvard’s decision.