Students respond to college admissions scandal

Sunday, March 17, 2019 - 6:57pm

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Design by Roseanne Chao

For many University of Michigan students, the recent college admissions scandal — in which federal prosecutors charged 50 people for various offenses related to college admissions, including buying their children entry into some of the nation’s most selective schools — was not wholly surprising.

Lauren Schandevel, Public Policy senior, said last week’s events highlighted how common it is for wealthier families to give their children advantages in the college process through both legal and illegal measures.

“In actuality, this kind of stuff happens all the time,” Schandevel said. “If not through explicitly breaking the law, there are plenty of legal ways through which wealthy parents can give their children a leg up into college. I was not surprised when I found out that these families are actually breaking the law to make that kind of thing happen because I’ve heard so many stories about the legal ways in which these things happen.”

The scandal, which was revealed to the public on Tuesday, was the largest college admissions scheme ever prosecuted by the United States Justice Department and sparked discussions nationwide about economic inequality in selective public and private schools. Parents were charged with bribing athletic coaches and standardized test proctors to secure their children acceptances into schools such as Stanford, Yale and the University of Southern California, among others.  

The list of parents indicted in the scandal included actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, along with actress Felicity Huffman. After the scandal unfolded, USC launched an internal investigation into the scam and Loughlin was fired by Crown Media, the media production company that previously employed her on Hallmark Channel.

According to the indictment unsealed in federal court on Tuesday, the leader of the scheme, William Rick Singer, founded the Edge College & Career Network in 2007 to help parents bribe coaches and entrance exam proctors. The indictment revealed parents involved in the scandal paid Singer between $15,000 and $75,000 to have members of the organization either take the ACT or SAT for the student or correct the answers once the test was completed.

Schandevel said while these extreme measures indicate how wealthy students are given numerous advantages during the college admissions process, the fact some public schools are given more extensive funding than others is one of the biggest ways students are benefited when applying to college.

In January 2018, Schandevel started Being Not-Rich at UM: A Guide, a 115-page document offering advice to lower-income students about how to adapt to life at the University, to help bridge some of the gaps between students who come from wealthier school districts and those who do not.

“It’s really clear that higher education sort of reinforces this economic and subsequently racial hierarchy,” Schandevel said. “Even if you don’t send your kid to a private school, you still have a public school system that’s predicated on the notion that local taxes will supplement state and federal funding. When you have that policy, it advantages wealthy districts over poor districts and sets those poor districts up to fail automatically. So even if you’re in the public school system, the American education system is still favoring wealthy people.”

In response to the scandal, University Public Affairs released a statement condemning the indicted parents’ actions and reaffirming the University’s commitment to a fair admissions process.

“At the University of Michigan, we use a comprehensive, holistic approach to review every candidate for admission to identify a talented, diverse class of students who will flourish on our campus,” the statement reads. “We engage multiple readers and reviews in evaluating the full set of credentials offered for consideration.”

Students related the recent scandal with wealth disparities present at the University, even though the University was not involved with the scheme. Griffin St. Onge, LSA senior and co-chair of Affordable Michigan, a student organization representing low-income students, said she wished the University would focus more on the needs of students who are first-generation or come from schools with fewer resources.

“I think if Michigan as a public university that is always striving for that ‘uncommon education for the common man’ thing, I think if they feel an obligation to fulfill that goal, then there needs to be a lot more effort,” St. Onge said.

Even so, St. Onge said programs like the HAIL scholarship, which began in 2016 and offers full tuition scholarships to accomplished students from low-income backgrounds, have made some progress in bridging the wealth disparity gap although there is still work to be done.  

“They’ve done a lot of previous things with the HAIL scholarship and they’ve been trying to go out to different communities, but I think there needs to be a bigger conversation of where are we getting our students from, how are we supporting our students who are low-income or first-generation who do come here and end up in a very different environment where they need additional support,” St. Onge said.

A report by the Equality of Opportunity Project — cited in The New York Times’ The Upshot in 2017 — found the median family income of a student at the University is $154,000, the highest of 27 public colleges classified as “highly selective”. A report from the Detroit Free Press also found that the graduation rate for Pell Grant recipients at the University is 86.9 percent, as opposed to a 92.5 percent graduation rate for non-Pell Grant recipients.

University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald wrote in an email interview with The Daily that the University’s overall high graduation rates still make a University degree a worthy investment.

“A family’s investment in a University of Michigan education is a good one,” Fitzgerald wrote. “A consistent 97 percent of students return for their sophomore year, and 92 percent graduate from our Ann Arbor campus within six years — among the best retention and graduation rates in the nation. These are positive proof points that we share often with prospective students and families.”

Joseph Aranoff, LSA sophomore, said the scandal revealed some of the illegal ways wealthy parents give their children advantages in the college process, but also said he doesn’t think these illegal methods do not reflect the majority of wealthy students at a university.

“I think everybody that’s here at this university deserves to be here, and if we’re judging people of means and of wealth and making the assumption that they don’t deserve to be here because somehow their wealth is equivalent to a bribe, it’s a dangerous precedent,” Aronoff said. “Just because you have the means to attend a good university doesn’t negate the work you had to do to get there.”

Students also noted how the consideration of legacy status in admissions decisions favors students from wealthier backgrounds. A student is considered a legacy applicant if a member of their family is an alum of the University. Fitzgerald wrote in an email interview with The Daily that while the University does take legacy status into account, that factor alone does not determine the admission of an applicant.

“The university also considers alumni ties, but it is not a primary factor in admissions decisions,” Fitzgerald wrote. “Alumni ties can be a useful indicator of a student’s interest in the university.”

Schandevel said legacy status should be eliminated if the University is to make its admissions process as equitable as possible.

“I think we should get rid of the legacy admissions system,” Schandevel said. “A lot of other elite schools have done it, and there are plenty of ways that legacy students are advantaged through their SES (socioeconomic status) — they don’t need an extra boost in the admissions process.”