Friday, May 28, 2021

Unacceptable: Privilege, Deceit & the Making of the College Admissions Scandal

Operation Varsity Blues was the codename for the investigation into Rick's Singer's college admission business. Rich clients would make "donations" to his charity. In turn, money would flow to college coaches in order to get children marked as "athletes" for preferred admission to their desired colleges. 

Singer's business started off as a somewhat legitimate college admissions coaching business. However, he had experience coaching sports and desire to "win". He realized that sports provided a great route to admissions. While popular sports, such as football and basketball are heavily scrutinized, the lesser sports often go under the radar. Most Ivy League schools do not give athletic scholarships. However, they do let coaches flag priority athletic students. Some sports, such as sailing and rowing rely heavily on students with little experience in the sport. This allows students to be claimed as athletes without actually participating in sports.

The admissions ring also included additional "doctoring" of applications. There were a number of nefarious actions undertaken for ACT and SAT tests. At one time, they would just send somebody with a fake ID to take tests in the name of a student. However, photos and other security mechanisms made this more difficult. To work around it, they would buy off proctors in certain locations to allow tests to be corrected. They would also apply for disability accommodations to give them more time to complete the test. 

Applications would be written by Singer's team. They would write essays and even include fake information stolen from newspaper accounts of others.

The scheme unraveled due to an unrelated investigation into penny stock fraud. A witness detailed the bribes paid to a coach which eventually ensnared Singer. He cooperated with the government to expose his clients. Many plead guilty to crimes, leaving many wealthy leaders spending brief time in jail.

The sting seemed to ensnare a mixture of different cupabilities. Some coaches were freely greasing their pockets with bribe money in order to grant admissions ot unqualified students. Others seems to be innocently raising money for their program. The Stanford sailing coach accepted donations to the sailing program. His sport would typically look for athletic students without prior sailing experience. Though the program received donations, none of the donations went to the coach and none of the students were actually flagged and attended Stanford.

While the bulk of the scandal focussed on the nefarious activities of the wealthy and admission counselors, the college complex itself got off relatively scott free. Even worse, most of the students that got in via Singer were kicked out of the schools. (This despite the fact that they were succeeding academically and had little knowledge of the fraud used to get them in.) 

Universities themselves are perhaps the biggest fraud. They claim to be selling one thing at a price, but are really selling something else at a different price. Elite colleges are primarily selling a luxury good. The "ivy league" diploma is a status signal and a way to open doors to lucrative careers. They hope to receive significant monetary contributions to provide a four year "retreat" for the nation's rich and famous. However, they claim to be providing an egalitarian education for all of society. To help carry out this mission, they partner with the government to provide extensive financial aid for "disadvantaged" students.

Why all the subterfuge? Why not go totally aboveboard? Perhaps they just need to be like airlines and sell the same seats for different prices. Let students apply for the admission tiers. The $5,000,000 tier may be a lot less competitive than the $5 tier. However, by doing this, the university is more likely to pocket money from the wealthy without all the shenanigans. Instead of relying on test scores, the schools can focus more on actually knowing the students. Personal interviews can come in to the mix rather than SAT stores. 

The excessive professionalization of university sports is also a big problem. Football and basketball are practically farm teams for the professional leagues. There also tends to be more scholarship money available in sports than in other academic areas. This will continue to create much conflict in the university admissions. Is it time to disconnect sports from college? Or can it be scaled back to an extent that it is a useful form of physical education rather than an all-encompassing part of school?

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