What is it about the idea of gaming college admissions that is so utterly gripping?
The news that celebrities and other wealthy parents were allegedly bribing SAT proctors and college coaches to get their kids into elite schools is riveting because it undermines our very American sense of fairness.
The FBI alleges that this case hinged on the cooperation of college coaches placed at key schools like USC, coaches who would take money in exchange for earmarking applications to the college’s admissions office. Those applications would then get less vetting, because the value athletes bring isn’t just about what they contribute intellectually, but on the field.The feds even nicknamed the sting “Operation Varsity Blues.”
This is one area where the American higher education system diverges from that of the rest of the world. We inextricably tie sports in with the college experience. It’s a huge driver of prospective student interest and alumni funding.
So many scandals erupt on the landscape of college sports, it shouldn’t be a surprise that this one also had hooks into athletics. Fifteen years ago, Chris Lincoln wrote a book about Ivy League admissions called Playing the Game: Inside Athletic Recruiting in the Ivy League. From it I learned that elite schools have lower standards when it comes to admitting athletes, and that teams like crew and fencing set aside a good number of those coveted acceptances.
I joked with my husband at the time that our two young daughters would be learning to row.
Olivia Jade Giannuli’s parents are alleged to have gone a few steps beyond that, photographing their daughter on an ERG machine in order to doctor an athletic profile and make the USC crew roster. Gianulli was apparently designated an athlete despite not being a competitive rower.
College admissions are a bit of a mystery. You never know what your competition looks like. Was this a bumper SAT crop? Do you fit some geographic or extracurricular niche that a school needs to fill? How do you measure up in the context of the competing needs a school has to create a diverse student body?
Now I see first hand with my own college junior how imposing the process has become. She is looking to hone her advantages in the process by curating classes and extra-curriculars that fit her personality and intellectual curiosity.
But when it comes to sports, there really is an idea that the best athlete will win the spot; that schools are honestly using those spots to create a well-rounded student body and a competitive team. It stems from the idea that a healthy mind and body are both goals and can be mutually sought.
The problem is that in revenue generating sports like football and basketball, the school team becomes a driver of resources and decision-making, and the academics are secondary. Look no farther than the cheating scandal at North Carolina to see how that works. In order to keep athletes eligible to play, students were pushed to independent-study classes. The regional accrediting agency put the school on academic probation for a year as a result. At Baylor, a mission statement that seeks to create a “caring community” was subverted by a wide-ranging football scandal that involved a coverup of alleged sexual assaults.
Sports have a place in a university system, but let’s keep our priorities straight; the first job of a school is to educate students who have earned their spot. Athletes should be able to do the work, and the admissions process shouldn’t be so different for rowers and soccer players that it allows for potential fraud.
That the fraud allegedly advantaged students with all the privilege that comes from wealth is even more disturbing. These applicants have all the structural benefits that come with one-on-one test prep. They come from good school districts and have the resources to travel and explore ideas.
Although there is no indication that Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, USC and other schools named in the allegations were aware of the grift, it should serve as notice that the ports of entry need patrolling. Someone should be on hand to make sure that a water polo resume features an actual water polo player.
Students know the game isn’t entirely fair, parents can still donate an auditorium to give their kid an advantage in the process, but applicants like my daughter hope that if they work hard enough and present themselves honestly, they have a shot on the merits.
A level playing field should be the goal here, in sports and in admissions.
Jane McManus is director of the Center for Sports Communication at Marist College.
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