The Illusions of College Admissions

By Simon Hoke

As a prospective college student and athlete, the college admissions scandal that emerged last week is alarming to me, but not completely astonishing. I’ve always heard about the American dream – how our country is structured upon the basis that parts of society such as college admission should be merit-based. The socio-economic backgrounds of a family of a student trying to get into college shouldn’t, ideally, have any more consequence than, say, the race of such a student. Both are factors that the child can’t control.

On Tuesday, March 12, more than fifty people were indicted as part of an FBI investigation to uncover an extensive cheating and bribery scandal involving parents dishing out large sums of money to get their children into top colleges. The man most directly responsible for the scandal is William Singer. Singer’s fraudulent charity, the Key Worldwide Foundation, laundered money he received from parents to use for bribes. From 2011 to 2019, parents handed Singer over twenty-five million dollars for his services. After his operation was uncovered by the investigation, Singer pled guilty to four charges, including racketeering conspiracy and conspiracy to defraud the United States. To help clients’ children get into college, Singer bribed SAT and ACT proctors to change test scores after the tests were finished, and photoshopped pictures of students playing sports that they did not actually play in order to bribe college coaches into identifying these students as top recruits. The actress Lori Loughlin, for example, paid Singer half a million dollars to have her daughters recruited to the University of Southern California’s crew team, for which they never competed in a single event.

I would like to think that the best colleges simply accept the best, brightest, students, and that’s the end of the conversation. Yet, having money is always an advantage in the process. While the ability to pay off college coaches and admissions officers is a clear luxury that extremely wealthy families have over others, it is obviously illegal and didn’t end well for the parents who are now indicted. That being said, there are less-direct advantages in terms of getting accepted into college that decently well-off families have over less wealthy people.

Recently, my family hired a tutor to help me with classes that I’m currently struggling with. In addition, we pay a good amount of money each year for me to play for my soccer team in Rochester, which has allowed me to improve as a player and become ready to play soccer in college, as well as giving me opportunities for closer contact with college coaches. All of us have families that pay tuition to attend MPH every year. I don’t mean to imply that my family is astoundingly wealthy, but there are certainly students who don’t have the luxury of having a tutor hired for them. At the same time, there are students who have more advantages than me. These assets will not make or break my future in college, but if I have these things and another kid with all the same credentials doesn’t, then how can we say college acceptance is based on merit?

One has to be a good, hardworking student to be accepted into highly selective colleges in any case (unless you’ve been photoshopped into a water polo player). But a family’s money has always been connected to a child’s success in being accepted to the college they want to attend. The parents involved in the scandal took a step too far in using their wealth to their children’s advantage, but what they did isn’t as far removed from the norm as it seems. The scandal has highlighted this unseemly aspect of the college application process for everyone to see.