On Tuesday, dozens of parents—actresses, hedge-fund managers, doctors—were charged by federal prosecutors for their alleged role in a bribery scheme that cleared the way for students to get into selective colleges. Some parents are accused of cheating on the ACT or SAT, bribing test proctors to let someone else take the test for students to make sure they got the right score to get in. Other parents allegedly had an intermediary bribe coaches so that students could use an athletic designation for easier entry, because recruited athletes get a significant bump in the admissions process.
Admissions news rarely lands with such a splash. This story, however, genuinely shocked many higher-education experts. But maybe it shouldn’t have. The race to get into elite colleges is a full-blown “hysteria,” Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University, told me. “We’ve created a crisis of access to these social-status-granting institutions.” It’s a crisis of higher education’s own making, he said. “If you keep something as an extra-scarce commodity, then you will encourage behaviors by certain people, including crimes and bribery and all sorts of bad things.”
College seats, overall, aren’t scarce by any means, but seats at selective institutions are—and purposely so. Institutions typically argue that keeping a steady, reasonably sized enrollment allows them to maintain high-quality services for students: student-teacher interaction, tutoring, and a vibrant campus culture. But scarcity has the added benefit of increasing an institution’s prestige. The more students who apply, and the fewer students who get in, the more selective an institution becomes, and, subsequently, the more prestigious. And parents are clawing over one another to get a taste of the social capital that comes with that.
“What we have now is people bribing their way into country-club schools that grant status by admission to the country club,” Crow said. This isn’t a new phenomenon. As the journalist Daniel Golden has outlined extensively in his book The Price of Admission, “The rich buy their under-achieving children’s way into elite universities with massive, tax-deductible donations.” But in this case, parents allegedly took the quest for admission at any cost across the lines of legality.
How can colleges fix this crisis? The simplest way would likely be for selective institutions to stop being so selective and enroll more students. Instead of carefully crafting admitted classes—taking a little bit of diversity and a little bit of athleticism and a little bit of legacy and mixing them into the ideal freshman stew—institutions could open their doors and serve more students, Julie Posselt, an associate professor at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, told me. (Though USC was mentioned in the suit, Posselt was unconnected to the scandal.) Selective institutions would undoubtedly take a “prestige hit” because of that, but it could alter the way parents think about college: not as social capital to be bought, but as an opportunity for learning and growth.
If something doesn’t change, things are likely to get worse. “The population only continues to grow. Demand for these elite schools only accelerates,” Crow said. And currently, Posselt said, there is an incredible incentive to get into a selective institution—to purchase that elite credential: The labor market rewards it. “The prestige factor won’t go away until the labor market stops rewarding it.” But perhaps colleges could preempt the labor market. If elite schools enrolled more students and forfeited some prestige, maybe there wouldn’t be such angst about who does or doesn’t get into any one in particular.
Arizona State, where Crow became president in 2002, is now a higher-education behemoth with more than 100,000 students enrolled on campus and online across the world. It was, notably, not the type of institution that these parents were trying to get their children into. In fact, one parent cited in the complaint even went as far as to ask for a “road map for success” to getting his daughter “into a school other than ASU!” Parents don’t need to use a “side door,” as William Rick Singer, a cooperating witness for the government, called it—legal or illegal—to get into an institution that is more accessible.
After I spoke with Crow, a spokesperson for Arizona State sent an email with the university’s comment on being mentioned so flippantly in the suit. “Some universities have decided the most important thing they can do is turn away deserving, qualified applicants just so they can seem more exclusive,” the spokesperson wrote. “That leads to perverse incentives and perverse actions, as we are witnessing unfold right now.”