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A little bit of Gold and a… College Acceptance Letter?

They say the college admissions game has changed, and American rap icon Dr. Dre wanted to share how he felt about it. Dre posted a picture with his daughter and her acceptance letter to the University of Southern California – the university recently made infamous for its role in the college bribery scandal – on Instagram. “My daughter got accepted to USC all on her own. No jail time!!!” the caption read. The post was a jab at wealthy parents who were recently indicted on account of bribing college coaches and standardized test administrators to get their kids into prestigious American schools. The one who “brought you the oldies” just wanted to brag about his kid making it into a prestigious school with a 17.7% acceptance rate, as any proud parent would. However, commenters on Dre’s post swiftly pointed out that he really hadn’t “let his dough freeze,” citing a 70 million dollar donation to the school to fund the U.S.C. Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation. He has since deleted the post.

As someone who has gone through the American college process myself, I was unsurprised by this ‘scandal’. It was almost comical how the media was reporting it with a level of shock, not unlike Fox News covering the Whitewater scandal. In America, college culture is shoved down our throats from an early age. Our parents pour it into our breakfast cereal before we go to school; we watch fictional teenagers stress about going to Harvard on the TV shows we watch; we sign up for extracurricular activities because adults tell us ‘it will look good on our application’. Going to college is no longer seen as a way for academically gifted people to further their education – it is an expectation. The demand for a college education had dramatically increased in the job market, and since 1988, college enrollment has doubled.

The scandal was really only labeled a “scandal” because it involved high profile celebrities. All it did was bring an age-old practice to the front page, with household names like “Lori Loughlin” and “Felicity Huffman” in the headlines. It has always possible for wealthy parents to get their kids into “elite” institutions – this is not a new phenomenon. The absurdity of this scandal is that rich people are seemingly too lazy these days to do it the hard way, and that they’re apparently not above breaking the law to make the process easier for their children.

However, the scandal did stir some debate on the difference between, say bribing a college coach to gain admission and donating a building to the school in exchange for an acceptance letter. Vice news interviewed a group of Yale students with this same question. One of the students said it best when he said there may be a difference in degree between the two scenarios, but not in kind. The child whose parents either directly bribed an individual person, or a child whose parents donated a building to the school is still not getting into the school based on their individual merit. Both were given an unfair advantage over not as wealthy applicants who – god forbid – have to rely solely on their own talent. The common denominator in these scenarios is still money, and there’s no real difference in whether the student from a wealthy background ‘deserved’ to get in.

American students are told that college is one of the first steps in pursuing the American Dream. And if there’s anything High School English class has taught us, it’s that you have to work hard for it. Guidance counselors and college admissions officers tell us that if we want to go to a prestigious university we have to maintain perfect grades, get good standardized test scores, and write an essay that makes us “stand out”. We have to seem “well-rounded”, participate in athletics, music, and volunteer. We have to take on positions of leadership and suck up to our teachers for good letters of recommendation. Kids in their naïveté drink the kool-aid and are disappointed when it doesn’t work out the way they hoped it would come spring. We weren’t told that what colleges really like to see is whether applicants will pay their tuition in full and the legacy of a wealthy family who have donated to the school. Moreover, families with significant wealth at their disposal can pay for their kids to get tutors, standardized test prep, and enrollment at an elite private school that essentially feeds students into these prestigious institutions.

The reality of college admissions in the United States is far more complex and unethical than it seems to the outsider. First, there is the issue of what I like to call “college clout.” We hold certain schools on pedestals and see others as inferior. Kids applying to college want people to be impressed when they tell people where they’re going, and so do parents. I mean, I’d be lying if I didn’t think about how others would perceive me when I announced where I was going to school on my facebook wall. The idea is that if you go to an institution like an Ivy League school, you are superior to someone who doesn’t. This seems to make sense. More selective schools select smarter students, meaning they have better academic programs and have a “golden ticket” to becoming successful in life. While there is some truth to this notion, as people who attend Ivy League schools tend to make more money, studies have shown that your major is actually a more important factor in earnings than the actual school you attend (I’m looking at you, engineers). It has also been shown that in terms of social mobility, public schools and community colleges, like the City College of New York, are far better than the Ivies. Furthermore, in a survey of a wide range of public and private institutions, only 14 out of the top 100 companies in the U.S are products of the Ivy League. There is clearly very little correlation between success and the college you attended. Another Gallup poll shows happiness and life fulfillment aren’t connected to college selectivity. The preconceived notion that some colleges have more “clout” than others is the match that lights the college hysteria.

black bicycle parked in front of building

The panic centered around college admissions contributes to the second issue of absurd tuition costs at private institutions, as well as the cost of just applying to school. The required test a student must take to get into college is either the SAT, which costs $47.50 ($64.50 with the “optional” essay portion) or the ACT, which costs $50.50 or ($67 with the essay). Most students will take both of these tests multiple times. Then there are SAT subject tests, where schools like Georgetown require you to take three to apply, that cost $22 a pop plus a $26 registration fee. There’s also Advanced Placement tests, which cost $90 each. Without unpacking the whole testing charade (there’s a lot that can be said about that alone), it has been shown that white, wealthier students do better on these tests because their parents can spend thousands of dollars on tutors and prep courses. Tests aside, there’s the actual application which, on average, costs around $50 per school, though “top universities” tend to charge closer to $75. Guidance counselors will often recommend applying to at least eight schools to ensure that you get into at least one. This, on top of the price of tuition and fees, averaging $35,676 per year at private institutions, is extremely costly. Colleges and universities deemed “good” by society are only accessible to wealthy, usually white individuals. People who can’t afford this are even willing to go into massive amounts of debt just to put that prestigious name on their resume. Seventy percent of college students today graduate with significant amounts of debt and the average borrower will owe $37,172 in loans.

The third unethical issue of the college admissions scandal is the problem of athletic recruitment. The scandal also brought up this predicament because Lori Loughlin bribed the USC crew coach to tell the admissions office that her daughters were going to be rowing recruits. Athletics plays a very big role at most colleges and universities in the United States, because they are so heavily commercialized and make schools a lot of money (March Madness, anyone?). Schools place a heavy emphasis on getting the best athletes for their teams, so much so that if you’re talented enough, you don’t even have to meet the academic expectations of the school to be granted a spot there. Colleges have been criticized for accepting some academically stronger athletes, but not having them play just to keep a team’s average GPA on track, as well as creating fake classes with high, doctored grades for recruited athletes just so they could meet graduation requirements. 1 out of 5 spots at selective universities go to recruited athletes. Rowing, in particular, has often been used by wealthy families to get their children a leg up in admissions since it is an extremely expensive and exclusive sport. It has been an “open secret” amongst parents that rowing was a door to the Ivy Leagues. When I participated in crew at my high school, a huge selling point broadcasted in our recruiting pamphlets was that rowers who had participated in our program had gone off to Ivy League Schools, Georgetown, and UC Berkeley. So many parents on our team forced their kids to participate, convinced it was their only hope of their son or daughter getting into a “selective school.” In my opinion, universities should prioritize education. The reason to want to go to college in the first place should be to enrich oneself through learning. The irony of it all is that Lori Loughlin’s “rower” daughter didn’t even care about the actual learning part of school. She was mainly interested in going there to party and attend sports events. This hype around athletics just isnot the same in other countries. In Europe, for instance, gifted athletes are given opportunities to expand their talents in programs sponsored by the sports industries. Educational institutions should not be responsible for taking on this role, and should redirect that focus into educating the next generation. Changing this of course would also require a huge cultural shift.

So, will the “Varsity Blues Scandal” change anything about the way the college process works in the United States? Probably not. Colleges and Universities have turned into for-profit businesses ever since the government significantly decreased funding for education. And as long as society is providing the demand for “clout” education, wealthy, under-qualified kids are going to keep taking the spots of students who probably deserve to be there more. The real lesson from all of this is that colleges and Dr. Dre seem to have similar principles: “Everybody wanna come to me like it was some disease / But you won’t get a crumb from me.”

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