Over a month after a widespread college admissions scandal broke in the U.S., I remain fascinated by the motivations and implications. Allegedly, parents paid large sums of money to ensure their children’s admissions through dishonest means. Highly respected schools including Yale, Stanford, University of Southern California, Wake Forest, Georgetown, University of Texas at Austin, and UCLA were involved. Non-athletes were touted as sports stars to gain coveted slots as recruited team members; coaches were bribed to recruit non-athletes for their teams; disabilities were feigned in order to take standardized tests under nonstandard conditions, creating the opportunity to bribe proctors to tamper with students’ work; and more.
I’d long known that substantial donations and status as an alumni child could enormously boost admissions odds… and that the process in general was not particularly fair for all kinds of reasons. But this situation added a twist of utter dishonesty that I wasn’t familiar with. If the admissions committee knows your parents donated a student center and then you arrive on campus… well… everyone knows how the world works. I’m very used to the world being unfair.
For that matter, I can see an excellent case for rewarding the family of someone who has created something wonderful at a school, even though, at the same time, it’s obviously unjust from the standpoint of individual students competing for admission along with the donor’s child. Reasonable people could make a case that it’s good to motivate potential donors with carrots that mean something to them, and how do you motivate someone who may be worth hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars?
Clearly a free dinner — even a super swanky one — won’t feel very exciting. Acceptance to a university with fearsome admissions statistics for a donor’s children? We might think that this would also not mean very much to someone whose connections and wealth can easily provide their children with fabulous experiences and contacts throughout their lives regardless of educational background. But, for whatever complex of reasons, it does matter to many. Some may have achieved wealth without an elite education, and their child’s acceptance might feel like a necessary crowning cap to their accomplishments, a way of compensating for lingering insecurity over, say, growing up in a family who couldn’t afford an expensive college… or a stubborn feeling of academic weakness despite dazzling post-school success. Others may feel that keeping certain experiences in the family is necessary for full life satisfaction and happiness: you loved Yale and you badly want your child to enjoy the same kind of school that launched you into adulthood. To settle for “less,” whatever that might mean, might feel like your family is regressing in terms of power and prestige in the wider world.
An incredible gift (say, a fabulous student center that thousands will enjoy each week) might command an incredible expression of thanks. If that means acceptances for the donor’s children when they apply… when I cock my mind towards the issue in a certain way, it seems eminently reasonable, assuming the students are capable of succeeding on some level at the school. The world shouldn’t work this way, but humans are humans and capitalism is capitalism, and this is what we’ve got at this moment. It’s bizarre and loaded in the way that so much of the world is bizarre and loaded.
The recent scandals fascinated me partly because they went beyond the well-known ways that wealth can work in the educational world, and entered into the territory of stark dishonesty… and, at the same time, stark honesty, in the sense that the perpetrators simply paid for what they wanted — admittance for their children — and didn’t bother with the intervening step of helping the school in question with a large donation. In most cases, the scandal approach was considerably cheaper. Donations need to be enormous to virtually ensure a student’s admission. One hundred thousand or even half a million often won’t cut it. But, for a relative bargain, you can bribe a coach with recruiting clout and a standardized test whiz and get the deed done, since top athletic recruits are pretty much assured admission if their academic credentials meet a certain threshold. The combination of athletic recruitment and high test scores is a relatively sure thing for a comparatively manageable sum.
So why am I sitting here mulling this situation over when it’s not breaking news? Why does it linger in my mind and my imagination? First of all, one key aspect of this scandal reminded me of an issue I faced as a college applicant with a serious, well-documented learning disability: the possibility of extra time during standardized tests. When I was a high school junior and senior, extra time was an option for students who could prove that they had a relevant disability, but — and it was a huge “but” — the nonstandard conditions would be noted when their scores were reported to schools.
Because of that notation, I was advised to take my standardized tests under normally timed conditions. Granted I was a particular case: I was shooting for some very selective schools, and I was able to do very well on verbal sections and marginally decently on math sections even under normal conditions. My guidance counselor thought that taking the tests with extra time would downgrade my results in admissions officers’ minds, and that sounded right to me. But, if I could have received extended time without admissions officers knowing, I would have chosen that path with no hesitation. I never came close to finishing math sections because of the time it took to organize my work when solving problems — a direct result of my nonverbal learning disability — so my scores there would have been much higher if I’d had a lot more time. I would have had nothing to lose, and my scores probably would have been a more accurate indicator of my actual ability.
In 2003, the College Board stopped flagging results of tests that were taken under nonstandard conditions. Eventually, savvy students and parents realized that, if they hired the right professional, they could obtain the kind of diagnosis that would allow them extra time on standardized tests, even if they had no actual disability. In other words, they discovered the possibility for fraud.
Conversations I’ve had with many students from affluent school districts and private schools suggest to me that large numbers are doing it. All it takes is the funds for some outside testing and the ability to locate a tester with a tendency to see students in the way they hope to be seen, given their goals. It’s the kind of thing that can be rationalized fairly easily, with just a bit of creativity and moral flexibility. Maybe a student doesn’t have that kind of disability, but God knows he’s an anxious soul whose quest for joy and happiness would be very well served by eliminating the horror of a strictly timed test that could drive his educational outcomes. A loving parent might understandably ask: what could be bad about helping him out in this way?
To be clear, I’m not condoning this sort of thing. I have a legitimate learning disability, and all this scheming and gaming downgrades the very real concerns of students like me, who often have considerable potential but need some special accommodations in order to succeed. I’m simply saying that I can understand the mindset behind the efforts to gain extended time even when no truthful diagnosis would warrant it.
Fraud on this level is common enough for some students to feel that they’ll be at a disadvantage relative to their peers if they don’t make the effort to get their own diagnoses. To be honest, none of this surprises me; it fits perfectly with the mindset of the obsessive striver — you should use whatever advantages you can obtain to game this increasingly hardnosed system and try to gain some control over it. I get it. Given the fuzziness of many diagnoses and my own entrenched feeling that life is hard and should be managed in the most painless way possible, I can’t condemn the dishonest seekers of extended time too harshly.
Those involved with the recent scandals took this possibility for gaming the system and multiplied it to the point where it shocked even my cynical mind. My sense is that the overwhelming majority who receive extra time take the tests themselves and get their own scores… even if those scores are enriched by accommodations they shouldn’t have received. But, once students are taking tests in special places with special proctors, new and wondrous possibilities arise. Test administrators were bribed to change students’ answers and boost their scores. Plans were made in advance for particular people to oversee particular students’ exams… and then do some serious doctoring up after the students left.
As I see it, there is no room for moral openness here. This is pure cheating, just like bribing a university tennis coach to claim you’re a key recruit and get you in when in fact you have little talent for the sport (another line of attack that scandal mastermind William Singer organized for his clients). But it involves college admissions, something I haven’t had to deal with in more years than I care to admit. And yet I’m still thinking about this bizarre scheme.
I think part of it stems from deep questions it arouses for me: Would I want to be admired based on false assumptions or skewed information? If I were given the chance to make that happen, would I do it?
People close to me know that I very badly want to find good publishers for my current book projects. In fact, my obsession with that goal is similar in some ways to the obsession some high school students have with getting into an elite college. People laugh at the silliness of kids who think their worth depends on getting into a certain pool of schools, but I understand, partly because I have my own nagging goals that feel non-negotiable. Either I meet them or… it’s over. Not my life, of course, but some deep-seated sense of self-worth and contentment with where my life is headed.
What if some splendid publisher approached me and said they’d publish all of my book ideas, but only if I paid them $15,000? Now, that’s crazy, partly because of the small sum involved. But I wouldn’t risk my financial health or future for this, and I’m not wealthy. $15,000 to me might feel similar to a much wealthier person forking over $500,000 or some such to get her kid into Stanford. $15,000 is a whole lot of money for me, but doable for something that is so screamingly important to me.
Now, I should make clear that I have no interest in self-publishing. Why? Part of it is simple: I don’t want to pay to publish my own book. And yet I’m hypothetically considering paying $15,000 for Knopf or Riverhead or whatever to publish it. So what’s going on?
If I self-published, everyone would know that I paid to publish my own book. I wouldn’t feel proud to tell people about it. And why is that? Because I wouldn’t have had to impress anyone or beat other writers out in competition for limited publishing slots. It wouldn’t have that WOW factor. I want that WOW factor, just like the 17-year-old kid wants to impress her dentist when she tells him she’s going to Princeton. Maturation isn’t one of my specialties, and I’m the first to admit it.
But imagine if someone at a WOW kind of publisher said: “Hey, look, you really aren’t making the cut, but, if you pay us $15,000, we’ll publish all of your writing. We’ll eliminate one of the writers we were going to sign up to make room for you.” So I’ve been told point blank that I don’t have what it takes in some objective sense, but I have an offer to make it seem like I do to other people. In addition, I’ve been informed that I would oust someone else who does have what it takes if I move forward and pay the $15,000. How do I proceed?
I’m sorry to say that it’s an extremely tricky question. I wish I could be all “Hells no, I would never do such a thing.” But, unless you know me very well, you have no idea just how badly I want my publishing dreams to work out. On the other hand, I am also deeply focused on spiritual and mystical possibilities… and that includes the potential mystical power of my behavior. Would this unsavory act have ramifications I couldn’t predict? For that matter, I am very fearful and mistrusting, and I would wonder whether the publisher in question was somehow setting me up or using me in a way that would backfire on me.
All things considered, I would shy away from this $15,000 transaction. But it wouldn’t be easy. Until I somehow managed to succeed through other means, I would regularly second-guess and even berate myself over my choice.
But how could I even consider this scenario? It involves ousting some other writer who is supposedly more worthy because I paid $15,000. Here’s where it all becomes fascinating. The key word is “supposedly.” Call me arrogant or a jackass or whatever you want, but I feel that my writing is extremely worthy in some absolute sense, even if the gatekeepers don’t agree. And with a prestigious publisher’s name behind my book, I’d have a strong chance of connecting with readers and reviewers who would resonate with my assessment. For that matter, when said readers and reviewers would come across the book, having that publisher’s name behind it would be kind of like the upper-class British person’s accent that pushes Americans to feel very impressed during every conversation.
Before you run away in horror, I need to clarify one key point: I would never, ever offer to bribe someone. I would never initiate this kind of act. But if someone proposed an option for me to pay them to get where I desperately want to be in a situation where that’s not usually done… well… temptation would gnaw, as long as the amount wasn’t enough to compromise my overall financial stability.
Let’s return to the parents behind these admissions scandals. I’ve already explained that I have a certain confidence in myself and my work that goes beyond what gatekeepers might say. I’ve also shared that I want those same gatekeepers’ imprimatur. Many parents I know feel the same way, more or less, about their children. They may realize that certain other kids tend to get better grades and are seen by others as being more talented, charming, and intelligent. But they know how special their kids are. They’ve lived with their children for all these years; they know they’re every bit as impressive as that ridiculous valedictorian with the nervous laugh or that irritating girl who is always winning awards for her music. They know that, if their kid went to Stanford, she’d find her own way to shine, regardless of any objective measures that she may or may not be able to tackle on her own.
If they cheat to make this happen, they’re doing something very wrong. And yet, when I consider this situation from certain perspectives, I can understand, on a level, even if I vehemently disagree.
Stephanie Wellen Levine is the author of Mystics, Mavericks, And Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls: winner of Moment Magazine’s 2004 Emerging Writer Book Award. Currently, Stephanie is on a spiritual quest as she completes a second book and teaches at Tufts University.