Problems Surrounding the Recent College Scam: A Look at ‘Side Doors,’ Accessibility, and What Education is Today

On Tuesday, 12 March 2019, the United States Attorney’s Office, District of Massachusetts, unveiled a nationwide college admissions scam. Dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues,” the scam provided a “side door” into colleges for privileged applicants by bribing test takers, test administrators, athletic coaches, and illicit companies. The applicant started with a company called “The Key,” owned by William Rick Singer. Singer would then move the applicant to one of two test centers for the SAT or ACT, in California or Texas, and ensured the successful completion of the test by providing extended time, answers, corrections, or a test wiz, Mark Riddell, to take the test for them. In some cases, athletic scholarships were provided to applicants who were never involved in athletics. The targeted colleges include University of Texas Austin, Yale, Stanford, University of San Diego, Georgetown University, and the University of California Los Angeles. But that is not the only problem. The top one percent of America has always had easy access to college, and even when acceptance is obtained, education is no longer a fact-finding mission to prove or disprove one’s own thoughts.

There have always been alternate routes to gain college admission. Starting with the least egregious, being a legacy—a child of an alma mater. As noted in The Hoya —Georgetown University’s newspaper— legacy acceptance was more than double of non-legacies. This is not unique to Georgetown. Close to one-fifth of Harvard, Cornell, and Notre Dame are legacies as well.

Second, donations from wealthy parents can improve the applicant’s chance of being accepted. According to Christopher Rim of Forbes magazine, a large donation to Harvard can get the applicant on the “Dean’s Interest List”—a list that the dean uses to admit potential donators. On Georgetown University’s website under the section “Why Does Giving Matter?” it says, “It helps the College enroll the most promising students.” This phrase is a little murky, but it does not say to provide scholarships or help cover tuition for students. Donations can also affect the administration. George Mason University (GMU) received donations from Koch Brothers Inc.—a megalithic lobbying group. The agreement explicitly notes:

“University shall use its best efforts to ensure at all times that qualified individuals hold the Faculty positions and Staff positions and that the Faculty positions and Staff positions do not become vacant for any significant period and that if they become vacant, they are refilled. The School has the sole and absolute discretion to determine and carry out all selection, research, scholarship, teaching, and service at the School.”

However, there has been a significant claim from Transparency GMU stating that donations from Koch Brothers, Inc. have influenced the name of the Law School and the hiring of specific professors. Whether through admittance of a student or the selection of staff, donations from the top echelons of our society have greatly affected academia.

Regardless of a “side door,” applying for a college degree in the United States requires time and money. Most universities require scores from a specific test, whether undergraduate or graduate: SAT, ACT, GRE, LSAT, etc. The top preparation courses cost about $900 for 40 hours of tutorials, which is only enough class time to familiarize the applicant with the procedures and expectations of the test. It is not near enough time to develop a true proficiency for a student who did not receive it from high school, which can be greatly attributed to the class system—education provided to a student is based on location of a public school, things like taxes in the area and incentives for good teachers to work in the public circuit, or the ability to afford private school. The test itself can cost anywhere from $62.50 to $170.50 for the SAT, $50.50 to $140 for the ACT, $205 to $305 for the GRE, and $190 to $580 for the LSAT. In total, the student can expect to pay over $1,000 for the preparation and test. In addition to close to half of a month’s salary for most middle-class families, the candidate must be able to afford the time for the complete preparation; keeping in mind that time equates to money and spending time without making money can be detrimental. After the preparation, cost of the test and admission application, if successful, the applicant becomes a student who will pay tuition.

Community colleges are the least expensive for the basic courses incorporated in an associate degree. Granted that the credits can be transferred to a four-year university, this can diminish cost quite significantly. Depending on whether the student is classified as “in” or “out” of state, the tuition can vary. The minimum amount for a four-year degree (community college and a university with in-state tuition) cost $43,746 and a maximum $162,600 for out-of-state tuition for an entire undergraduate degree at a public university. If a student attends a private school, like Georgetown University, the total cost of an undergraduate degree can be up to $214,080 for tuition alone. Not to omit grants like the Pell Grant, which can aid the applicant with up to $6,000 per semester. Regardless of academic prowess, ability, or experience, obtaining top education targets a privileged class.

No matter how the student gets in or selects the college that is attended, the only thing that really varies is the professors and the network. Public or private institutions are places where professors impart knowledge on students in the form of seminars or lectures, meagerly resembling the Socratic method. The student reads either a text book or a primary source —which is much less common— to learn the topic at hand. After which, there is normally some writing involved —although called research, it lacks any empirical observation— and a series of multiple-choice tests. In the end, the student receives a grade confirming their comprehension of the professor’s lesson and moves on.

This approach is problematic. Education —what I will refer to as actual education— is simply a cumulative experience that teaches the student to question the world around them, understand how it intertwines, and articulate their thoughts on a subject. As a former instructor, I know that there is no one set model that speaks to everyone perfectly. Ergo, some students will not understand the message without personal attention. Each point should not be a grade, but a process by the professor/expert empathizing with the students to encourage them to push their boundaries and help them prove or disprove their thoughts.

With acceptance rates between 17 percent and five percent, tuition around $200,000, and a similar education to a cheaper and more accepting university, why even strive to attend a top university? The Rational Choice Model suggests that the individual will choose one item over another through a cost benefit analysis. The funny fact is, the benefit of attending Harvard versus a smaller college like Columbus State University in Georgia has a higher value. The professors at places like Georgetown and Yale normally have unique experience and, most important, are well connected. After attendance at a top university in the United States, the graduate will have the keys to the world, so to speak, through their network and appellation associated with their alma mater. In a sense, it is nothing more than trying to buy into the one percent, or for those that already are, maintaining their status. It is not about pushing the individual to the extreme of their thoughts and building on the knowledge within their field through experience.

Above all, Americans have learned to idolize what is popular, not what is true. Look at the “notable alumni” from most of these universities and question why that person got where they are, and why we want to follow their footsteps. After visiting Harvard, Princeton, Georgetown, and other universities to find the right program, it is clear that we are not challenging what we think we know through actual education and supporting our thoughts with empirical research. The scandal is appalling. And for the majority who cannot access a way to challenge their thought, it is absurd. Education should be accessible and undeniable. For one program to be “ranked” over another is a question that I cannot understand. The goal should simply be: take the student from where they are, teach them the lesson, and help them incorporate the understanding to the best of their ability. People perform at different levels, but it is not an A, B, or C. It is simply their maximum or minimum and we must learn to harness it.

The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Guy Barnes

Guy Barnes is a U.S. Army Veteran and former tank commander with service in Iraq and Korea. He has helped train foreign militaries and developed diplomatic ties around the world. He completed his formal education through American Military University, George Mason University, and Oxford University. His current interests are international security, conflict management, ethics, intervention, civil wars, revolutions, responsibility to protect, and international relations.

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