Wealth and U.S. college admissions are no strangers. Why, the oldest colleges formed to train privileged young men for the priesthood. Gradually creeping in has been the notion of fairness, surely a worthwhile concept.  What that should look like, however, is less clear.  

A college education is the great equalizer, where a motivated intelligent kid from a poor family can obtain the same credentials as a wealthy kid and compete on a more level playing field.  Gone are the days when upper class families enrolled their sons at birth and sent them off to Harvard with a maid to pack their clothes and make their meals. Affirmative action sought to make things fairer by including greater numbers of those minorities traditionally underrepresented in academia.  Even today, engineering schools struggle to achieve 50% enrollment of women.  For the white female applicant who learned that African-American classmates with lower marks and scores received law school acceptances she didn’t, it certainly didn’t seem fair, and her argument was settled by the U.S. Supreme Court, allowing the University of Michigan to continue their policies with a few tweaks.

We tend to think that what is “fair” in the process is that students are admitted because of their ability to succeed based on previous marks. Yet how can you compare the top student from Choate with the top student from a small, rural high school?  Standardized testing seemed the answer, and SAT’s and ACT’s developed as a result. But these really show only one’s ability to take that kind of test on one particular Saturday; many motivated, creative, talented future Phi Beta Kappas don’t get high scores. SAT’s have come under further scrutiny from the apparent bias toward white middle- and upper-class test takers. Those families who can pay for expensive test-prep tutoring and psychological reports allowing extra time have an unfair advantage over those families who cannot. In the name of fairness, an increasing number of colleges are either dropping the standardized test requirement or making it optional. (See www.fairtest.com).

In an effort to reflect the demographics of the nation, the elite colleges often limit the percentage of other minorities, noting that when California, hoping to be fairer, abolished affirmative action, Berkeley found their student body a disproportionate 41% Asian-heritage compared to the 15% of the state’s residents. Then what about those scholars whose places at a college are taken by a recruited athlete? The football and basketball teams certainly enhance school spirit (and donations from proud alumni when the team wins).  Is that really fair? Well, things are fair-er in any case since Title IX required colleges to give as much money to the women’s teams as the men’s. How about students whose parents pledge millions to a school suddenly receiving offers despite less competitive marks and scores?

The solutions are not easy, but the good outcome of the latest scandal will be that colleges will re-examine their policies and ask again what’s fair, even though achieving it will surely remain elusive.
 
Cheating and committing fraud to get your child into an elite school are definitely not fair, and cynics say these latest charges are the tip of the iceberg.  While parents are not only reinforcing the message that cheating is OK , they are also telling their child  they have no confidence in their ability to be successful on their own merits. And that’s really not fair.
Kudos to my well-qualified students who didn’t make it to one of the elite schools despite their own merits, have come to appreciate that any club that would have them as a member would be worth joining after all, found amazing professors in their field of endeavour, and now know it’s not where you enroll that matters, it’s what you do when you get there.  I expect you to win the gold medal – honestly.

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