College Admissions Scandal: Why Athletics as the Entry Point?

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By Dr. Crystal Gips
Retired University Administrator

We have all seen news of the college admissions scandal unraveling in the press and TV reports, complete with coverage of court dates, photos of the involved celebrities and the mastermind Rick Singer, over many weeks now. And the scandal continues to expand.

The practice of illegitimate access to college is not surprising, given the many years that privilege of one sort or another that has played a role in admissions of some students, especially to elite institutions. Finally, this case has blown open to public view the lengths to which some families will go to ensure their children’s enrollment at an institution of choice. Now we are all seeing the practice up close.

How do some youngsters get admitted to the colleges they (and their families) want to attend?

  • Payoffs—simply large donations, funding a building or a program or a project.
  • Being a trustee or an advisory board member.
  • The legacy practice: just because dad was smart and successful at Princeton doesn’t mean the child measures up, but gets in anyway (and students rarely flunk out).
  • Being able to afford private K-12 schools.
  • Hire tutors to get students through HS with a good record.
  • Affording a test prep program or tutor.
  • Being able to send a youngster to a year of post grad work at a private school, especially one with a channel to the desired college.
  • Even being able to give a child developmental experiences such as music lessons, travel, special classes at a museum, summer computer camp, etc.

These strategies all can make a huge difference in preparation for college.

On the contrary, most students and families play the college admissions game straight. Some get a legitimate boost beyond where their academic record might get them. (As a bright student from a very small, rural nothing-special high school, I had the opportunity while in high school back in 1960 to take English and math classes and 6 credits of Zoology at an ivy-league university. I am fully aware that those experiences and the professors gave me a lift in the application process; they didn’t give me the financial aid I needed, and that was the difference between my undergraduate path and that of the folks we see in the news now.)

What I find of particular interest in the present admissions scandal—what makes it a kind of new news– is its connections to athletics. Yes, outstanding athletes have always had a leg up in the admissions process, but the kids in this current story were NOT athletes—just reputed to be, and the story kept quiet for money.

What does this latest scandal says about athletics programs and personnel and how vulnerable they are to corruption? Is it one more version of the corruption that already exists in college athletics? Is athletics an easy target because of the natural desire for acclaim, which often comes through athletics? Why not bribe a biochemistry professor, for example, to get a kid in as a good scholar (even if s/he isn’t) to work on a research project? Or is it truly the case that coaches are much more open to bribes than are people in other components of a university? This scandal raises questions about how much comparable  “activity” has been occurring undetected for a long time, and why athletic departments seemed to be the doorway through which these students entered illegitimately.

The need for oversight of athletics on one more front is now added to the monumental task college and university leaders must take on in managing a part of the higher education enterprise that many already contend is tangential to educational preparation for adult life.

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