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Corruption and the ‘commodification of college admissions’

Fifty people in six states were charged earlier this month by the Justice Department with being active participants in perhaps the greatest college admissions scandal in the nation's history.

Great Barrington — The recent higher education scandals and indictments of dozens of people by the U.S. Department of Justice have raised public consciousness of the college admissions process to a new level.

Observers and college guidance professionals in the Berkshires and neighboring northwestern Connecticut have taken notice, in part because of the high number of private schools and the abundance of brainy kids in many of the public schools.

Bill Short, founder of The Short List, based in Great Barrington. Photo courtesy Bill Short

“I can’t tell you the number of people who have reached out to me,” said Bill Short, who 18 years ago founded The Short List, a college and career counseling firm based in Great Barrington. “They’re asking me, ‘What is this?'”

Earlier this month the Justice Department charged 50 people in six states with being active participants in perhaps the greatest college admissions scandal in the nation’s history. Not surprisingly, Short described the week as “turbulent and upsetting.”

Click here to read the actual indictments (all 23 pages of them) issued by the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts. The colleges and universities themselves were held harmless. The serious charges against the individuals include fraud and racketeering conspiracy.

While it’s not clear how the defendants will be punished if convicted, the charges are felonies and could result in jail time. At least three, including Yale’s head women’s soccer coach, have signed plea agreements admitting guilt.

The methods of deception and bribery, and the list of highly selective colleges cited, includes everything but the kitchen sink. Dozens of wealthy people, including two well-known Hollywood actresses, paid fixers to misrepresent their children’s test scores, help students cheat on the tests or create phony athletic credentials and bribe athletic coaches to recommend admission to the colleges’ gatekeepers.

Perhaps most the outrageous method of parental deceit, authorities say, was the use of staged or doctored photographs of their children performing feats of athletic prowess. The images depicted mostly semi-exotic sports that the students never participated in but that could nonetheless give them a leg up in elite schools, such as pole vaulting, rowing and water polo.

The institutions of higher learning implicated in the scandal include some of the nation’s finest: Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, Boston University, Northeastern, UCLA, USC, the University of Texas at Austin and Wake Forest.

“This is definitely an extreme and I simply haven’t heard of anything like this happening before,” Short said. “The criminal behavior took place on so many levels, including the College Board, college coaches, and administrators.”

Short said he could not really speak to the behavior of others, but most college counselors and admissions officers have a high level of integrity and “have to sign a rigorous code of ethics.”

The Short List and many other reputable firms provide college and career counseling in accordance with the Code of Ethics and Professional Practices as set forth by the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Short received so many inquiries from clients, parents and students that he decided to post a letter on the company’s website addressing the issue.

“We believe this is a student-driven process and do not subscribe to the commodification of college admissions,” Short said. “When done properly, the college application process is an important opportunity for self-discovery and growth.”

Short told The Edge that some parents do have unrealistic expectations not only about which colleges their children are likely to be admitted to, but about the services a firm such as his might provide.

“Have I received unethical requests?” he asked rhetorically. “Absolutely. Typically, they ask if we will write their kid’s application. We don’t do that.”

That said, Short acknowledged that the industry is a little like the Wild West: “These businesses are not regulated. Anyone can hang a shingle and say, ‘I’m a college counselor.'” That’s why it’s important, Short added, to have a set of guiding principles such as those the Short List adheres to, and for parents to look for help from counselors who abide by ethical codes promulgated by organizations such as NACAC.

“This is an unfortunate example of the lengths to which people will go to circumvent and manipulate the college admission process, particularly to gain admission to highly selective colleges,” said Stefanie Niles, who heads NACAC and is vice president for enrollment and communications at Ohio Wesleyan University.

Echoing Short, Niles wrote on NACAC’s website that the scandal is an “extreme response to the commodification of the college admission process — one that is focused on college acceptance as an end unto itself.”

Veteran college counselor Sheldon Clark. Photo courtesy Sheldon Clark

Sheldon Clark, who was a college counselor for more than 20 years at the Forman School in Litchfield, Connecticut, and Beaufort Academy in South Carolina, has also served as an independent college counselor for hire through the Educational Planning Group.

Clark told The Edge has was shocked by the brazenness of the schemes and the lengths to which the consultants and schemers went to circumvent and corrupt the process.

“To identify non-athletes as athletes I had never heard of before,” Clark said in an interview. “In my day, we had promoted athletes, but at least they were athletes.”

The kind of explicit corruption contained in the recent federal racketeering indictments are to be distinguished from what some call the “soft corruption” that has been commonplace in the industry for decades.

Clark said he recalled a student at an elite prep school (he declined to specify which one) whose grades were below par for admission to the Ivy League school to which he was applying. The parents of the student were told by the college that if they contributed (in addition to the tuition payments) about $250,000 over their child’s four years there, then he would be admitted.

“Thankfully, he wound up going someplace else,” Clark said of the prep-school student.

Clark added that in private schools, it was not uncommon for the college adviser writing the student’s recommendation to mention if the parents of the applicant had been generous donors to the school.

And of course, it’s an open secret that being wealthy helps on so many levels elsewhere in life: from access to health care, to preferential treatment by the criminal justice system, to fancy tax shelters.

In the realm of higher education, of course, the wealthy can also afford to hire content-area or standardized-test tutors. And students gain a clear advantage if they have a relative who attended the university they’re applying to—known in the trade as legacy admissions.

“People keep saying it’s the tip of the iceberg,” Clark said of the recent wrongdoings. “It will be interesting to see how they are punished. It is an embarrassment to the schools and colleges; that’s for sure.”

Graduates brave the rain and file into a tent for the 2018 commencement exercises at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington, which was untouched by the college admissions scandal. Photo courtesy Bard College at Simon’s Rock

To find shock and dismay in the Berkshires, look no further than Great Barrington’s Bard College at Simon’s Rock, which has both an early college program for high school-age students as well as more traditional college programs that offer associate and bachelor’s degrees. Officials at Simon’s Rock declined to be interviewed for this story but did send statements to The Edge.

Cindi Jacobs, director of admission and enrollment at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington. Photo courtesy Bard College at Simon’s Rock

“So many of us who work in college admission, or higher education more broadly, do so precisely because we believe in its power, and focus our efforts specifically on equity and broader access,” said Cindi Jacobs, director of admission and enrollment at Simon’s Rock.

“We are all too aware of the enormous number of subtle and blatant educational advantages that wealth provides before and throughout a child’s schooling, and in the college admission process. While these events are in some sense unsurprising, they are also shocking and dispiriting to the vast majority of those working in the field.”

Ian Bickford, provost and vice president of Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington. Photo courtesy Bard College at Simon’s Rock

Simon’s Rock provost and vice president Ian Bickford hopes the scandal will steer the conversation about college admissions in a different direction, “away from prestige-mongering and toward the many alternative high-quality college and university options available today.”

“The moral failings of individual families in the recent college admission scandal is dwarfed by the culpability of those very few high-profile institutions that are the cause of, and continue to encourage, the disgraceful scrum of college admissions today,” Bickford said. “Prizing selectivity, and falsely linking selectivity to quality, they purvey panic and covetousness among their prospective students.”

Bickford added that one of the goals at Simon’s Rock “is to relieve families of the manufactured anxieties of the conventional college admissions contest” and “to replace gate-keeping with bridge-building.”

Chapin Hall at Williams College. Photo courtesy Wikipedia

The Edge also reached out to Williams College, which was not implicated in the scandal but is one of the most selective liberal arts colleges in the country. Gregory Shook, the college’s media relations director, said Williams is “not commenting on this scandal or its related issues.”

Bickford may be getting his wish, as conversations are indeed taking shape across the nation. One study recently summarized in the Wall Street Journal found that a school’s brand is an unreliable measure of student success:

“We found that a school’s selectivity … is not a reliable predictor of outcomes, particularly when it comes to learning. As common sense would suggest, the students who study hard at college are the ones that end up learning the most, regardless of whether they attend an Ivy League school or a local community college.”

Denise Pope, senior lecturer at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education. Photo courtesy Stanford University

The study was conducted by Challenge Success, one of the founders of which is Denise Pope, senior lecturer at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education and author of the aforementioned Wall Street Journal op-ed. To read the full study, click here.

Pope also cited a recent study by Gallup-Purdue that found six key college experiences showing a strong connection with future job satisfaction and well-being. None of those experiences are related to the prestige of the institution: taking a course with a professor who makes learning exciting; working with professors who care about students personally; finding a mentor who encourages students to pursue personal goals; working on a project across several semesters; participating in an internship that applies classroom learning; and being active in extracurricular activities.

And, of course, correlation is not causation. As another Wall Street Journal writer observed, “The fact that smart, ambitious children who attend elite colleges also do well in life doesn’t mean the first caused the second.”

“You don’t have to go to Harvard or Princeton to be a first-rate success,” said Clark.

“Moby-Dick is Moby-Dick, no matter the college,” added Short. “Words don’t change. What changes is the level of discourse. They are teaching the same book the community colleges are teaching … ‘Bloom where you’re planted,’ I like to say.”

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