College Crisis: The Admissions Scandal (and ISB!)

April 9, 2019

The largest college admissions cheating scandal in US history was revealed on March 12, 2019. At least 50 parents, university coaches, and one college counselor were charged in a huge bribery scheme to get their children admitted into elite universities. The scheme involved bribing coaches to accept students as college athletes, even if they had never played the sport before, as well as paying people to alter their child’s standardized test answers. Among the dozens charged included famous actresses, Lori Loughlin (Aunt Becky on Full House) and Felicity Huffman (Lynette Scavo on Desperate Housewives). After this revelation, many have become disillusioned at the college admissions process, while others were already well aware of the blatant admissions discrepancy between the wealthy and the underprivileged.

Several ISB students have expressed their frustration at the injustice of the students involved in this scandal. Poon Singhatiraj (12) explains, “I just feel angered that the aspirations of hard-working students are swept aside in favour of students who paid their way in. It makes me feel like the work we have done over the past couple of years are meaningless to some admissions officers, who themselves are involved in the corruption or, at the very least, are clueless to it.” Darin Sumetanon (12) also says, “I also find it very ironic that those born two feet away from the finish line now have to cheat to cross it, whereas those who are born miles away can do the same thing by working hard.”

Furthermore, Ismael Benmoussa (9) states, “I think that it is a common problem in society where people are put at a disadvantage for unfair reasons. Maybe not specifically in university, but in general it is common that people use power to get what they want, making the less fortunate suffer.”

College counselor Stephan Golas additionally reveals, “this scandal is another reminder to me that protecting universities’ rights to make admissions decisions that look at a student’s achievements within the context of the opportunities that student has had (or not had) is so important in the fight for equity. Equality and equity are different things, and it is important for us to remember that. Equality means nothing without equity, and this scandal sheds light on just how much farther we have to go if we are to achieve both.”

ISB is complicit in this issue as well. While it is difficult to admit, we also have an  advantage on others in the college admissions process. We have a great team of college counselors to assist us on our university applications, a wide number of facilities that allows students to try and excel at all sports and arts, and most families can afford to send their children to summer camps and hire tutors. These are enormous privileges that many other students in the world do not have access to. It is easy to criticize others for using their wealth to gain an advantage over others, but it’s also important that we reflect on ourselves and our role in this as well.

A personal story by Mr. Golas illuminates just how big of a difference one’s socioeconomic background can make on university admissions. “I grew up in a community where only about 10% of the kids who graduated from my high school went to a 4-year college. We didn’t have the IB. We were offered 4 AP classes in total. No one could afford tutors or SAT prep. Heck, many kids couldn’t afford a school lunch! 10 miles away, students at the public high school could choose from nearly all the AP classes the College Board has in its portfolio of offerings. The families were wealthy and kids had tutors and started prepping for the SAT in 10th Grade. Most students there could pay to do summer “enrichment” activities, use parental connections to “earn” coveted internships, and travel to do service. Nearly all the kids from that high school went to 4-year colleges.”

While aiming high and striving for a prestigious university is definitely not a bad thing, it becomes a problem when the university dictates one’s self-worth. The competition of being admitted into an elite university is not just about the facilities, education, and connections anymore; it has become a status declaration, and a reflection of a family’s reputation. It’s not just about what the school has to offer, it is the brand that you get to boast about. Our society is pushing children to see universities not as a valuable step in further education, but as the opportunity to prove one’s self worth to the world — and ISB is definitely no exception to this issue.

According to Mr. Golas, a few years ago, “a number of ISB families did employ individuals and/or organizations not affiliated with ISB to fabricate parts of their students’ applications and do “heavy” essay work for them. This is a direct violation of the affirmations students agree to in their applications and, as such, is seen as a violation of a university’s code of conduct or honor code. It is, quite frankly, cheating, and lacks integrity.” While the extent in which the families went to get their children admitted into university does not go nearly as far as the current admissions scandal, it is a clear indication of how our community has also been significantly affected by the pressures of attending a so-called “elite” university.

Mr. Golas expresses that “there are a few things I find sad and frustrating about this situation for students and for ISB. For one, I believe it sent the message to the students involved that their parents felt they weren’t “good enough” to get into college on their own. I warn parents about this all the time: if you think that you need to hire someone to fabricate things or “package” your student in a way that is not authentically them, you are sending the message to your student that you don’t believe they are good enough on their own, as they are. That is a painful message for a student – a teenager – to get from their parents.

Secondly, the fabrications in these ISB students’ applications were obvious and ultimately didn’t help these students get into college – in fact, it had the reverse effect. Truly, it is always obvious to me when a family is using the “help” of an outside ‘counselor’ […] and it was obvious to many schools, including several Ivy League institutions, that these applications from ISB students were not completed with integrity, honesty, and authenticity. This put future applicants from our school under increased scrutiny and, I believe, ultimately hurt those future applicants. Indeed, trust was broken between our school and several colleges and universities in the States, and ISB applicants paid the price. We have done a lot of work in the last few years to repair these relationships and, I am happy to report, admissions officers are closely working with us to continually improve the work we do with our families and to protect ISB’s reputation.”

This is not to say that being admitted into a prestigious university is not an honor, or that students at ISB are undeserving. In fact, many students at elite universities are there because of their determination and drive. Rather, it means that the university you go to, should not be the be-all-end-all because the college admissions process does place an unfair advantage on the wealthy and privileged.

This scandal is just be the tip of the iceberg, as I’m sure there are many similar cases. One can’t help but question how much further elitism has power over the society that extends beyond college admissions.

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