The arrest of 50 people including Hollywood celebrities Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, on allegations of bribery with the purpose of having their children admitted into a number of elite universities says much about the state of the sector and college admissions generally, and not just top colleges.
So what does this case tell us, if we care to listen? First, it demonstrates why we desperately need to move student recruitment and admission out of the shadows to an end goal of a far more transparent and efficient mechanism. Second, it illustrates the danger of believing that success in life is only available through a four- year university education at a name brand institution and that social capital, for both parent and student, is its primary benefit. Third, it exposes the lack of experienced, objective advice for the majority of students and particularly their parents about the range of options open to them.
The more complex, secretive and ill-defined a high-stakes process the more susceptible it is to shenanigans and, as we have seen, corruption. Currently, the sector is hampered by the bureaucratic and complex mechanisms for college admissions. The ‘College Admissions Game’ as some call it, which includes both access and affordability, is a game played to an unarticulated set of rules.
Students with greater access to test prep, good guidance, and to a parent who is an alumnus of the target college have advantages that others don’t. But that’s not the only tilt of the table. Decades of standards, pricing models, procedures, and relationships are fully baked into how admissions decisions are made by competitive colleges. If you don’t meet those standards or neglect to follow those procedures; if you cannot benefit from imbedded relationships, then quite simply the deck is stacked against you.
From here things go from the bizarre to the downright ridiculous. While there is a growing over-supply of university and college seats generally, the specific competition for admission to the elite and top institutions has become more competitive. For example in the Fall of 2017, the University of Chicago received 27,694 applications and admitted 2,492 students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, for a nine percent admission rate. Other elite schools have similarly low admission rates as non-elites go begging for more applicants.
If you’ve been paying attention you realize today’s jobs market doesn’t require that everybody have a college degree. But up until recently a four-year degree came to be seen as a requirement, unfortunately, for even mundane jobs.
It is clear in the current bribery scandal that the parents who stealthily paid to assure their child’s entry into these elite colleges were not much interested in the suitability of their offspring to the institutions; they were only interested in the reflected prestige. This enduring faith that attendance at, or a degree from, an elite college – or any college for that matter – is the only means to a successful, productive, enjoyable and fulfilling life is fundamentally flawed. Barack Obama was wrong when he said everyone should go to college. Finally, people are beginning to wake up to that fact.
But the failure to offer an alternative view and provide students and their prestige-seeking parents with alternatives to the traditional and still-accepted – by parents – college pathway is, I believe, the fault of the government and of industry. Until businesses make it clear known that they are looking for skills, not sometimes worthless degrees, the surprisingly abundant alternatives to college will remain a mystery to most parents and their offspring.
Many parents, and a majority of the general public, mistakenly look to high school counsellors for guidance. The average public school student will receive just 38 minutes of college/career planning assistance from their school (across all 4 years). Nationwide in public schools there are between 491 and 1000 students per counsellor. Students then rely on the advice of ill-informed parents who rely on their own limited knowledge and experience as a guide. It’s the blind leading the blind.
All of this ignores the fact that there are great colleges and universities which may not be Ivy League or ranked in the top 100 US colleges, but which offer reasonable costs as well as rigorous academic programs. Many of these lesser known institutions pay a lot of attention to making sure their students are job-ready at graduation. The problem is few people know who these schools are and how to find them. One source is BestValueColleges.org, which is unusual as it refrains from ranking schools and relies instead on net cost and customer (i.e., student and alumni) satisfaction.
Joseph Schmoke, the founder of College Lead Exchange, a unit of his What’s Best for Me, Inc. is an entrepreneur with over 40 years experience across a range of business sectors. For the last 14 years, Schmoke has been involved in higher education. He was CEO of Andrew Jackson University, an accredited degree granting institution, where he played a key role in creating ProctorU, now the world’s leading remote proctoring company.