The collegiate world was rocked last week when 50 (mostly wealthy) parents, including Long Island’s Lori Loughlin, of “Full House” fame, were accused of being part of a bribery and cheating scheme to guarantee their children entrance into prestigious colleges nationwide.
It was an embarrassing, and criminal, turn of events for those involved, including the students and the universities. At the same time, it raised the question of whether the college admissions process is fundamentally stacked in favor of the wealthy, particularly those willing to bribe their way in.
Given the pressure-cooker environment of the latter high school years, when anxiety over college admissions peaks among students and their families, a scandal such as this can only add to the worries of the honest. It’s here that we should all take a collective deep breath.
The scandal doesn’t point to widespread cheating by families with money. Last fall, roughly 20 million students enrolled in colleges in the United States, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Compare that with the 50 families accused of illegal acts to win admission to college. They represent a vanishingly small percentage of the total college population. Let’s not jump to the conclusion that our university system is somehow now a corrupt enterprise. It isn’t.
The admission rate at the University of Southern California, where Loughlin’s two daughters are enrolled, is 18 percent. That’s certainly competitive, but gaining admission there isn’t an insurmountable goal. So why cheat? Who knows? Vanity, perhaps, on the part of Loughlin or her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli?
Apparently, though, their daughters, by their own admission, had little to no desire to attend USC. In a 2018 vlog post, Olivia Giannulli bragged that she was “literally never at school,” and that she “didn’t really care” about college except on game days, when she could attend parties. That is perhaps the biggest tragedy of all here.
New York Times columnist Frank Bruni has written extensively on college admissions, including the book “Where You Go is Not Who You Will Be.” Hard work, Bruni rightly notes, will ultimately lead to success in life. Graduating from a so-called elite university can give you an edge early in your career, but without drive and determination, your degree will make relatively little difference in the wider world, where competition for jobs can be — and most often is — far more intense than the college admissions process.
There are untold numbers of people who didn’t attend top-tier universities, or didn’t even graduate from college, yet found success, Bruni points out. Thomas Edison comes quickly to mind. He never went to college, and had little formal schooling, in fact. Investor Warren Buffett — the “Oracle of Omaha” — graduated from the University of Nebraska, which has a 76 percent acceptance rate and is ranked 129th among the nation’s universities by U.S. News & World Report.
Bruni may be an imperfect messenger — he graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and went on to Columbia. His point is well taken, though: Your school should never define who you are as a student — and, more important, as a human being.
Reacting to the recent scandal, many are equating the multi-million-dollar donations by many wealthy families to universities — often, in part, to ensure acceptance for their children — with the illegal acts of Loughlin and company. While such donations might seem to be ego-driven guarantees of preferential treatment, let’s not link legal acts, which benefit thousands of students through better facilities and training for professors, with the reprehensible cheating of four dozen families. There is a greater good to the legal donations, as philosopher John Stuart Mill might say.
Ultimately, what this scandal makes clear is that we should all take a step back when it comes to college admissions and our children, and think about what we’re really doing when we send them on their way. College is an opportunity for them to discover and learn about their passions, and that’s all that should matter.