Admissions Potpourri

Okay — blah blah side door blah blah open “roster spots” blah. Blah “real victims here” blah. Blah blah.

***

Mortar board money

I didn’t attend my first choice university when I graduated from high school. I was accepted by the U of Chicago, and even offered a National Merit Scholarship, but there was a $3000 gap between the financial aid package I was offered and the cost of attendance, and in 1983, three grand might as well have been three million, because my family couldn’t come up with either amount. We were in that middle-class trap — ineligible for need-based aid, but without the funds the charts and tables assumed we must have had. So I went to the school that offered to pick up my entire tab with an academic scholarship.

I kept that scholarship for two years, before my grades fell below the 3.5 I needed to maintain my eligibility for that money. At that point, I was told that I’d still get a half-ride, and I can recall the Dean casually saying to me, “Well, with the money your parents saved from the first two years, they should be able to get you through these.” I told him he was proceeding from a mistaken assumption — my folks were good people, but they had done well to get me thirty dollars a month my sophomore year.  But I had lost my ride fair and square; my GPA was around a 3.2 or 3.3. So I wound up going back home and earning my B.A. in a rather unorthodox fashion.

During all this, I knew there were folks getting into the schools they wanted and getting through their degrees, not always on their own merits, but because they came from situations that allowed them margins for error that I didn’t have. At some schools, I knew there were kids attending on athletic scholarships. At others, I knew there were kids whose families were more than capable of taking up the financial slack in a situation like mine. Still other kids were able to receive need-based aid for which I was ineligible.

Was it fair? I didn’t really feel that way at the time, but as the years passed, I came to terms with the fact that different people have different advantages and disadvantages. In my case, my advantages weren’t enough to overcome my difficulties, both external (a father who was expected to die from cancer, a mother with MS who was exacerbating because she was stressed over the thought of losing her husband, a dying grandmother, getting dumped by a girl who had decided she preferred women, and a weak family financial situation due to the accumulated debts of trying to lead a middle-class life before Dad started pulling down a middle-class salary) and internal (my poor choices of majors, my loss of focus, and what I would recognize years later as a full-on depressive episode). And what I came to decide was that given that variety of advantages and disadvantages that each person brought to his or her life, there probably wasn’t any way to make it fair. All I could do is play the hand I was dealt and ante up for the next one.

This was a lesson that graduate school reinforced for me. Because I wound up graduating from a non-traditional degree program, I didn’t meet the checklist for a lot of M.A. programs in English. For example, I didn’t have a GPA in English, even though that was my major; I had tested out of 38 hours of English classes, so I had the credits, but no grades to accompany them. (All told, I tested out of somewhere between 50-60 hours of undergrad credit.) I didn’t have any papers from other classes — my “classroom work” had been in courses like physics, differential equations, and computer architecture. Consequently, the only two grad programs willing to take a chance on me were a couple of in-state universities, and again, I went to the one that footed more of the bill.

I went through a similar process when I decided to do the Ph.D. six years after finishing the M.A.. I only applied to two programs, and I went to the one that accepted me (deferring my matriculation until they could come up with funding.) I knew that getting the Phud from a non-elite school was going to put me out of the running for a lot of positions down the line; typically schools hire graduates from programs higher on the food chain. And in some respects, I guess that’s right — Mondoville isn’t mistaken for Keble College, Oxford. But I have played the hand I was dealt and kept showing up for the next round, and I think I’ve made things better both for myself and I hope for Mondoville as well. I didn’t particularly have the advantages of social or financial capital, but I parlayed the ones I did and do have into my current situation.

So where am I going with this? Well, in some respects, I guess I’m saying that I can sympathize with the Lori Laughlins and Felicity Huffmans, the tycoons and zillionaires who try to game the system to pass any advantages they have to their kids. The problem (insofar as there is one) is not that the parents are willing to do what parents have likely always done. The problem is that the institutions in questions have actual criteria that don’t necessarily match their espoused criteria. When I hear representatives of Southern Cal claim that they are the actual victims here, I’m reminded of the old saw that you can’t cheat an honest man. If USC or Yale or Mondoville is interested purely in admitting students on the strength of academic aptitude, nothing is preventing that.

The fact is that few-to-no colleges work that way. Lots of different thumbs (Athletics! Legacies! Diversity!) go on the scales of admission. Refusing to acknowledge it is willful blindness, and pretending that there is some external, immutable, “fair” standard of desert is somewhere between naivete and disingenuousness.

Ultimately, I can’t help thinking that the pearl clutching we’re seeing stems not from the fact that these soi-disant scammers are putting thumbs on the scale, but that the thumbs aren’t the ones that people claim to favor these days, and that someone outside the usual racket went into the scale-thumbing business. So there’s all that.

***

Observation: If there are institutions whose coaches can sell roster spots to kids who wouldn’t get admitted as non-athletes, then those institutions have too many roster spots. (Side note: Many teams over-recruit in order to get paying bodies in the door, but they do at least give the kids a shot, even if it’s a long one. The events described in the current scandal seem to cross the line between cynicism and fraud.)

***

Observation: One of the things that most disheartens me about the whole business is that despite the evident corruption at these elite institutions (nearly $6 million was paid to — let’s face it — bribe college employees), donors will continue to add to the endowments at schools like Yale ($29.4 billion) and Wake Forest ($1.2 billion). Meanwhile, schools like mine — which isn’t elite, but gives opportunities to a lot of kids who might otherwise be trapped in South Carolina’s cycle of rural poverty — will go begging. Heck, the bribe money in this scam is enough to cover a third of our endowment ($16.5 million as of 2017.)

I’m not saying that donors should punish the UCLAs and Wakes of the world, but I wish they’d be willing to put some dollars in a school that educates kids whose parents can’t afford bribes.

***

Doubtless I’ll have more to say about this stuff as the weeks go on, but I think that’ll do for now. But here’s a little number I’d like to dedicate to the Stanford sailing team(!), which figures prominently in the indictment.

See you soon!

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
This entry was posted in Culture, Education, Music, Why I Do What I Do. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Admissions Potpourri

  1. Wm. says:

    I’m _much_ less sympathetic to the parents, and “gaming the system” undersells what they did (or what they allowed themselves to be talked into, if you prefer) significantly to my mind. I’m most interested, though, in seeing the fallout from the exposure of the ease with which falsifying disabilities for and outright cheating on the exams can occur. The latter speaks to the overvalued nature of such tests (speaking as one who did pretty well on them, I can definitely say they’re not a measure of how well you can _learn_)–making them a less significant factor would be a positive outcome IMO. The former is going to wind up hurting plenty of folks undeservedly I suspect.

    You make valid points vis a vis the crocodile tears of the elite institutions, but perhaps their main failing was assuming that the various coaches and administrators could be trusted to use appropriate judgment and weren’t corruptible (though I grant you various other higher-ups may well have been happy to look the other way, esp. with full-freight students such as these).

    • profmondo says:

      Oh, I’m comfortable with prosecuting the offenders for committing (or at least suborning) bribery. But at the same time, I understand their motivation. Likewise, I understand why some people rob banks: they want money. Doesn’t mean that I think they should get a pass.

      As for the business of tests, I’m inclined to think that they aren’t really meant to measure how well someone can learn, because learning requires both ability and desire. However, I suspect that they may actually be a pretty decent measure of someone’s likelihood of succeeding in college. No, it doesn’t measure work ethic or “grit” (to use the term du jour). But when I look at the kids who pass through Mondoville (and likely at your institution), if I see one kid with a 1200 SAT/24 ACT and another with a 1000/19, I can make a pretty confident guess as to who will have an easier time of it in my classes. And if I see a kid with an 800/14? I know s/he’s gonna have a hard row to hoe.

      (BTW, this doesn’t mean that I’ll give up on any of the three. If we admit the kid with the 800 — and sometimes we do — I think it’s our responsibility to put that kid in a position to succeed. But it’s still more likely that the 1000 or 1200 kid will do better.) So I’m not particularly down on tests as part of the package, and I look askance at a lot of the schools that have dropped the tests as admission requirements.

      As for falsifying disabilities, we both know that it happens to a greater or (I think) lesser degree. But I can’t help thinking that a line must be drawn somewhere. And no matter where we draw that line, there will be unequal outcomes. Life is like that, whether we like it or not. We don’t live in a world of Rawlsian justice, and our attempts to create one are about as useful as attempts to command the tide. Even Cnut knew (cnew?) better than to try that one.

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