This past Tuesday, March 26, thousands of nervous high school students counted the minutes until they could open the Vassar admissions portal. It was decision day. As most college students can attest, the admissions process is intensely stressful: Years of preparation in school, extracurriculars, high-stakes test-taking, applications and months of uncertainty. But what if you could bypass this rite of passage? What if you could buy and fake your way to the hallowed gates of your favorite university?
If you’re the daughter of Aunt Becky from “Full House,” the child of a hedgefund manager, or any affluent family for that matter, it turns out you can, too. Many people suspect that nebulous acceptances happen behind closed doors, but few were aware that the college admissions process could reach such levels of corruption and injustice. On March 12, federal prosecutors revealed allegations that at least 50 people had committed bribery and fraud to admit their students to college. Like the rest of the U.S., we at The Miscellany News reacted to this story with a strange duality: dismayed, but certainly not surprised.
This needs to be a watershed moment for institutions of higher education. The scandal demonstrates indisputable and captivating evidence of a broken system.
First, the admissions processes’ most traditional means of standardized measurement, the ACT and/or SAT, suffers from several flaws. Years of expensive and intensive tutoring boost some students miles ahead in preparation, and others are left behind simply by virtue of their socioeconomic status, not their level of determination or intelligence. Moreover, despite the development of fee waivers, other factors such as test prices and transportation to testing locations increase the exams’ inaccessibility to lower-income students. When the Scantron hits the table and the time starts, not all students are created equal.
In fact, class privilege penetrates every stage of the admissions process. While it is surprising that a parent would go so far as to Photoshop their child’s face on an athlete’s body, there has always been a convenient backdoor for affluent families: six-figure donations bestowed not so coincidentally around application time. What, however, distinguishes these bribes and the nefarious actions that have recently dominated headlines?
In response to general outcry, the administrators at the colleges involved in the scandal reacted accordingly: Six students currently in the admissions cycle at USC will be denied, and Yale rescinded the admission of a student already attending when it was exposed that her parents bribed the women’s soccer coach to endorse her (CNN, “Yale rescinds admission of a student whose family paid $1.2 million to get her in,” 03.26.2019).
Despite the immediate actions on the part of the colleges involved, the question arises going forward of where exactly the ethical lines are drawn in relation to these questions of inequality. For instance, it is illegal to have someone else take the ACT/ SAT in your stead. Yet, as previously mentioned, some have access to specialized tutoring and money to take the exams multiple times. The former is clearly unethical, but the latter lies in a moral gray area.
This gray area becomes more difficult to define when the question of curating one’s self arises. Everyone does it, whether on a college app or a resume—but how far is too far? Yes, bribing a college coach to endorse you is unacceptable, but what about lying to a college coach? Is it acceptable to claim you were captain, or to purport being part of a team when you didn’t attend practice?
What about lying in your college essay? Applicants are encouraged to present themselves in the best possible light, but doing so may promote the use of exaggerations and falsehoods to aggrandize achievements. In addition, paying someone to write your college essay for you seems just as unethical as paying someone to take the ACT/SAT for you, but shockingly, the former is not illegal.
However, legality and morality do not always align; while public opinion has denounced as immoral (not to mention illegal) the actions resulting in the recent scandal, there is less consensus on the moral status of the system’s legal loopholes. While it seems intrinsically unfair for a university to admit a less-qualified student because their family just funded a new chemistry lab, for instance, colleges— Vassar included—rely on donations from alums and families. Even if the intentions of these donations are not entirely charitable, the new chemistry lab will still benefit students—not to mention donations and endowment contributions that sustain financial aid programs.
Beyond the countless debates to be had over where an ethical line has or has not been crossed, this scandal hints at one unsurprising conclusion: The college admissions system is flawed and biased. As students at a prestigious college, we should, in this moment, consider how we may have taken advantage of this system, even in subtle ways.
Vassar should also recognize its role in this biased structure and strive to minimize opportunities for inequality to manifest in the admissions process. One possible step would be to follow the lead of peer institutions such as Bowdoin College, the University of Chicago and Wesleyan University in making the submission of ACT or SAT scores optional to mitigate the well-documented correlation between socioeconomic status and standardized test scores.
We are painfully aware that college admissions operates within a moral gray area, and there are more questions than easy answers. It is imperative that we at Vassar continue to interrogate the ways in which our academic system perpetuates biases and how we as individuals contribute to inequality—perhaps in subtler ways than bribing a college coach.
— The Staff Editorial expresses the opinion of at least 2/3 of the Miscellany News Editorial Board