OP-ED Piece on the College Admissions Scandal

Date of Publication: 

March, 2019

Submitted by Gary Canter

The recent college admissions scandal unveiled by the FBI is causing shock waves in the press and a great deal of outrage and hand wringing among the public committed to the notion of fair play. We’re right to be offended by the egregious misconduct of the guilty parties.

I’m writing this piece as both a parent of a high school senior in the midst of her own college application process, and as a thirty year veteran educational consultant and guidance counselor who runs a business advising students and parents about - you guessed it - the college admission process.

And I’m writing to suggest that we’re looking at this scandal the wrong way.

Sure, the guilty parties deserve whatever punishment they get, but I think that the real story is being overlooked. What this incident highlights to me is not the existence of criminal activity, but the misunderstood notion held by most people of elite (or selective) college admissions.

In the United States, institutions of higher learning are founded on the principal of meritocracy - indeed this is the underpinning of Jeffersonian Democracy. A ‘meritocracy’ means a system in which the talented are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievement.

To wit, college admissions should be based on the merits and competitiveness of the student, and not on family wealth and power.

This principal is also the driving force behind college financial aid, whereby families pay college costs according to their ability and receive, in effect, discounted fees according to their need. Contrary to what many purport, I find the college financial aid process to be fair and equitable, and in true keeping with the principal of meritocracy.

Perhaps the above three paragraphs sound naive, but I’ve made an understanding of and adherence to these concepts the central piece of my advising service. I hold them as sacrosanct, and every reputable college administrator, and every competent college admissions officer and financial aid officer, will agree with it and do their best to adhere to it.

Keeping this in mind, here are three important points I wish to make about selective college admissions:

#1. The belief that the truly talented are the ones who get accepted to selective colleges is incorrect. “Talent” - when applied to college admissions - is undefinable. Thus selective college admissions is arbitrary and capricious.

Grades and rigor of courseload, standardized test scores, activities, essays and letters of recommendation somehow get mixed in a pot behind the closed door of the college admissions office in order to come up with a “ranking”.

Rankings are then translated by the individual colleges in to acceptances, denials and the occasional wait list, which we accept as definitive. They’re anything but.

The majority of applicants to selective colleges are “admissible”, yet only a small percentage of them will be offered admission. Without an accurate measure to apply to the applicant pool to determine who best deserves to be accepted, the results are subjective and unpredictable. What needs to be understood is that the process is flawed, but it is honest. You pay your money and you take your chances.

Dishonesty on the part of the applicant (or the parents of the applicant, or faculty in the employ of a college who take bribes) is a betrayal of the system, and should be punished when uncovered.

#2. A college’s selectivity does not define its quality. Happiness does. Most people believe that the colleges which are the hardest to get in to are the “best” colleges. They are not.

I tell clients that a “good” college is one where they will be happy, healthy and successful. A “bad” college is one where they won’t be. With this definition I’ve seen Ivy League schools which were terrible for a particular student, and nonselective state schools which were perfect.

#3. Acceptance to a selective college depends on “luck” and “pluck”. Certainly a candidate to a selective college must “have the goods” in terms of minimal credentials, but because nearly every applicant to a selective college falls within the “qualified” category, admissions is a game of successfully marketing oneself. I try to help students find the right way to do this, and I remind them (and their parents) that games should be fun, regardless of the outcome.

Let me end with some encouraging truths I’ve learned in my thirty years working with all types of students and families:

  • In America there are over 2,400 accredited four year colleges. Less than 120 of them are “selective” - meaning they may reject student applicants with B+ averages, honors courses, 1100 SAT scores and a modicum of activities. That leaves plenty  of wonderful schools to select from.
  • Where someone attends college is less important to future success (measured by lifetime earnings and career satisfaction) than what the student does while they are at college. If a student is prepared to be in college (one of the things I do my best to assess when I meet with students), they will be successful.
  • It’s a “buyer’s market” in terms of college costs. With so many schools to choose from, and with the existence of need based aid at every school (and merit-based aid at many of them), all families can find a range of excellent colleges to apply to which will be affordable.

Ignore the headlines. Pity or condemn the offenders as you would any white collar criminal. Don’t let this “scandal” sully your view of the vibrant and wonderful Colleges and Universities out there. Understand that college admissions is imperfect and misunderstood. Learn how the game is played and do it with integrity and optimism.

Gary Canter is owner and operator of College Placement Services in Portland. He’s worked with high school students and families since 1996 assisting them with all aspects of the college search, selection, application and financial aid process. gcanter1@maine.rr.com