Want to Fix College? Admissions Aren’t the Biggest Problem

Nicholas Lemann:

The indictment last week of more than thirty clients of William Singer, the Max Bialystock of élite-college admissions, by the U.S. Attorney in Boston was, among other things, a form of de-facto federal-government support to journalism, because it gave so many people so much to write about. It wasn’t just that the details were so juicy—celebrities, rich helicopter parents and their spoiled kids, S.A.T. cheating, coaches taking bribes—but also that they seemed to confirm something that many people already feel, which is that the admissions system is deeply corrupt. Over the years, as the ratio of available slots in the very best colleges to the number of aspirants for them has become more and more insanely lopsided, and the way that the decisions are made has remained mysterious, it has become almost impossible to avoid concluding that somebody in this system is getting screwed. Maybe it’s kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, or kids who don’t fit into any of the categories that bring you special consideration, or, most likely, it’s you and people you know. Nobody seems to believe that the process is fair.

As often happens, a spectacular crime has drawn the public’s attention to a system where what’s legal and objectionable is actually much more pervasive than what’s illegal. It isn’t all that common for affluent families to cheat on admissions tests or to pay six-figure bribes, but it’s very common for them to provide their children with expensive and evidently effective coaching—for tests and other aspects of admissions—that ordinary families can’t afford, and to make over-the-table gifts to colleges from less than purely philanthropic impulses. Most coaches probably can’t be bought, but most coaches are given (in Singer’s phrase) a “side door” into the admissions office, which allows them to bypass the normal deliberative process for their favorite recruits. It may be that the Singer case will engender not just new precautions against outright criminality but also a fresh look at some of the standard practices that Singer found ways to corrupt. That would be a healthy outcome.