Others’ opinion: Buying admission to a college of choice

Published 8:07 am Friday, March 15, 2019

Star Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Any prospective student who has endured the college application process and been crushed by a rejection letter has every right to be outraged this week.

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The nationwide admissions scandal revealed in Boston on Tuesday is a reminder that at some schools, including several of the nation’s most prominent, a large check can make all the difference. That’s especially true if there are coaches and test administrators willing to take bribes on behalf of rich kids and their scheming parents.

Fifty people, including nine coaches and 33 parents in six states, have been charged so far by the U.S. Justice Department, with actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman on the marquee but many other well-heeled and prominent adults who work in law, finance, fashion and other occupations also accused.

“This story is the proof that there will always be a market for parents who have the resources and are desperate to get their kid one more success,” Mark Sklarow, CEO of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, told the Associated Press. “This was shopping for name-brand product and being willing to spend whatever it took.”

That same market existed in 2003, when Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Golden wrote his Pulitzer Prize-winning series on admissions breaks given to the offspring of alumni and donors at U.S. universities.

Golden went on to write “The Price of Admission,” which described how one student, a young Jared Kushner, won admission to Harvard University after his father agreed to make a $2.5 million donation to the school. Harvard accepted about one in nine applicants at the time, Golden wrote, and Kushner’s high school grades and test scores did not suggest he would make the cut.

Interest in Kushner’s golden ticket college quest was rekindled, not surprisingly, when his father-in-law won the White House. Golden, now a senior editor for ProPublica, updated the story after the 2016 election, and a spokeswoman for the Kushner Companies told him in an e-mail that “the allegation” that the gift to Harvard was related to Jared’s admission “is and always has been false.” It also was not illegal.

Kushner went on to graduate with honors, which is not unusual at Harvard, and as you may have heard he’s now employed in the White House and is working on peace in the Middle East, among other issues. In that regard, we should all hope his streak of achievements will continue.

Golden told the New Yorker this week that he was uncertain if the kind of illegal activity alleged in the Justice Department indictments is commonplace. However, he added, “There are widespread practices that are unfair and benefit the wealthy. One of the puzzles of this case is: Why did these families bother to go to this extreme? Why did they pay so much money to fake their kids having athletic preference, or have somebody else take their tests? Why didn’t they simply contribute a lot of money to the university?”

One news story on the indictments said they underscored the “cutthroat and competitive” nature of the college admissions game. That’s true, but the competitive process isn’t to blame for this mess. Wealthy or not, too many parents have their own identities wrapped up in their sons’ and daughters’ college searches. They want to be able to boast about junior’s acceptance at the next company meeting or neighborhood party. The more prestigious the school, they seem to think, the more glowing the reflection.

The institutional failures that allegedly allowed coaches and test administrators to be bought off in these cases are stunning, too, but if the allegations are true, it all starts with the egos — and checkbooks — of parents who took their sense of privilege to new extremes.