By Tanner Weigel, Staff Writer
When news broke last week that U.S. federal prosecutors were charging 50 individuals across six states for their involvement in a college admissions scandal, I felt sick to my stomach. I thought about how this news would affect the spirits of thousands of college applicants who will be finding out soon, if not already, whether they will attend their dream schools. And I thought about those who don’t even try to apply, already resigned to the fact that the system isn’t designed for them.
I have spent the last week thinking continually about the brazen injustice of the whole matter. But stepping back, and thinking about how much it means for some people to attend the most elite institutions, the intricate network of conspiracy that these parents, coaches and consultants engaged in is not at all surprising.
After all, I know that prestige meant so much to me when I underwent the application process (and I hope you’ll indulge me as I recollect to give you some context).
Growing up, I always enjoyed learning. But beyond that, I enjoyed being at school and in the school environment (kind of weird, I get it). You see, just as some people enjoy the competition of sport, I found I enjoyed the rush I felt after performing well academically. And yes, I compared my perceived intellect and academic achievement with others constantly.
Once I started High School, this sense of competition only increased. I remember feeling impatient, wanting to jump already into the advanced placement (AP) courses my school offered (which can earn students college credit upon successful completion of a year-end, national exam; it also helps that they can boost a student’s GPA beyond a 4.0). I distinctly remember flipping through a course catalogue during registration for the following year, obsessing over which path would maximize AP courses in my schedule.
In my teenage mind, attending college was always a given, as it was the logical extension of my academic journey. Even though my parents did not complete college degrees and I am their oldest child, I quickly educated myself on how to apply to colleges. However, what I was sorely missing was an understanding of just how competitive admission to an elite university would be for me.
You see, I didn’t want to go to my hometown University of Arizona (everybody goes there, I thought). No, academics was a contact sport for me, and I wasn’t working hard just to stay in town. I set my sights on three schools: Harvard, Princeton and Georgetown.
To cut to the chase, I took the tests, crafted my resume, wrote the essays and gathered letters of recommendation. I even interviewed with a Harvard alum in town. Talking with her was the first moment that I realized I had no idea what I had gotten myself into. After we talked for a while, she told me point blank that I was an impressive candidate, but that there would be plenty of applicants who had far better credentials than me: where I spent years taking piano lessons, there would be someone who played piano and violin, and also played in a community orchestra; where I led my school’s volunteer organization, someone else would have worked with the parent organization to my school’s chapter (and so on). Years later, I marvel at how naive I was.
I was, in the end, not admitted to Harvard or any of my “dream” schools. Instead, I went to the University of Arizona, took a couple years off to volunteer in Chile, was able to save money and stay close to my family, and ultimately received a valuable, quality education for which I am extremely grateful. But I would be lying if I said I don’t occasionally have thoughts of what I could have done differently to improve my chances to reach the Ivy League.
Mine is but one version of a story that plays out in variations across the U.S., if not the world. It should be a reminder that the pressure for some students to get into the very best schools is real, and it can be debilitating. A recent piece in the Atlantic noted that institutional prestige is becoming one of the driving forces behind what students are looking for in a university education. In contrast, previous generations were perhaps more focused on outcomes: developing a meaningful philosophy of life, preparing one’s self for the job market, or finding a sense of community.
Let me be clear: I recognize that I still had so many advantages in preparing me to apply for college in the first place. Sure, I didn’t undergo lengthy test preparation, or have help in drafting my personal statements. But I lived in a stable family that let me to focus on academics and extracurriculars in the first place. And I am one of the lucky ones: I finished my Bachelor’s with no debt.
Really, those who should feel most justified in their outrage are the students who face the structural impediments of poverty and racial discrimination, and for whom college often seems out of reach. When these students make it to the elite institutions, these schools are often unprepared to help these students succeed, especially in comparison to their privileged peers.
What is to be done? That’s best left for another article. But there are some obvious culprits. First, I think it is a mistake that we as a society value the four-year degree (in a social sense) far more than other types of post-secondary education. I think we do our communities a disservice if we are looking down on individuals who would rather go through a technical or trade school.
College rankings are also a travesty, in my opinion. Yes, the Harvards and Yales have huge financial resources and can provide certain advantages that are probably not available anywhere else. But even if the admissions process were perfectly fair, it’s not as though there would be enough spots in these elite institutions for the amount of qualified candidates out there. We need to elevate the position of our public universities. I know I feel foolish for not having respected more readily the wonderful opportunities I would still have at a state school.
Finally, to the parents involved in this scandal (and I fear it may only be the tip of the iceberg), shame on you for the disservice you have done to your children. And frankly, even to those who are engaged in “legal” activities to boost their children’s admission chances (using your network to get them the best internships and extracurricular opportunities, paying for test prep tutors, and having consultants help craft the best essays), you should reconsider your actions. Do you want your children to ever be able to say that their accomplishments are their own? What kind of future adults are you raising?
At the very least, I am glad this scandal has reminded us that there is still much to be done to make education more equitable. In my case, I had unrealistic expectations, and was perhaps missing the point of what an education would mean for me. In other cases, students don’t have even the most minimal resources to help them better their lives. I am hopeful that we can take a closer look at what education broadly means to us as a society, and work to be respectful of the variety of valid, post-secondary journeys students will take.