Readers Respond to Caitlin Flanagan’s Argument on the College-Admissions Scandal

“Her conclusion at the end that the traditional donations … actually does significant good for underprivileged students is questionable at best and likely closer to flat out false.”

Brian Snyder / Reuters

They Had It Coming

Nearly 30 years ago, as a college counselor at a top school in Los Angeles, Caitlin Flanagan discovered that the school’s impressive matriculation list was not the simple by-product of excellent teaching, but was in fact the end result of parental campaigns. “I thought that whatever madness was whirring through the minds of the parents was a blip of group insanity that would soon abate,” she wrote recently. “It has only gotten more and more extreme.”

In part, Flanagan argued, this comes as a result of a changing America: “The collapse of manufacturing jobs has been to poor whites what the elite college-admissions crunch has been to wealthy ones: a smaller and smaller slice of pie for people who were used to having the fattest piece of all.”

Flanagan’s description of her meetings with unrealistic parents is tremendous.

But her conclusion that the traditional donations helping to grease the skids and get kids into these hyper-selective schools actually does significant good for underprivileged students is questionable at best and likely closer to flat-out false.

As Derek Thompson pointed out last December, these elite schools “have the potential to use their space to manufacture opportunity at scale, but mostly they clear out real estate for the already rich, who are going to be fine, anyway.” Donating money to these elite institutions does almost nothing that will really benefit underprivileged students. And as Clint Smith pointed out in March, even when these institutions admit underprivileged students, they often find ways to remind them of the fact that they aren’t like the other kids there.

Perpetuating the myth that those donations are somehow acceptable because they benefit underprivileged students is unfortunate.

JB Haglund
Havertown, Pa.

As a current independent-school college counselor and former English teacher, I enjoyed reading “They Had It Coming.” This is incorrect, though:

The more elite the institution, the more likely it is to be racially and socioeconomically diverse. This is in part because attaining this kind of diversity has become a foundational goal of most admissions offices, and also because the elite colleges have the money to make it happen. In 2017, Harvard announced with great fanfare that it had enrolled its first class in which white students were in the minority.

This statement is true of racial but not socioeconomic diversity. Only 16 percent of Harvard students are Pell Grant–eligible, a signifier of highest financial need, and 45 percent of Harvard’s students do not receive any need-based aid. At Moravian College, in Pennsylvania, more than 30 percent of students are Pell-eligible, and the college meets an average of 73 percent of financial need. The most selective colleges use a system that privileges already privileged students, who are more likely to earn higher test scores and grades, take advanced courses, and have the leisure time for more activities. I would love to think that Harvard is really working to admit needy students, but the numbers show that it is not. If it wanted to, it could, but it doesn’t.

Jessica Smith
West Chester, Pa.

I’m writing to share the perspective of an ethical college-admissions coach. A great many of us work closely with students and families to help students find their best-fit college and get in. The challenge for many families—and the root of the problems unveiled by the recent scandal—is that the American college-admissions system is both opaque and complex. Students never know why they were admitted or denied, and the system involves so many different steps, hidden pitfalls, and unwritten rules that navigating it takes expertise and inside knowledge of the type that coaches provide. This means, of course, that those who can afford to hire coaches like me have an enormous leg up. But it also means that some families go further to hire unscrupulous actors like Mr. Singer who find “side doors” to get them in. The scandal isn’t just that some families cheat. It’s that many techniques that are perfectly legal—such as getting diagnoses of learning disabilities for students who don’t really have them—are still morally shaded. Every scandal and every side door creates anxiety for families who fear they are missing out.

College should be about students finding their passion and deepening their knowledge, but to too many people it has become a status symbol and a badge. A better system would be one that is transparent and simple. And one that ultimately recognizes that, as Frank Bruni of The New York Times put it, where you go is not who you’ll be.

Venkates Swaminathan
Founder and CEO, LifeLaunchr
San Francisco, Calif.

One big victim who may now face a harder road is the student who needs and deserves extra time on tests. I write as the parent of one such former student, who took years to learn how to read; whose keen intelligence, determination, and grit have been appreciated by elementary-school teachers, athletic coaches, college professors, and professional managers; and who is now enjoying a successful career after finishing college with flying colors in the four years it was supposed to take. Yes, she availed herself of the special services she deserved in high school, based on documentation going back to first grade. No, there was no asterisk next to her SAT scores denoting extra time, as well there should not have been.

It wasn’t just those wealthy parents who cheated but the licensed psychologists who said that those students, the scions of privilege, deserved extra time on their tests. The rot goes deep, and those professionals should lose their licenses.

I can only hope that the ACT and SAT will not penalize the kids who need that service the most, because for many of them, time-and-a-half for testing is the absolute key to their success. In public schools, those accommodations are often hard-won.

Peggy Lee Scott
Berkeley, Calif.

Readers responded on Facebook:

Lew Walker wrote: That such schemes exist comes as absolutely no surprise to anyone. Not today. We have become so inured to such criminal corruption that we just chalk it up to the ways of the “haves” and the “have mores.”

But the final few paragraphs point to a deeper more powerful 21st century manifestation; the erosion of the power and privilege of the white majority.

Bill Leonard wrote: An important point that doesn’t get enough attention: this is undoubtedly as much about bragging rights for the parents as it is for their kids actual education. These parents are lying, cheating and willing to bribe coaches, etc. so they can one-up their friends and colleagues with ‘Well my Katie was accepted by _____(fill in the name of a prestigious school).

Joseph Rago wrote: As I read this my 5 year old daughter stumbled into the room awakened by a nightmare. I hope there’s an admission for clairvoyance at the school of her desire. I’m certain that the horror of middle class realization I felt must have permeated her dreams.

Caitlin Flanagan replies:

Regarding JB Haglund’s remarks about underprivileged students: The elite colleges have made a concerted, decades-long effort to include students from a variety of financial backgrounds among their number. Harvard, for example, claims that more than 70 percent of its undergraduates receive some form of financial aid, and that 20 percent of parents pay no tuition at all. On the other hand, the university is currently embroiled in a scandal in which the father of a future fencer bought the coach’s house at a price that was hundreds of thousands of dollars over market value, after which the man’s son was admitted to the university. So who knows what really goes on at that storied and mysterious institution?

Actually, all of us should know exactly what goes on: We all subsidize the university, allowing it to operate as a tax-exempt institution. We haven’t taken our fair share of its $39.2 billion endowment because we have always trusted the university. Perhaps it’s time for a full and transparent audit of its admissions practices and decisions over the past 10 years. Or it can write us a check. The same is true of all of our ultra-selective colleges and universities: We are all stakeholders.