Profit and pretense: Why the latest college admissions scandal is a big deal

Why is it acceptable to pay for a building at a university as a means of guaranteeing admission, but not to cheat on a college entrance exam?

Why do we allow local parents to pay over $100 per hour for individualized SAT or ACT preparation for their children, but not for a fake charity to forge athletic credentials so that their children can be accepted to prestigious universities?

Articles like the Hollywood Reporter’s “Hey, Lori Loughlin: This Is How to Buy Your Way Into USC — and Get Away With It” and the Los Angeles Times’ “The legal way the rich get their kids into elite colleges: Huge donations for years” have drawn a parallel between the recent college admissions scandal and other pathways to top-tier universities that aren’t based on merit. After all, each of the above scenarios involves significant monetary investment by parents on behalf of privileged children. However, the line between admissions policies that favor the wealthy and overt criminal activity should not be blurred; what differentiates them is profit and pretense.

Paying money to obtain fake test scores or athletic accolades is done behind closed doors. When such exchanges are hidden out of view, the individuals who profit are the presidents of fake charities, corrupt coaches, and amoral admissions directors — as opposed to the institution as a whole. While a university can allocate donations to scholarships that strive to level the playing field and facilities that benefit their entire student body, fraudulent criminals will likely pocket the money for personal gain.

According to an editorial in The New York Times, laws in place that criminalize bribery and cheating but not million-dollar donations or pricey test prep prevent individuals from gaining admission under false pretenses. The Times quoted Andrew Lelling, the United States attorney for the District of Massachusetts, explaining the difference between these two approaches in a news conference following the scandal. 

“We’re not talking about donating a building so that a school is more likely to take your son or daughter,” Lelling said. “We’re talking about deception and fraud.”

Higher education’s institutionalized ability to profit off of all who are willing is not going anywhere. While the influence of money in today’s college admissions process is certainly an issue worth discussing, the events that have taken place in the past month should not be conflated with legally legitimate methods of boosting an applicant’s chances.