The recently revealed nationwide college admissions fraud seems to me the result of a confluence of three threads that have metastasized in higher education from other aspects of our culture over the past couple of decades. One, a sense of entitlement in our elites, who expect certain preferential treatment regardless of merit; two, an always large, but now significantly growing it seems, sense of living vicariously through our children, either from nostalgia or to fill a void; and three, creeping “credentialism”, or the perceived need for validation of status and/or achievement.
When we look at these three trends in adult behavior, to which let me add are not becoming, there is nothing surprising about this form of snobbery, or that it works to tempt upscale parents to bend the rules in favor of their kids. But that doesn’t mean we should let them get away with it. Nor should we consider the elite schools themselves innocent. In fact, they all pride themselves in their exclusivity and use it as a marketing tool–again, snobbery sells. And, after all, these parents look around at other programs that seem to bend the admissions rules legally, such as affirmative action, athletic scholarships, legacy admissions, preferences for major donors, and the like, and are tempted to wonder, what’s the difference?
Well, there is a big difference: one is criminal, the others aren’t. But otherwise the schools don’t do a very good job of defining and defending it. To me, it’s all about transparency. Several years ago, my alma mater, The University of Texas, came under criticism for special treatment of certain admissions supposedly granted “in the best interest of the university”. Ostensibly, students who are granted special admissions treatment have some distinctive talent or other assets to offer that meet this criterion. Why can’t we be fully transparent about the process and the value-added component? It is naive to the max to assume that we can eliminate special treatment from college admissions, but it seems to me that we can mitigate the nefarious aspects of it by being more transparent and honest about the criteria we are using.