Helping Your Students Discuss the Ethical Issues of Applying to College

As you know, a major scandal involving college admissions has been making headlines since 2019. A number of very wealthy parents – some of whom are celebrities – paid vast sums of money to a college admissions counselor of sorts, who then pulled all kinds of strings to get their kids into elite institutions that included USC, Stanford, Yale, and others.

How did that counselor help those students get into top colleges? In some cases, he found ways to assure that they would earn top scores on standardized tests. (In one case, he allegedly stated that one student required special accommodations on a test, then he had that student take the test in a private location where he could answer questions for her.)

But that was only the beginning. The crooked admission counselor, in collusion with parents, paid large sums of money to college athletic coaches and departments to have their children admitted as athletic recruits. Even though, in many cases, the students were not athletes at all.

Were the students part of this fraud and therefore breaking the law too? It is hard to tell. One news article about the scandal states that one student did not even know she had been admitted on an athletic scholarship until hearing the words, “You are on the team” after arriving on campus.

So it is possible to make a case that even the students who gained admission because of this chicanery were victims. Of course, they could not be victimized to the extent that other students were – the students who were rejected by elite schools because their places had been taken by monied recruits with phony test scores and phony athletic records.

But The Worst Part Could Be that None of this Is Really New

We recently found a book, The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges – and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates, by Daniel Golden. This book tells a sordid tale of the admissions advantages that wealthy people enjoy. It offers case stories about how the children of wealthy and influential parents gained admission to institutions that included Brown, Duke, and Harvard. Some of these students were admitted because their parents had attended the same schools. Others had parents who were celebrities. Still, others had parents who were major donors, or who had enough money to pay bribes.

The stories this book tells are not surprising. But what seemed surprising, at least to us, was the fact that this book was first published in 2007, with a subsequent edition coming in 2019. So although the case studies this book relates could have been ripped from today’s headlines, many of them go back nearly 15 years.

Ethical Questions to Consider about Gaining Admission to College

Some of the following ethical questions are related to the recent scandal in college admissions. Others are not related. But they all pertain to ethically questionable considerations that help determine who will get into a college, and who will not.

  • “Legacy” applicants (children of alumni) get preferential consideration
  • Children of big donors get preferential consideration – or in some cases, children who are only recommended by those large donors
  • Students whose parents can afford expensive tutoring and test prep get higher scores and therefore have an advantage, thanks to the money their parents spent
  • Athletic recruits have an advantage, even though some of them drop out of athletics after arriving on campus
  • Students whose families can afford to take them to visit and take admissions tours at a lot of campuses have an advantage, plus students who have visited gain a slight edge in the admissions process over students who haven’t
  • Students whose families can afford college essay coaches enjoy another form of advantage that money can buy
  • Students from well-to-do families that don’t need financial aid are more likely to be admitted

Plus, students who have graduated from schools in more affluent areas have many advantages when it comes to getting admitted. They are well prepared, groomed, and make more attractive applicants.

Walking an Ethical Tightrope in the Classroom and School

For teachers and school administrators, talking to parents about these issues will often lead to disagreements and frictions. And talking to students about them can create even more misunderstandings. What students, after all, want to consider whether having parents pay for tutoring for standardized tests could be considered a form of advantage-taking?

As an educator, you can decide simply not to have classroom discussions about the issues the college admissions scandal raises. That is certainly a valid choice if you prefer to avoid conversations that can raise objections and controversy.

But if you, on the other hand, believe that discussing these issues – and the admissions scandal – could provide a worthwhile teaching opportunity, perhaps you should consider handing out an article about the scandal and inviting discussion or consider showing a video of a news segment that covers the scandal. Even if you hesitate to bring up some of the thornier questions the scandal raises, your students may then bring up the most important ethical issues on their own. The result could be a positive and complex discussion of the many issues that surround college admissions – issues that are probably on your students’ minds already.

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