In wake of the recent college admissions scandal, former Tulane President Scott Cowen writes that it’s time to own up to our mistakes, close admissions loopholes, and rethink what it means to be elite.
The recent college admissions scandal is neither shocking nor surprising. That’s the consensus among the undergraduate students I’m teaching this semester. Aside from the ethical lapses of the accused parents—from using doctored photos of their supposedly athletic offspring to paying up to $6.5 million to get their kids into college—what we learned about the behind-the-scenes workings of college admissions consultants and university staff describes a system that my students intuitively knew is flawed.
Privilege has always offered opportunities to smooth the college admissions process for those whose parents have the means to pay for college test tutors, make significant donations to their dream school, or ask an influential family friend to put in a good word. This is not to suggest that all wealthy or well-connected parents misuse their status. From my personal experience, many do not. In fact, many give generously to support scholarships and other initiatives that increase equity of opportunity.
However, my students described feeling baffled at how certain kids would get into top colleges despite falling short on the characteristics commonly associated with highly admissible students. They retold standing jokes about how you can get into some colleges if your family funds a building on campus, and about the boost that legacy applicants often receive just for being born into an alumni family. My students and I came to the same conclusions: (1) the admissions system of elite colleges and universities is biased, if not rigged, in favor of already privileged students, and (2) elite institutions, as well as some parents, are complicit in creating the culture that led to the most recent scandal.
The actions of those charged with bribery and cheating are symptoms of a much larger problem that requires big changes—and not just at the colleges and universities implicated in the scandal. The question is whether our country’s highly selective institutions of higher education will acknowledge that we’re dealing with a widespread and deep-seated issue—a college admissions system that is not upholding standards of merit, equal opportunity, and social mobility—and whether they have it within themselves to change.
Elite colleges and universities claiming the moral high ground because they were not linked to this admissions scandal are missing an opportunity for some overdue soul-searching. This is not the time to breathe a sigh of relief and bathe in schadenfreude. Willingly or unwillingly, any institution that competes in higher education’s arms race is guilty of contributing to the current admissions culture. The tendency of many schools to boast about incoming classes, the number of applications they receive and students they reject, and their spots in highly questionable rankings, as well as pursuing the increasingly common practice of recruiting students from families with the right networks and deep pockets—have gotten us into this mess. The implications extend beyond college campuses to broader societal issues that are widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
Here is one possible starting path to redemption: all colleges and universities should have the courage and self-confidence to stop participating in published rankings. Most of these rankings are deeply flawed because they are primarily designed to make money for the publishers rather than reflect the quality, impact, and uniqueness of our institutions of higher education. (U.S. News & World Report introduced some encouraging changes to its methodology this year, but it would be naïve to think that the intensity of the competition spurred by the rankings will end anytime soon.)
If the top colleges and universities would take a principled stand and opt out of ranking enterprises like U.S. News, there would likely be a mass exodus of others. Colleges and universities would be encouraged to define, demonstrate, and measure their distinctive value in more meaningful and individual ways. Ideally, this change in focus could lead to a more equitable environment and clarity of purpose for prospective students, their parents, and institutions.
Another promising path is to rethink the usefulness of ACT and SAT scores and possibly replace them with new criteria for whether prospective students have the leadership skills and other competencies to succeed in college, life, and the workplace. Organizations like the Posse Foundation have developed such assessments to create access and success for thousands of students who otherwise might not be accepted at highly selective universities. However, the most critical and urgent challenge is for every institution to look at the big picture and reflect on their path in the context of the future of higher education, the needs of society, and standards of fairness and opportunity—in the U.S. and around the globe—to determine whether their admission policies and procedures truly align with their mission and vision for the future.
As for all the anxious students (and parents) out there who rely on hard work and honesty and forego backdoor wheelings and dealings, and wonder whether that’s enough to be admitted into their top choice school, I’ll leave you with a little story.
I come from a middle-class family, and my sister and I were the first to pursue a college education. In a world without Common App or advanced internet technology, I applied to only four institutions, in comparison to the dozen or more colleges and universities students apply to today. I had my heart set on one Ivy League institution that had encouraged me to apply because I had done well in high school and had a strong record of leadership in student government and athletics. However, when mid-April of 1964 rolled around (decades ago, early decision and early action did not exist), there was no acceptance letter in the mail. I had come up short on my dream university’s required SAT score and thus failed to qualify.
It took a lot of therapy to work through this rejection, which manifested itself in my mind like a recurring nightmare and a sense of personal failure. It would be 40 years until I could make peace with the experience. During my tenure as a university president, I received special recognition from the school and, after I disclosed what happened four decades earlier, was told that perhaps with the benefit of hindsight it had been a mistake to reject me. But even more important than finally receiving the approval that I had longed for was the realization that not getting into the university that represented my highest aspirations had been a motivating force throughout my career—not a barrier to my success.
The moral of this bittersweet anecdote? There is no reason to do crazy things to chase your college dream. Chances are that you’ll do well no matter where you end up, as long as you avail yourself of the learning opportunities that come your way and strive to be the best version of yourself.
To our shame, we have unwittingly created a system that drives prospective parents and students to the brink of corner-cutting and even criminality by creating the illusion that everything hinges upon a college experience at a small subset of colleges and universities. As institutions have fed into a selectivity hype that drowns efforts to provide upward mobility and opportunity for all, we have created plenty of loopholes begging to be exploited.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that some families are willing to use everything at their disposal to secure coveted college spots that promise instant prestige and access to unlimited opportunity for a chosen few. Corruption started seeping in many decades ago. It’s time we own up to our mistakes, close the loopholes, and rethink what it means to be elite.
Tremendous power and wisdom in this reflection. The professional-to-personal-to-professional thread … wow.
Thanks for a very thoughtful piece. I am still (since our days together at Case Western Reserve University) in the space of highly selective admissions; your perspective and those of your students certainly resonate with me. By sheer coincidence, the Turning the Tide Report 2, a monograph from Making Caring Common, was issued as long-planned several days after the “Operation Varsity Blues” indictment was made public. This report calls for many of the same reforms stated or implied in your blog. A growing number of secondary schools, colleges and educational organizations, including the major testing agencies, are part of the Character Collaborative whose mission is “to develop a research-based framework and proven best practices for advancing the identification and consideration of character attributes in the admission process and in how we educate young people.” I serve on the executive board and Bucknell is a charter member. I believe the Character Collaborative, Turning the Tide and other initiatives well under way before this scandal will play critical roles in closing the loopholes and rethinking what it means to be elite.
I enjoyed very much reading this. Thank you Scott!
Thank you for noting the collective responsibility. This very thoughtful piece is helpful as the professionals that serve students from low-income and first-generation backgrounds, like those served in TRIO, seek institutional support that you note align with the institution mission and vision.
Cindy Elias de Koster
Thank you for your insight, and for all you have done to make Tulane the great institution that it is!. Tulane was not the first choice of my daughter. and her aspirations were similar to yours.. A 2012 Tulane graduate from the Boston area, she has made New Orleans her home and Tulane her family, graduating from Tulane’s School of Medicine and now a resident physician with the university. Repeatedly, through the years, she has stated “I am exactly where I should be.”