Many elite colleges and universities grant preference to athletes in the admissions process. That’s just a fact of campus life, no matter how unfair and arbitrary it might seem.
But if colleges like Yale, the University of Southern California, Georgetown, and Stanford are going to continue that system, they should at least make sure that it’s above board.
It’s abundantly clear that is not the case now. Last week, US Attorney Andrew E. Lelling announced charges in a breathtakingly brazen college-admissions bribery scam that prosecutors say involved dozens of parents and a California admissions consultant, William “Rick” Singer. Part of the racket involved cheating on standardized tests, prosecutors say. But its killer app was bribery. Athletic coaches at elite schools were the linchpin of the scam: In exchange for hefty payments from parents of underachieving students, coaches allegedly designated them as star sailors or water polo players, virtually assuring them of admission even if they didn’t know a bow from a stern.
These were apparently not isolated incidents. Although only 33 parents were charged Tuesday, Singer said in a conversation recorded by the FBI that he worked his “side door” scam more than 700 times.
The only reason that athletic coaches had the power to hand out sure-thing admissions at otherwise super-competitive schools is because the schools gave them that power. And the fact that the abuses by the coaches were uncovered by the FBI, and not the colleges themselves, speaks volumes about their capacity or interest in internal oversight.
Some of the scams described in the FBI documents should have been noticed. Did schools do an audit to see if water polo or tennis recruits actually played? Did anyone at USC think a scrawny 145-pound football recruit might be a little bit improbable at a Division 1 school? Some of the payments lined the pockets of the coaches, but some “donations” actually went to the schools; didn’t they wonder why those big checks suddenly started arriving?
Elite colleges generally maintain that they can admit their class however they want, and if it’s quarterbacks or violinists or children of donors that they want for their freshman class, that’s their business. They offer what are meant to be high-minded rationalizations about the need for a “well-rounded” class that’s not too heavy on nerds (and if the round objects are zeroes at the end of a parental donation, even better). Yale, Harvard, Stanford, and the rest of America’s selective institutions never guaranteed the meritocratic fairness in admission that parents and students have come to expect.
But these schools also claim a social mission. And for their own self-interest, they should care about the sinking reputation of higher education. Their athletic preferences have now been shown to be ripe for abuse, and the scandal will deepen the cynicism many Americans in a divided and polarized country already have toward higher education.
Selective colleges with athletic programs shouldn’t wait for a call from law enforcement to launch an audit of how coaches have used their recruiting slots, and should hold them accountable for any abuses of the system. And they should make their results public. Brown University has already done just that, auditing its last four years of athletic recruiting and making public Thursday that it found no red flags.
Looming over the scandal is the larger question of whether athletic preferences are justified at all. It’s a uniquely American notion that athletic ability should be linked to admission to what are supposed to be educational institutions. Even if the system operated with complete integrity, reserving spots for athletes is often a way of rewarding the rich. While there may be some inner-city squash or fencing or water polo teams, we’re going to go out on a limb and say there are probably not many (Boston Public Schools, for instance, offers none of those sports). Reserving spots for sailors may not officially be the same thing as reserving spots for rich people — but c’mon.
Yes, colleges are private institutions— but they rely on tax breaks and subsidies from the public, and some of them (ahem, Yale) even have the word truth in their motto. An admission system rife with favoritism, back doors, and side doors was a scandal waiting to happen, and now it has.
The universities need to understand the uproar over the scam as the serious threat to public confidence in higher education that it is. And they need to ensure that in the future, when they lower their academic standards to admit athletes, they are actually getting athletes — instead of giving wealthy families yet another avenue to game the system.