A Cutthroat College Scandal

Terry H. Schwadron

March 14, 2019

This college admissions scandal is one for everyone to love.

Basically, the Department of Justice scooped up more than 50 coaches, educational testing people, parents and the ringleader of a scheme for super-rich parents to buy their children a place in a top college or university through fraudulent means.

The group included Hollywood celebrities and prominent business leaders who paid bribes to get their students — knowingly or not — into Wake Forest, Yale, Stanford, the University of Southern California and other schools, regardless of their academic or sports ability, officials said. The scheme funneled money from parents to select testing officials who either took substitute tests or changed test results, or routed money to coaches with a particular number of academic waivers.

In almost all cases, officials said, the schools didn’t know either. One person arrested was a USC official.

You might ask what’s the point of getting into Yale as a crew rower if you can’t row, or into the USC academic programs if you don’t know how to read at that level. How does this help the student or society at large?

We all understand this mania that parents have about their students getting into “good” colleges. In many cases in New York City, at least, that rolls all the way back to kindergartens. Somehow wealthier Americans accept that going to the right schools somehow lands adults in better status jobs and careers.

Americans seem to believe that they have a right to attend the “best” schools, to use the “best” doctors, to support the “best” sports team.

I had hoped that whatever truth may have existed around that thought at some point in the past, we’ve long since passed that caste-creating society. With all the discussion flouted by Sen. Bernie Sanders and other politicians about free public college tuitions, about the resurgence of community college feeders, and about the flattening of social success of top college graduates, you would think we have more important things to worry about.

Look at our needs as a society: We need a vast improvement in technical knowledge that can help with a job world that is increasingly automating, we have a societal need for more science-math teaching, we need a working understanding of liberal arts to know how to talk with one another and to treat one another with respect worthy of a democracy.

On the other hand, look at Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the forces she commands in pushing for any and all alternatives to public schools, whether religiously protected or not, charter schools, private education and you can get a taste that there is something still there about “choice” that represents a value judgment that says my family is better. Or the President, whose father droped $1.5 million on the University of Pennsylvania around the time that Donald Trump applied.

I’ll own up. I surprisingly went from public high school in Rhode Island to Brown University in Providence, as did my wife, also from Providence. I got in largely because the university was going through a period in which they wanted to reach out to local students. But I got into several others, and the idea of my parents paying money to buy me a space is laughable. Has my life as a journalist, musician, fellow traveler proved significantly different as a result? I doubt it. The other night I was in a hospital where all the treating nursing and PT staff had turned out to have attended Providence College, where I could have gone.

That college admissions have become so cutthroat and competitive has been an invitation for some who can afford it to break the rules. The authorities say the parents of some of the nation’s wealthiest and most privileged students sought to buy spots for their children at top universities, not only cheating the system, but potentially cheating other hard-working students out of a chance at a college education.

In this case, at the center of the sweeping financial crime and fraud case was William Rick Singer, founder of a college preparatory business called the Edge College & Career Network, also known as The Key. The authorities said Singer, who has agreed to plead guilty to the charges and cooperated with federal prosecutors, used The Key and its nonprofit arm, Key Worldwide Foundation, which is based in Newport Beach, Calif., to help students cheat on their standardized tests, and to pay bribes to the coaches who could get them into college with fake athletic credentials. Singer used “The Key” as a front, allowing parents to funnel money into an account that would not have to pay federal taxes.

In the aftermath, the NCAA is going to get involved as well, since sports has its own standards; universities where this happened are going to investigate their staff members; the educational testing service has problems it clearly must deal with.

In retrospect, this kind of scandal probably has been around since there was a Harvard, but it certainly feels as anti-American as they come.



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