Is the college admissions scandal really shocking?

There’s the side door, the back door, and the trap door

THE COLLEGE ADMISSIONS AND BRIBERY SCANDAL is riveting, side-glance worthy, but definitely not shocking. The back door and side doors described by the instigator of the college admissions scandal have been bolted shut to middle and working class students, regardless of their academic acumen, since the dawn of higher education in this country.

“There is a front door of getting in where a student just does it on their own. And then there’s a back door where people go to an institutional advancement and make large donations but they are not guaranteed in,” William “Rick” Singer told Judge Rya W. Zobel in Boston federal court Tuesday as he pleaded guilty to four charges.

Singer was the bouncer to the side door, which he described in a phone call to a parent interested in his services as a scrutiny-free guaranteed pathway to higher education.

Howie Carr in the Boston Herald, the front pages of major newspapers, and the anchors of TV stations are all gasping in shock at the fraud. But lift the veil, toss politics aside, and you have to wonder, was there much integrity to begin with?

Documents released by Harvard University in 2018 show that 33 percent of legacy applicants, (kids who had at least one parent who graduated from the college) gained admission to the classes of 2014 through 2019. Some of those legacy families dole out significant amounts of money in donations to universities (and not just Harvard), to express their support of higher education, if not to also cement the admission of young Tommy and Jane.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Daniel Golden writes in an op-ed in the Boston Globe, that his 2006 book, The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates, was intended as a work of investigative journalism. But he says it also became a how-to guide for affluent parents who have “inundated” him with questions and, in some instances, money, to serve as their child’s admissions consultant.

Golden’s poster boy for using the back door to the system was Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law, who gained admission to Harvard not long after his developer father made a $2.5 million donation to the university in 1998. According to a book by Richard Kahlenberg, and further analyzed by Buzzfeed this week, three-quarters of US News & World Report’s top 100 colleges offer some form of special admission for children of parents who went to said schools. In Harvard’s case, most of those kids are white.

Even beyond the three doors, let’s not forget the trap door, where well-off parents chat with university officials and friends of said university officials at networking events, convincing them to move Tommy and Jane’s applications to the top of the pile.

It’s difficult to imagine the kids pounding on the door, decent grades in hand, and tests not taken by paid-off lackeys, have parents with the time to grease palms like that. You’re looking at the parents who work medium income jobs — the teachers, the social workers, loan officers, and the janitor who might even have to work two jobs. That 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift doesn’t exactly lend itself to extra time to attend cocktail parties with the elite.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

This already existing privilege is the reason why many students told NPR’s “All Things Considered” that they’re frankly not surprised by all of this.

“My initial reaction was disgust,” said UCLA junior Rugile Pekinas. “[I was] not surprised at all, really.”