The Case for Athletes, Admissions Transparency, and the American Dream: the Varsity Blues Scandal

For decades, the ultra-wealthy have paid to increase their children’s chances at the elite colleges. College libraries, gymnasiums, science centers, and dormitories carry the name of folks who gave 2, 5, or 10+ million dollars to help lubricate their student’s admission.

I am totally okay with this

With less than .025 of the population having the ability to donate such extraordinary funds, it benefits the schools, and all the community stakeholders (students, faculty, administration, surrounding communities) to take the money and improve the infrastructure, the academics, the resources of the institution. Many times that money helped free up other money for students who could not afford to attend;they received scholarship enabling them to go. Even at the costliest institutions, tuition fees do not cover the cost of educating a student.

Donated funds were given to the institution, tracked by a board of trustees, managed by accountants, and reported to the IRS. Admissions offices handed out these “get into college” cards pretty rarely. Alumnae offices managed the donors’ expectations. Institutions turned down money which did not comply with their mission, their plans, or held too many strings. This never affected admissions for the general population of applicants. One or two students would never make a well thought-out admissions plan crumble.

Recruited athletes also served their purpose: Increasing revenues for the university by selling tickets to sporting events, changing the geographic, ethnic, gender, and interest demographics of the student population, increasing the talent pool of students, adding to the activities available to others through infrastructure.  Since title IX, recruited and division 1,2, and 3 athletes (remember, not all college athletes are recruited, many walk-on) have also forged the way in the women’s movement, forcing equality in college athletics. Many myths refuse to die about college athletes but here are the truths: the NCAA has minimum requirements in grades and test scores for every athlete. Schools do not recruit whole teams; many athletes must gain admission on their own- meeting the same standards as non-athletes. Student athletes have the grit to manage rigorous athletic schedules and rigorous academic schedules. 87% of college athletes graduate from their universities. Although the aggregate GPA of all student athletes is about 3/10th lower than the aggregate non-athlete, many teams perform at the same or higher level- especially women’s teams. The vast majority of college athletes are not lug heads, they are scholar-athletes and have been throughout high school.   Finally, know that coaches have influence in the admissions process but only for a select few. Most coaches made heart-wrenching decisions every admission season to exclude a gifted athlete from recruitment.

As annoying as these two processes were to the rest of us whose kids aren’t spectacularly wealthy or spectacularly athletic, at least they were relatively transparent, and governed by administrations, policies, and practices which had the best interest of the schools (and therefore ALL the students- past, present, and future) in mind.

And then came Mr. Singer.

Mr. Singer and the 49 other defendants in the Varsity Blues Admission case have single-handedly enraged a generation of parents. Granted, the media has focused more on the low hanging fruit/ celebrity side of the story, but the fact remains that the defendants are ultra-wealthy parents, celebrities included, who felt that the rules did not apply to them. This isn’t really about the admissions process; It’s about bribery, wire and tax fraud, and poor parenting. The last of which is not criminal, but it should be. But the admissions process, and private admissions counselors have come under scrutiny nonetheless.

The thing that really sticks in my craw is that I know kids who should’ve gotten into these places. Kids with perfect GPAs SATs and ACTs, math classes I can’t even pronounce, 12 varsity letters, national Latin prizes, and science Olympiad winners. Kids whose parents needed some help with tuition, maybe didn’t add to the school’s demographics, but who would’ve been a glorious addition to the campus community. Instead, through no fault of the school, they get a “social media influencer” who can’t spell her own last name; who, (by her own admission,) doesn’t want to be there. A student, unlike college athletes, who adds NOTHING to the community. The thing that bugs me even further is these schools had virtually no influence in these students’ admissions. The process, although imperfect, was hijacked by folks who felt they didn’t need to fall in line with the SOP. I can GUARANTEE you that none of the kids involved in this case would’ve gained admission to the schools in which they are now enrolled without this illegal and immoral help.

Parents who want their well-qualified student at a particular school are lucky if they can call alumni friends, alumni offices, and Advancement offices. They don’t bribe someone to take the SATs for their student. They don’t pretend their student is a gifted athlete. They don’t lie, cheat, or bribe. Using transparent and above-board influence in the college admissions process may not seem fair but is certainly not illegal. Generating good will or making an introduction is well within the scope of fair play. Paying off a coach or paying a test taker is not.

And what about the athletes? Not the ones admitted. The ones who did not get recruited because the slots on the rowing team at USC were taken by the above-mentioned oxygen thief? I’m outraged for them. I’m angry because they trained and sacrificed and willed themselves to become the best in their sport. From age 5 to age 18, they missed dances and sleepovers, woke at 0400 for training, did homework in cars and on benches; they sweated, and cried, and persevered to become recruitable…. Only to have their spot taken by a Sephora palette. How many student athletes aren’t where they could continue to excel because a coach overlooked them for an under-the-table payout?

Now let’s talk about these students faking neurological and learning differences to receive extra time and private testing. As the parent of a high achieving student with ADHD, I take umbrage with any student, parent, or doctor faking a disability to “do better.” Extra time is not to help students get ahead or enable cheating, it is meant to level the playing field for those who testing is complicated by neurological and learning differences. Never think that the extra time we lobbied for gave our children an unfair advantage. For many struggling with processing disorders, ADHD, and other disorders affecting learning the extra time doesn’t make their scores better, it makes their performance accurately reflect their abilities.

This all leads to the college counseling business. This fall I was told that a local private high school headmaster did not “hold private admissions counselors in high esteem.”  As a private admissions counselor, I was insulted. He didn’t know me, my ethics, training, or process. But now I get it.  With folks like Mr. Singer out there tarnishing our collective reputation, its no wonder some feel that my profession is more bribery and hubris than teamwork and organization.

For the record, ethical college and educational consultants do not help, aid, support, or promote unethical admissions. We don’t accept bribes, encourage or facilitate cheating in any way. We don’t write your kids essays, We don’t call in favors, We don’t have them lie on their applications. None of our student clients have gained admissions to a school with us that they could not have gained without us. Our “kids” do it on their own. What does a college admission counselor do? We use our training and knowledge to make the process understandable. We help organize. We brain storm. We help focus. We help reduce stress. We help students recognize their own accomplishments. The majority of independent college counselors work with middle class students whose parents have given up something to afford our services; many of us do significant amounts of pro-bono work with high achieving low income students. The only thing ultra-rich in our clientele is the talent and grit we see in our students.

I hope these accused are tried and convicted. I hope they set precedent. I hope this brings some additional transparency and some much needed change in the college admissions process. But mostly, I hope that good students don’t stop dreaming that elite colleges are within their grasp, even without ultra rich parents. Because that would be the biggest crime of all.

  • just shy of 80,000 people in the ultra-wealthy category (income and assets of over $30M) out of the population of just over 320,000,000 in the US.
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