Admissions Side Door: Money Badly Spent

Admissions Side Door: Money Badly Spent

Karen Gross 23/04/2019 6

So, folks have always wanted to get the real scoop on how students get into (or do not get into) elite colleges. Part of that story has been revealed recently through the Harvard litigation surrounding how students (particularly minority students) are selected. And now we have the admissions fraud of all frauds: payoffs to folks inside institutions to get students into elite colleges/universities as well as designated test takers. And, one of the key pathways is the oddest of all: payoffs to coaches to bring in non-athletes --- that is not a typo. (Don't ask me about the NCAA in all this please.)

Now, all of this is not a complete shock although it is shocking how systematized the fraud was and how wide spread. We always knew there was something "off" with some admissions' decisions. Perhaps we did not know the lengths to which parents would go (in terms of dollars or illegality) to get their child admitted to an elite institution (with the assumption that that insures a successful future and that the place selected in the right fit.) We know parents will do "anything" for their child but this stretches the imagination. And, don't ask how a child would feel if they knew the $$ spent to get them into their college haven. (Hey, they might just be tossed out as their parents are tossed into jail.) The oddest part for me and the irony given athletic scandals is that in this fraud, non-athletes were recruited. Imagine that. A new form of athletic recruitment.

There's plenty of blame to go around. And, no one should be immune and we can rightly ask how far up the food chain this went. Who actually knew within high schools and colleges/universities? Did some of the students know? Did athletic directors know? Did Admissions Offices (and personnel there) know? And, knowledge is a funny thing, right? Full knowledge? A hint of something slimy? An odd wink? Knowing disregard? I am sure firings are in the offing and some are emerging already. One question: who has the sign on his/her desk that says: the buck stops here?

Here is what really bothers me and it has bothered me in different contexts before. Start here. I get the value of elite colleges. I get their appeal. I get that they seem like a sure ticket forward. I even get that a parent does not want to see one's child disappointed. I get all that. I don't get this: folks are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars (and doing illegal acts) for something as if it were insuring success for their child. Yes, some economists show value of elites with networking power. But, these parents are paying regardless of whether their child/student will be happy. Is everyone at Yale and USC happy? Does an elite education guarantee you will meet the perfect mate and have the perfect career and engagement with all the right people? I think not. And note the irony: we've always had a problem with questioning how some people (minorities; diverse students) got into college; now the tables have turned. You can rightly ask rich kids: how'd you get in? And the elitism push starts at infancy with the right pre-school. 

And here is what really bothers me. Colleges that are non-elite are falling by the wayside, and many of them are doing amazing jobs, and they cannot get donors to help them. These are small colleges that serve at least 40% Pell eligible students (the elites are half of that or so) and myriads of first generation students. These are institutions helping lift a generation. They produce teachers and nurses and social workers and police officers and community service providers. Want the names of some that are now threatened with extinction? Bennett College; Goddard College; Green Mountain College; Southern Vermont College; Hampshire College. Yup and there are some that have closed or merged. This is serious. All small privates cannot go the way of the doo doo bird. There are too many students who will not get a chance to go to and succeed in college if these places all disappear. For real. These are kids whose seat wasn't taken in the scandal. These are kids who need deeply supportive educational setting to help them navigate new pathways and succeed they can. 

So, just imagine for a moment that pockets were willing to open for these students and these institutions -- monies that would be flowing legally and thoughtfully to help lift the lives of students who are NOT going to the elites. I get that donors pick where to donate. I get that my suggestion is not going to redirect monies from rich parents (they must be rich to pay as much as they did and there were over 30 such parents). I get that this suggestion is not going to get foundations to give to non-elite colleges.

But, I want to make one point and one suggestion. First, isn't is worth thinking about the larger question of how we spend money and on whom and for what? There seems to be enough illegal spending that we need to consider good legal spending. Consider small colleges that actually serve students in need effectively. This gets me to my second point.

Surely there is plenty of forthcoming punishment. There are plenty of people who will pay, literally and figuratively, for the wrongs committed in this massive admissions debacle. The list is long. So, in addition to firings and jail time, I think we need to consider cy pres awards that are common in certain types of class actions. Here's how they work generally speaking. When wrongs are done and money can't be given to all those harmed, a fund is created and ordered by a court. These funds can be sizable. Then, the monies in the fund are donated to causes or institutions that can get to the root of the problem for which the class action existed. Consumer organizations can get dollars. Educational institutions. Legal services institutions. Allocations to specific organizations (named) can be part of the settlement of the legal action. Students could get scholarships based on need.

So, what if all the people who did wrong here have to donate to a fund to save small colleges that would also distribute some of the monies to students in need to reduce their debt. These wrongdoing folks will be paying fines and paying restitution and paying civil penalties. Put all those funds in a pot and share them with small colleges that are struggling. Help those who need help. Put the money to good use. Put it in colleges that aren't behaving illegally. Put the money in places that help low income students of all ages progress in post-secondary education. Call it the Small College Cy Pres with Scholarships for Need. And, this fund would enable small colleges to stabilize their footing and continue their good work.

This isn't a crazy idea of some former college president of a small college. This isn't the crazy idea of a lawyer whose organization years ago was the beneficiary of a cy pres award. This is the realistic suggestion of an educator who thinks we can put money that went into wrong hands for bad reasons into good hands with good reasons. Think fraud and scandal. Then think cy pres.

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  • Karl Johnson

    We need a new TV series: High Crimes of the Rich and Famous.

  • Jose Galindo

    If I had all the money in the world I would never do that.

  • William Evans

    Seems like the wealthy lawyers, doctors and businessmen in America are being exposed...

  • Heidi Patzelt

    I don't understand why they are closing colleges and universities that are promoting diversity yet somehow we keep on helping rich universities by bribing them.... Something is wrong people.....

  • Vic Cooper

    Thanks for raising your voice !!

  • Hannah Pearson

    Good read. This has been going on for a long time.

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Karen Gross

Higher Education Expert

Karen is an educator and an author. Prior to becoming a college president, she was a tenured law professor for two plus decades. Her academic areas of expertise include trauma, toxic stress, consumer finance, overindebtedness and asset building in low income communities. She currently serves as Senior Counsel at Finn Partners Company. From 2011 to 2013, She served (part and full time) as Senior Policy Advisor to the US Department of Education in Washington, DC. She was the Department's representative on the interagency task force charged with redesigning the transition assistance program for returning service members and their families. From 2006 to 2014, she was President of Southern Vermont College, a small, private, affordable, four-year college located in Bennington, VT. In Spring 2016, she was a visiting faculty member at Bennington College in VT. She also teaches part-time st Molly Stark Elementary School, also in Vt. She is also an Affiliate of the Penn Center for MSIs. She is the author of adult and children’s books, the most recent of which are titled Breakaway Learners (adult) and  Lucy’s Dragon Quest. Karen holds a bachelor degree in English and Spanish from Smith College and Juris Doctor degree (JD) in Law from Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law.

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