This is not the Musing I had planned to write this week. I’m not even sure it’s the Musing I want to write this week. But it is the Musing I have to write this week. You’ll see why.
For more than twenty years, I was the Director of College Counseling at one of metropolitan Washington’s best independent schools. Since “retiring” (that word always lives within quotes in my mind) from that school a few years ago, I have also worked as an interim college counselor or consultant at four other highly regarded independent schools. My task was always a simple one: to help students and their families navigate the mysterious maze of the college admissions process. In so doing, I’ve seen both elation and disappointment. I’ve watched the pressure of college admissions bring out the best in some people and the worst in others. I’ve been aware of questionable decisions by both families and academic institutions. But until last week, I’ve never seen outright fraud and corruption taint the college admissions process. Am I shocked? No; just bitterly disappointed.
The playing field of the college admissions process has never been completely level. There are a myriad of institutional priorities that come into play when colleges make admissions decisions. There are faculties to pay; buildings to build or to maintain; alumni to please. The ivory tower looms over a highly competitive marketplace and those institutions who do not pay attention to all their various constituencies will ultimately sail over the edge of the world. The football team needs a quarterback. The orchestra needs a bassoonist. Endowments have to grow. A competing institution has a new student union building so we need to break ground for a state-of-the-art science lab. We need more people of color. We need more men. We need more women. You get the picture.
Natural selection will ultimately determine which institutions will thrive and which will fail. College admissions officers are given the Herculean task of identifying those candidates who will best “fit” within their institution’s Board-driven priorities. It’s not easy to build a community year after year, but admissions officers do their best. They look at objective measures of an applicant’s worth—academic performance, rigor of curriculum, and yes, standardized test scores. They also must weigh a variety of subjective measures like leadership potential, commitment to service, legacy, ethnicity, special talents, writing ability, ability to pay, and perhaps most important of all, the ephemeral quality to naturally become a part of, and contribute to, a greater whole.
The doorway to higher education is exceedingly narrow these days and unlikely to get any wider. Some of the most highly competitive colleges and universities now accept fewer than 8% of their highly qualified applicants. Globalization and technology have made the college admissions process more demanding than ever. Students from all over the world apply to American institutions and many of them do not require any financial aid. Paper is a thing of the past: all college applications are submitted electronically now which means (among other things) there are a lot more applicants swimming in the admissions pool. And that’s what drives some people to do unspeakable things.
Parents always want the best for their children, but in the maelstrom of today’s competitive college admissions process, many have lost their way. People of substantial means with imposing reputations now think it’s worth risking it all to get a child into a top-tier school. Pay a specialist to document a specious learning disability allowing for extended time on standardized tests. Find someone to proctor an exam who will look the other way or even correct a test-taker’s answer sheet. Dangle a major gift in front of a prestigious but cash-hungry institution. Bribe a coach. This is a whole new world, one devoid of a moral core or any ethical standards. Sound familiar? Sad!
Colleges and universities must push back. In a recent Op Ed piece in The Baltimore Sun, Washington College President Kurt Landgraf wrote about his institution’s mandate to seek out underserved and underfunded applicants from low-income zip codes for whom a college education will be a life-changing passage. This is right and good but not enough. Colleges also have to drain the swamp, become even more vigilant, and set a clear, transparent, and higher standard in their admissions practices.
I’m not vindictive by nature, but I hope all those people who have become tangled up in this dreadful net go to jail. That admissions process should be a no-brainer.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015. A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com