When federal prosecutors in Boston unsealed the bombshell criminal complaint, “Operation Varsity Blues,” last month, the curtain which has covered the less-than-transparent college admission procedures in this country parted slightly. Just slightly.
Fifty individuals, including Hollywood personalities Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, were charged with crimes connected to what the Department of Justice identified as the largest college cheating scandal ever adjudicated. Huffman and Loughlin are both facing prison time.
However these cases end up being settled, it’s important to underscore that major pieces of a broken college admissions system are still being concealed; this is a dysfunctional process which is literally taking the lives of some of our brightest adolescents. “Varsity Blues” is a just slice of a larger, more odious mosaic which is crying out for deeper investigation.
Scott White, a New Jersey college counselor, says that the admissions frenzy is “the source of one of the most cruel, and truly unnecessary, abuses of our children.” He adds, there is “a remarkable increase in the number of kids that are just falling apart.”
Adolescent suicides, which are increasing at an alarming rate, support White’s conclusions.
Research indicates that one in five college students have experienced serious suicide ideation in the last year — double what it was 10 years ago. Behind unintentional accidents, suicide is now the second leading killer among adolescents between ages 15 and 19.
“Elite College Obsession,” as social scientists have dubbed it, refers to an intense focus on the cutthroat competition high schoolers experience as they attempt to gain admission to the best universities. It’s become a gauntlet that can produce extreme emotional unrest.
Best-selling author Alexandra Robbins, whose “The Overachievers” is a must read for all parents, has meticulously researched this dog-eat-dog battleground where excellence is the only acceptable standard.
Robbins recounts a story of how a disturbed mother demanded that her son retake the SAT when he only scored 1570 out of a possible 1600. Not surprisingly, the son considered suicide.
Many have pointed out the daunting odds of actually accomplishing the final goal. Top schools today — besieged by applicants — have declining acceptance rates.
Harvard, Stanford, Princeton and Yale all recently topped 40,000 applicants in one year: the five schools only admitted 5-7 % of those candidates. It’s just a slight exaggeration to say that elite college entry is akin to winning a lottery.
And the admissions process is dubious. Numerous authorities have argued that it is both inefficient and ripe for “Varsity Blues” corruption.
Particularly problematic are the standardized tests which colleges often employ. These assessments measure high school reading and math skills, not aptitude or intelligence.
Anyone who has studied test methodology knows the pitfalls: some people are good test takers, others are not; some schools “teach to the test,” others do not; and, worst of all, tests are often culturally loaded (i.e., aimed at certain subcultures, exclusionary to others).
The chief architect behind the “Varsity Blues” scam, William Rick Singer, said in court statements that he “created a side door” to guarantee his clients entrance to their preferred schools.
Actually, he created several side doors, one of which directly played upon the “gaming” of standardized tests.
Singer, using a complicated ruse, arranged for a confederate, Mark Riddell, to take the tests for clients. Amazingly, Riddell, a bright Harvard graduate who had a knack for this task, could deliver a desired score “on the money.” Applicants didn’t have to prepare or take the exam themselves; Riddell was a one-stop-shop. Singer charged up to $75k for the job.
So much for the sanctity and reliability of standardized testing.
The colleges are complicit as well. Prestige institutions, no matter how progressive they may appear, are often tied to practices that could use revaluation. Remember, most “enlightened” Ivy League schools did not begin to admit women until the late 1970’s.
How many acceptances at premier institutions are handed to so-called “legacy” students or to those who have correct, powerful political connections? Is the process based on merit, or is it, as one administrator euphemistically said, due to “heavy traffic” between admissions and fund raising?
If any good comes of “Varsity Blues,” it might be the recognition that arbitrary admission procedures at major universities are overdue for a public review — and, on a family level, a recognition that individual self-worth isn’t determined by an acceptance email.