Plenty of blame to go around in university admissions scandal
As I was about to begin my graduate studies the parent of a student I was tutoring offered me $800 an hour to help her son to get accepted into the school I would be attending. I said I didn’t feel comfortable, and that I was happy to provide general advice
She was silent and then said, “$1,200 an hour?” I turned her down, but I wonder where her son is today.
The indictment of a number of wealthy parents for bribing their children’s way into elite American schools has rightfully called into questions about education and meritocracy.
And it’s not just an American phenomenon. In South Korea, Ewha University, an all-women’s university that has consistently been one of the country’s most prestigious, was embroiled in an admissions scandal involving the former senior adviser to the Korean president. In Britain, two senior school officials were forced to resign when an undercover reporter successfully bribed them for admissions.
Canada is not immune, either. My alma mater, McGill University, was the subject of a lawsuit by a former admissions official who made a number of allegations about how the school consistently allowed admission to low performing offspring of the country’s elite, though none of it was substantiated.
Ironically, a 2014 study found that students who are poised to succeed tend to do so even if they don’t get into the Ivy League, with the exception of students who come from less privileged backgrounds who benefit greatly from selective colleges. Elite higher education gives them “social capital” they didn’t already have. Fascinating to me that “social capital” is such an important indicator of future success.
For every child who gains admission to a school on the basis of false or exaggerated recommendations, another who doesn’t have access to the hallways of power gets left behind; perpetrating the status quo.
On the other hand, as parents, do we have the right to use all resources at our disposal to help our children get that unpaid internship that is the difference between getting accepted, or not, to graduate school or that first job that fundamentally defines trajectory of an entire career? Who amongst us hasn’t make a call or written a recommendation for a friend’s child and exaggerated their contributions?
And just like immigrant parents like mine, every parent is rightfully anxious because getting into the right school matters, especially today.
While buying access to admission is clearly unethical, for me it raises questions about what other less obvious advantages create a cycle of entitlement for the advantaged.
The New York Times Claire Cain Miller recently highlighted the significant gap in the U.S. on the annual spend on education and extracurricular activities between the wealthiest families and the rest of the country is a question of multiples, almost twice in those in the upper middle class.
In South Korea, more families have taken on dangerously high levels of debt to spend on cram schooling and tutoring to ensure a proper placement for their children. And this cycle will worsen as the first millennials approach their 40s with children of their own. They were the first cohorts to experience the diminishing economic opportunities for the middle class.
There are number of solutions and some are Canadian-made. In Quebec, the government introduced the R code for university admission. The score took into account a student’s ranking against other classmates but also compensated if a student attended a less prestigious school.
The government and financial institution can support those studying in less lucrative fields through greater bursaries and loan forgiveness programs.
But the current situation serves as the bellwether of the question we need to ask ourselves as parents: How do we raise responsible, independent, and productive children? And, what values we declare matter the most? For my wife’s family, the answer was very simple.
As a Korean high school student, my wife wanted to train as a math teacher at an elite college, then her teacher propositioned her: in exchange for money, she could put in a good word into the admissions office. Her family said no and my wife didn’t attend her first-choice college. Worse, she knew others paid and got in. Today, my wife teaches math in Montreal’s public high school system while her former teacher was fired when caught.
Before we tar and feather the likes of Felicity Huffman, Lori Loughlin and David Sidoo, there is plenty of blame to go around. Perhaps significant responsibility falls to schools, college testing company’s and hiring managers.
Shouldn’t a university operating as an enterprise have basic compliance safeguards in place? How did the college entrance exams companies miss a pattern of students from high income zip codes suddenly getting accommodations, taking the test at special locations, and seeing score jumps of 400 points?
And as employers and business leaders, perhaps we should be less impressed by candidates with “elite college” degrees (like mine) and be more impressed by candidates from lower socio-economic backgrounds who meet or exceed qualifications, without overvaluing the aid of the social capital that comes from an elite school education.
Thomas Park is a first generation Canadian, a graduate of McGill University, Dartmouth and a non-bribing graduate of Harvard University. He currently serves as vice president of BDC in Montreal.