(CNN)The FBI’s arrest of more than 50 people associated with what may be the largest college admissions cheating scandal in history has exposed how access to resources and connections can distort the admissions process — to an allegedly illegal extreme — and hurt ordinary applicants.
The victims of the scam described by federal prosecutors include not only deserving students who might have been offered the spots which, according to the charges, were corruptly offered to students with fraudulent applications, but also current students at these institutions who were admitted based on their own hard work and merit.
As a former admissions dean at Yale Law School, I worry about another group of victims: future talented college applicants from underprivileged backgrounds who may opt out of reaching for the most selective schools, believing that the deck is already stacked against them.
One of my biggest challenges as the dean of admissions was finding and recruiting “diamonds in the rough” — incredibly talented students who, without some encouragement, might not have otherwise applied to the top schools. Often these students were first-generation college or professional school students who lacked advisers or mentors telling them that such institutions were in their reach.
Others were students who had never known or met someone who had gone to these schools, and simply assumed that they did not belong in that world. Encouraging these students to take a chance and apply was personally rewarding and mutually beneficial: Many were pleasantly surprised when they were admitted, and their diverse backgrounds and perspectives enhanced the law school and its classrooms.
I sympathized with these students because I was once a clueless college applicant myself. Though my parents were professionals and expected me to go to college, they were immigrants from India with no idea about how the admissions process worked in the United States or the importance of standardized tests. They thought test preparation courses were a waste of money, and they didn’t have friends whose children went to Ivy League schools; the guidance counselor at my high school didn’t even suggest them as an option.
I applied to Princeton because of a brochure I got in the mail, using a secondhand study book and the dictionary to prepare for the SAT (note: attempting to memorize the dictionary is not an efficient study plan). I was a pretty unsavvy applicant, and I am grateful that the dean of admissions at Princeton chose to take a chance on a girl from an average public high school in southern Virginia.
As I reflect back, my ignorance of the admissions process worked in my favor — I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and so in some ways, anything seemed possible.
It’s likely that wealthy and well-connected students had an enormous advantage at the time (probably even more so than now), but from my perspective admissions was just a big, mysterious black hole into which one sent in their application and received a decision by snail mail several months later. No one really knew how the sausage was made, which actually gave people like me the confidence to take a risk.
The Internet Age has changed all of that. College acceptances, particularly of high-profile teens and celebrities, make the news cycle each year.
And while students now have more information about every college and university at their fingertips, they are also acutely aware of how they compare relative to their peers. Students can find “admissions calculators” online, which will take their GPA and test scores and spit out their odds of admission at a particular school.
Students can see firsthand the myriad test preparation courses promising score jumps for those who can afford them, and self-styled “admissions consultants” charging thousands of dollars for application help. Students come away with a clear message about how admissions works: If you have money, connections or “insider” knowledge, you have a leg up. It’s hardly surprising that many students of modest or lower means decide it’s not even worth playing.
The individuals named in the current admissions conspiracy allegedly abused their wealth and privilege to an extent that is shocking, even to those of us who are aware of, and trying to address, inequities in the current system.
Unfortunately, the case also magnifies applicants’ worst fears about the process and provides fodder for naysayers, such as cynical parents or counselors, to tell students — the very ones whom elite colleges may in fact be delighted to recruit and admit — not to even bother applying.
If the allegations in this scandal prove true, the parents accused will not only have damaged the prospects of the students whose seats their children took unfairly, but also those of future applicants who may have otherwise aspired to reach higher.