In March 2019, federal investigators in the United States announced that they were bringing fraud and bribery charges against some wealthy parents for securing their children’s acceptance to some of the nation’s top universities via illegal means.
This investigation became known as “Operation Varsity Blues.”
In some instances, millions of dollars were spent on admissions crimes, including falsifying documents in order to give applicants more time on entrance exams, bribing exam administrators to boost scores, fabricating sports credentials and even bribing coaches to nominate unqualified individuals for entry.
In total, 52 individuals were charged in the probe, including several well-known actresses and many wealthy business owners. Some students were reportedly involved in the fraud, while others were left in the dark.
Since then, there has been significant hand-wringing in higher education circles about what can be done to ensure the admissions process is as fair as possible for all prospective students and increase trust not only in the admissions process, but in the nation’s universities as a whole.
In the US, there has been declining trust in institutions for decades.
In 1958, when the American National Election Study, one the oldest public research organizations in the country, asked Americans if they trusted Washington to do what was right, 57% of adults had faith they would “most of the time.” By 2014, according to Pew Research, that number was down to around 24%.
In 2019, Pew found that 64% of those surveyed thought that trust between individuals was declining, and 70% thought that this low trust was making it harder to solve problems. Similar declines have been exhibited for the media and the nation’s colleges and universities.
Even before the admissions scandal, in 2018 some 61% of Americans said higher education in the US was moving in the wrong direction, although these views were also colored by political affiliation.
In August 2019, Pew found that only 33% of those who identified as Republican or as leaning Republican believed that the nation’s colleges had a positive effect on the country. For Democrats the number was 67%.
The most common criticisms aimed at higher education included overly high tuition rates, politicization of classroom content, infantilization of students, dilution of content through political correctness and the failure of skills taught in the classroom to transfer to real world situations.
While most agree that college is too expensive, views on classroom politicization and political correctness is largely political.
Evidence for commercialization
Speaking with The Millennial Source, Mark Levit, a former professor at New York University, Hofstra University and the University of Miami, argued that while universities educate future generations of students, they also tend to operate like businesses behind the scenes, trying to increase their endowments and the income they receive from grants and donations.
In turn, this raises the reputation of these universities, potentially allowing them to expand operations, attract more prestigious academics and raise their educational profile.
“As a nation, we hold universities in high regard, as organizations apart from all others in mission and morality,” Levit said.
“What few see, even those on the ‘inside,’ is that most universities are simply tax-advantaged corporations. Their invisible goals are to grow their endowments and provide substantial salaries to senior administrators and researchers/professors who attract grant money,” Levit said, adding that universities are often searching for unique ways to raise their funds.
“They license their names and logos to apparel and other manufacturers. They are able to solicit non-taxable ‘gifts’ from alumni, corporations, and others. One of the universities at which I taught even charged me and all other educators to park our cars in its sizable parking lot!”
Levit made clear, however, that universities are much more than the sum of these activities.
“For as secretly as universities operate, they are an important component of our nation and culture,” he said. “They research, they educate, they lend expertise, and they serve their communities.”
Expenses and exclusivity
Matt Edwards, an Associate Professor of Voice at Shenandoah University, a private institution in Virginia, told The Millennial Source that some private audition coaches will charge students up to US$15,000 to help them get into certain BFA programs, many of which see thousands of applicants vying for only a handful of spots.
“These coaching firms privilege students with money, making it even harder for lower income students (without coaching) to compete,” Edwards said.
Other observers worry that prospective low-to-middle income students might have a harder time affording college in the midst of the pandemic, especially if universities lose funding from state governments.
According to Daniel Greenstein, chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, Pennsylvania lawmakers significantly cut funding for state universities during the Great Recession in 2008.
As a result, tuition and other fees rose sharply in response, leading to fewer low-to-moderate income students being able to enroll.
In the wake of the 2019 college admissions bribery scandal, many college administrators, parents and professors have sought to take a look at the problems surrounding admissions and the ways the system could be improved.
In a recent interview with USA Today, six leaders from various colleges around the country came together to discuss the current landscape and the ways the system is responding to the threats of fraud and inequality.
While acknowledging the problems that remain, these educational leaders make the case that colleges and universities play a positive role not just in students’ lives, but in the trajectory of the country as a whole, specifically in the form of research and the dissemination of knowledge.
“Everything is under scrutiny like never before. So something like Varsity Blues ignites a passion in people, understandably. We know we’re an expensive option. So that just throws in there another piece about wealth and fame and fortune and therefore of access,” said John Bravman, president of Bucknell University, a private college in Pennsylvania.
Bravman argues that there is no silver bullet to get others to see the value of higher education, even if certain barriers to equal access remain.
“You communicate, you communicate, you communicate. You explain who you are, what you do, how you do it, and you hope to make headway,” he said.
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