California Forum

College admissions scandal should shine light on students truly making their own way

Sacramento man accused of running college admission scam

A Sacramento man named William Rick Singer is accused of leading a college admissions scam that implicates actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, and CEOs in bribes to arrange for their children to be accepted into top U.S. universities.
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A Sacramento man named William Rick Singer is accused of leading a college admissions scam that implicates actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, and CEOs in bribes to arrange for their children to be accepted into top U.S. universities.

In the days after the college admissions scandal, parents took to social media with proud statements about their own kids who had earned their way into college on their own, through their own hard work. They lamented how sad it was that the cheating parents had deprived their children of this valuable experience.

One of those came from a mother whose daughter attended her alma mater, a school that gives preference to legacy candidates. The girl had attended a private prep school where the counselor had direct, close contacts at the college she would attend. Someone else offered up a good friend who sat on the admissions committee and who would be willing to put in a good word.

A dad talked about his son’s hard work in soccer that had led to his acceptance at a highly selective college. That had required club soccer at $3,000 a year, private coaching, top equipment and thousands of dollars more in travel to games.

Another mom had her daughter coached by a private college adviser starting in freshman year in high school so that she could present colleges with a shimmering “story.”

One boast about a hard-earned college acceptance got the public’s sense of irony going. Dr. Dre took to social media after the bribery scandal to praise his daughter for getting into the University of Southern California “all on her own.” He neglected to mention that he and fellow music industry mogul Jimmy lovine had donated $70 million to USC several years earlier to create an arts innovation academy.

So much pride over not committing a crime.

Opinion

It’s true that (apparently) none of these parents stooped to bribing college coaches or paying someone to correct their children’s SAT answer sheets or making them appear to be athletic stars in sports they had never played. A new report says that one father allegedly paid $6.5 million to pave the way into college for his children, though no details have been released on that, including his identity.

It’s natural for more straight-shooting parents to feel aggrieved by outright cheaters in a system that’s already byzantine and slanted. And, probably, most of their kids did put in loads of effort.

But let’s not fool ourselves: These students were not admitted through a truly meritocratic system. Yes, there are hard workers and smart brains involved in many, if not most, of these admissions. But the boasts I have seen also involve students who have been given a (totally legal) leg up for many years.

It’s more than legacy, donations and inside connections – the most obvious boosts that don’t involve student merit.

Those of us with the means – for preschool and educational children’s toys, for college educations and the ability to pay for private sports lessons, private schools, private college counseling and private SAT tutoring – should recognize that not all of our kids can take full credit for their acceptance letters.

Karin Klein

The admissions preference for athletes has been shown to heavily favor white, affluent families who can pay for lessons in sports that aren’t offered at most urban high schools; meanwhile, they on average under-perform academically. Merit is in the eye of the beholder.

Last month, I received a note from a young relative, a freshman in high school, asking for a donation so that she could go on a service trip to an impoverished country where she would coach kids’ soccer teams a few hours a day. Her family is solidly upper middle class.

If all these traveling teens stayed home, volunteered at camps in local low-income areas, and sent their babysitting money to these villages, they’d be doing a lot more good in the world. But foreign service trips are seen as a way to polish a kid’s résumé for future college applications.

But she’s already learning the lesson of using her connections – a network of middle-class friends and family – to give herself a leg up. If she wants to travel, fine. But this is not what accomplishing something through independence, initiative and a true sense of community service looks like.

Of course parents want to give their kids as good a (legal) start as possible, though too many are over-helping them to the point where they can’t manage things on their own. The application process, badly in need of overhaul, feels so hard that students without some of this extra help come to feel that they’re being left behind the crowd.

Where we go wrong is by then insisting that our offspring really accomplished all this themselves. Worse, the kids get the idea that this is what “on my own” looks like.

If they realized how many step ladders they had been given to raise them above the crowd, they also might be more likely to realize how many students do this without these resources. More than half of California school children are identified as low-income.

Maybe there would be less grumbling about admissions programs that try to give a boost to those who didn’t have private counselors to massage their records or parents to pay for sailing lessons, and a greater awareness that these are the students who are indeed doing it on their own.

Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at karinkleinmedia@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @kklein100.

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