Mulhall column: The college admissions scandal’s silver lining
College admission isn’t one of the longest-standing forms of meritocracy anymore.
OK, maybe that’s overstating it a bit, but starting at about $15K you, too, could boost your child’s chances of college admission — not to some flyover-country diploma mill, but to a bona fide, punch-her-ticket-to-wealth-and-fame institution of higher learning.
Yes, just last month the FBI’s Operation Varsity Blues uncovered a gaggle of wealthy parents who paid obscene amounts of money to boost their children’s chances of getting into prestigious universities.
One forked out a hefty $6.5 million — maybe not enough disposable income to rank in Bernie’s 1 percent, but apparently worth it to give junior a better shot at life.
Some parents hired surrogates to take standardized tests for their children while others had athlete profiles manufactured for back-door admission through a sports program.
No harm, no foul, right?
Turns out, this sort of fraud violates laws with punishments a bit harsher than tongue-clucks or wrist slaps.
The indictment frames a racketeering case, and with possible mail fraud, too, some parents could end up spending a large chunk of middle age in prison.
It’s worth noting that through much of American history, college admission had nothing to do with meritocracy. Prior to World War II, for example, college admission was mostly a function of economic class.
This began to change in the 1960s when colleges and universities began basing student admissions on standardized test scores.
As measures of scholastic achievement, test scores reflected the ability to successfully complete college-level study better than, say, a surname.
Test-based admission is a bit like the plot of Animal House: Two goofy college freshmen pledge the prestigious Omega Theta Pi house only to get black-balled, so they successfully pledge the somewhat less desirable Delta Tau Chi house instead.
Likewise, a high test score improves chances of elite college entrée. A lower score doesn’t preclude college admission, it just means you’re more likely to get an acceptance letter from Illinois Normal than Harvard.
Based on the Varsity Blues revelation, merit-based college admission, in whatever purity it may have existed, lasted about 50 years.
There’s lots to find troubling about this. But it’s not the wounding of merit-based admissions that bothers me most.
Rather, it’s the absence of a student’s voice in his or her future — both the student who got into a premiere college on a cheat, and, more sadly, the student who lost a place at the school because of it.
In 1987, I wrote in my graduate thesis, “If the mind has been denied access to higher understanding by any means other than a lack of self-discipline, the process of learning has been violated.”
That includes admissions-process meddling by someone else’s parent, and by the willing school representative who accommodated.
Perhaps it’s true that where a child’s talents are concerned, a parent’s hand is at once everything and nothing, which among other things makes parental cheating on a child’s college admission not just an unnecessarily low moral standard, but a pitifully self-absorbed one, too.
The reality is that life, and therefore college admissions, isn’t fair, or equal, or even well-intentioned, and a high school graduate who has grappled with some of life’s indifference enjoys valuable experience that will help carry the day that brings a rejection letter from a favorite school.
Tempered circumspection doesn’t soothe the sting of admissions fraud, however.
Too many hardworking young high school grads across the country received college rejections they shouldn’t have because wealthy individuals they’ll likely never meet tilted a particular academic opportunity away from their futures.
Nevertheless, I remain exceedingly bullish on America’s youth — perhaps to a fault — for several reasons.
First, college education is not the only path. Ask Mike Rowe.
Second, if you choose college, the school you attend means nothing compared to what you do when you get there.
Third, there are remarkable professors at every college and university, and you will find them — if finding them is important.
And finally, no matter what happens, there’s always a way forward: As last November’s midterms demonstrated, even folks with the academic history and cafeteria etiquette of John Blutarsky can win seats in government.
Mitch Mulhall is a husband, father and longtime Roaring Fork Valley resident. His column appears monthly in the Post Independent and at postindependent.com.
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