The coach of the Yale soccer team was paid $400,000 to recruit a wealthy student, who may or may not have even played soccer. The wealthy family paid the “admission coach,” Rick Singer, $1.2 million. Tidy little profit, there.
The admissions cheating sting reported by the FBI yesterday is sending ripples through the media today, notable in particular because 50 people were charged with bribery, including some TV personalities. Multiple parents, mostly in southern California, paid the consultant anywhere from tens of thousands to millions for his assistance in ensuring their children access to a handful of elite universities, including USC, Stanford, and Yale. Since, in the interests of full transparency, I happen to work as a college test preparation instructor, the story is resonating quite a bit with me. However, what strikes me the most in the Op Eds and sound bites, is the immediate focus on blaming the system, the test, and the colleges, rather than blaming the cheaters.
Blame the System
The bribery scandal is no more abhorrent than the completely legal industry that helps many wealthy kids get into the schools of their dreams…I met with an older friend who had attended an Ivy League-adjacent school….It became evident that her “smart” and my “smart” were different things. She casually rattled off hours she’d logged with a personalized standardized test tutor, paid to boost her score. –Rainseford Stauffer, NY Times
The scandal has unleashed a torrent of editorials, in some cases, multiple opinions pieces in the same news outlet. Many complain most bitterly that wealthy parents are buying assistance for their kids to complete applications and get test help. Others blame the colleges for using test scores:
The underlining problem, said [Kristen Hansen, a high school college counselor], is that college admissions have become so competitive, people feel like they have to do something to get better scores. Colleges have sort of created this. A lot of schools still put a ton of weight on standardized testing, including the University of California.–SF Chronicle
Or better yet blame the colleges for being colleges:
‘Higher education policies have always favored the elite,’ said Mary Clare Amselem, a higher education policy expert at Heritage. ‘What’s apparent is that our higher education system has become less of a place that encourages students to pursue an education with real-world skills. Congress could change this by limiting the federal government’s out-of-control lending for student loans and dismantling the accreditation monopoly that allows this outdated college system to fester and grow.’–Politico.com
Get rid of those colleges, since they don’t teach vocational skills anymore! What’s missing from that analysis, of course, is that decent-paying jobs require college degrees. By the way, Mary Clare Amselem has a Masters in Public Policy from George Washington University, ranked #63 in the top #100 colleges in the country. I can’t imagine a more “real-world skill” than getting a Masters in Public Policy and then working for a conservative think tank, can you?
Easy Solution–no College, no Test
So the problem is either including a test in college admissions, allowing students to get help studying for the test, or letting students go to college in the first place. These claims are idiotic. (I was going to say “disingenuous” but I know that’s a standardized testing vocabulary word and not everyone knows what it means.)
The issue is not that people want to go to college, but that some get so over-focused on the perceived reputation of certain colleges that they will go to ridiculous lengths to be admitted. This has long been a pet peeve of mine since I think national media rankings, like the well-traveled US News & World Report measures, are skewed towards Ivy Leagues. I just looked up their ranking methodology, for example, and it’s based on the % of students that graduate within six years, class size, faculty pay, spending by the college on the students, the GPA and student ranking of incoming students, and the opinions of high school counselors and other school presidents about each other. There’s no aspect of the ranking that includes the quality of the professors, amount of research done, quality of the facilities, or anything objective about the quality of the education actually received. At least they finally took quality of the sports program out, which used to be 20% of the ranking.
I don’t believe the test is the problem. College admissions are based on four factors: student GPA and coursework taken, teacher recommendations, student essay and portfolio of extracurricular work, and test scores. The test score, among those criteria, is one of the only standardized and objective measures in that group.
Suppose you took test scores completely out of the equation. The coursework isn’t necessarily comparable. Your “A” in Chemistry and my “A” in Chemistry could be very different, to say nothing of how much writing we did in Junior English. All teacher recommendations are going to be positive. The student essay is 500 words long. Whether polished, raw, edited by an adult, a true story, or plagiarised, it may not represent the student and, even if it does, it’s not much to go on to get admitted to USC either, is it?
That leaves the extracurricular activities. Talk about benefiting the wealthy! It’s not sufficient to be editor of the school magazine anymore. A student needs to have a blog with 20,000 followers or win a statewide science competition or go to the Galapagos to study climate impact. Any of the activities that would be sufficient to impress an admission officer would require parent’s time and money invested in both school and outside-school clubs and groups, started before high school. If you took out the testing part, you’d simply make it that much harder for students whose parents haven’t set up these side gigs to have a shot.
Is Help Unfair?
Let’s compare alternatives. Are both equally unfair?
1) Pay a college application service $75 to suggest ideas for a student essay and edit the essay. I did pay a very nice lady to work with each of my kids, and it gave me and the kids peace of mind. I don’t think the essay got them into their schools, but it didn’t keep them out either.
2) Pay $400,000 to a service that bribes the water polo coach to recruit my son, who doesn’t play water polo now and isn’t going to play water polo in college.
Here’s another one:
1) Pay $600 for a test preparation course of eight classes where you practice your geometry and grammar skills. As it happens, you can also get free books from the library–often the books we use in the class– and study on your own. You can definitely get them on EBay for less than the monthly charge for your iPhone.
2) Pay $15,000 as a bribe to a proctor, have your student claim they have a disability they don’t have, and then either feed the student the answers or have the proctor change the answers.
Despite all the fist-waving about the unfairness of test preparation, the core idea behind it is that students should find out what kind of questions are asked on the SAT (or ACT) and then practice taking those questions. It isn’t sufficient for them to just sit in class either; students have to practice on their own or their score doesn’t improve. Parents can pay a service to get access to thousands of questions to practice, but they can also get access to many of those for free. But the students have to do the work.
This is called studying. At the end of the day, I can’t see how it’s deceptive and unfair. At the end of the day, the blame shouldn’t fall on the system, the colleges, or the tests, but on the cheaters.