May 26, 2019
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Gaming the college admissions system

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN

A friend of mine used to be dean of admissions at Boston College. He told the story of a Texan who, adorned with a cowboy hat and boots, barged into his office with no appointment, pulled out his checkbook and said, “OK, what will it take to get my son into Boston College?” My friend allowed as how that wasn’t the way things worked at Boston College. Undeterred, the Texan retorted, “Well, that’s the way things work in Texas.”

I had a similar, if less brazen, encounter while working in admissions at Bowdoin College 40 years ago. A father asked if I’d accept a gift of a pair of L.L. Bean boots. I demurred.

The recently exposed admissions scandal,“ Operation Varsity Blues,” brought those stories to mind. At least 50 people, including two famous actresses, were alleged to have paid more than $25 million between 2011 and 2018 to receive “help” in getting their kids into name-brand colleges and universities.

The scandal exposed practices which, while shocking, were not totally surprising. In 2011, students at a Long Island high school were caught in a scheme in which sharp test-takers got paid to take SAT tests for other students. In the nationwide Operation Varsity Blues operation, the SAT skullduggery even involved bribing test administrators to change scores.

A Varsity Blues follow-up article in Atlantic magazine revealed a sleazy SAT-related practice, of which I wasn’t aware. “It was possible for everyone with enough money to get a diagnosis that would grant their kid two full days — instead of four hours — to take the SAT and the college would never know. By 2006, according to Slate, in places like Greenwich, Conn., and certain zip codes of NYC and LA, the percentage of untimed test-takers is said to be close to 50 percent.”

Rated athletes — defined as athletes sought by the coaches of a particular sport — have long enjoyed a big edge in the college admissions game. I speak from personal experience as two football players from my high school in Delaware got accepted to Amherst, while I got bumped to the waitlist, despite our comparable academic records. (In retrospect, Bowdoin was a much better place for me than Amherst.)

Athletes today get an even bigger edge at the elite schools, including the Ivies. Admissions officers don’t like to discuss that edge, but it’s huge and it’s real. That said, I had not heard of cases where coaches were bribed to use some of their allotted slots — to help students gain admission. That’s exactly what occurred in Operation Varsity Blues.

Operation Varsity Blues merely exposed the extent to which wealthy families will go to “acquire,” and that word is used advisedly, a name-brand college. Some parents pay tens of thousands of dollars for “premium” college counseling packages. That practice, though legal, is not just sad; it’s sick.

Time out! Operation Varsity Blues has also exposed the extent to which the American experiment has gone off the rails. All too often, we prize glitz over character, style over substance. And all too often, the ends seem to justify the means, no matter how sleazy or unlawful. As old school as it seems to say it, life is not about parading the right bumper stickers or amassing the biggest toys.

Back to college admissions. What about the student? Should she or he even be attending college in the first place? Which after-high-school option makes the most sense? Maybe it’s a community college. Or a technical school. Or the military. Or a job. Maybe the latest scandal will lead parents and counselors to focus on such questions. We can only hope.

David Treadwell is a Brunswick writer.

 



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