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The real college recruitment scandal might not be what you think



By now, you’ve probably heard of the massive cheating scandal that made nationwide headlines earlier this year, which ensnared the rich and the famous as they got caught bribing and cheating their children’s way into some of the most elite universities in the country.  And why not?  It’s a juicy story practically made to order, juxtaposing the privilege of a powerful celebrity elite that believes that laws, in the immortal words of Leona Helmsley, are for the little people with a corrupt system that seeks to elevate their progeny at the expense of everyone else.  It’s the kind of scenario with which Dickens might have had a field day—although given the banality and tawdriness of those involved (yes, Olivia Jade, I’m looking at you), perhaps Harold Robbins might have been better suited to capture that odious vibe.

But did you realize that there is an even more infuriating scam involving college admissions—one that has been oozing beneath the veneer of a fair and impartial system, but seeks to take advantage of the hopes and dreams of a middle class that serves as its primary mark?  If you have a child who has taken the SAT recently, chances are you’ve already been targeted by it—so you better beware.

The Wall Street Journal has the details:

Jori Johnson took the practice SAT test as a high-school student outside Chicago. Brochures later arrived from Vanderbilt, Stanford, Northwestern and the University of Chicago.

The universities’ solicitations piqued her interest, and she eventually applied. A few months later, she was rejected by those and three other schools that had sought her application, she said. The high-school valedictorian’s test scores, while strong by most standards, were well below those of most students admitted to the several schools that had contacted her.

“A lot of the rejections came on the same day,” said Ms. Johnson, a 21-year-old senior film major at New York University, one of three schools that accepted her out of 10 applications. “I just stared at my computer and cried.”

The recruitment pitches didn’t help Ms. Johnson, but they did benefit the universities that sent them. Colleges rise in national rankings and reputation when they show data suggesting they are more selective. They can do that by rejecting more applicants, whether or not those candidates ever stood a chance. Some applicants, in effect, become unknowing pawns.

The article goes on to explain how the scam works.  When students take the SAT, they’re asked whether they want their information shared with universities.  Since the entire purpose of taking the test is to get into college, most of them say yes, thinking that it’s a good way to learn about opportunities at the universities to which they plan to apply and perhaps some others they hadn’t considered.  Soon after, the student starts getting solicitations from all over the country—including some pretty elite institutions.  Vanderbilt, Tulane, the University of Chicago—they all seem interested.  Wow, the student and the parents think.  Could we really get accepted to those places?

It’s a pretty heady thought—and I know, because it’s happening right now with my daughter, who will be graduating high school in the spring.  She’s received those very same solicitations, and a whole lot of them.  Hell, the University of Chicago even sent her a t-shirt, and invited her to come up for a tour, as if she were in like Flynn and applying was a mere formality.  After all, why would they go to all the trouble and expense of recruiting her if they weren’t hot to trot to have her as a student?

Well, this is why:

The [College} Board is using the SAT as the foundation for another business: selling test-takers’ names and personal information to universities.

That has helped schools inflate their applicant pools and rejection rates. Those rejection rates have amplified the perception of exclusivity that colleges are eager to reinforce, pushing students to invest more time and money in preparing for and retaking exams College Board sells.

In other words, the College Board makes more money from students taking the SAT again and again in an effort to get scores good enough for the elite universities, while the elite universities drive up the applications—and application fees—that they receive.  Here’s the kicker, though:  Even with the skyrocketing number of applicants, the actual number of students they admit remains flat.  This in turn decreases their admissions rate dramatically, making the university seem even more exclusive—thus making it more desired and sought after.

And that application you sent in the hopes that your child might get accepted?  Mere fodder to pad their statistics.

That elite universities take advantage of the mostly middle class families they have no intention of admitting is disgusting.  That the College Board is helping facilitate such a scam, however, is unconscionable.  This is what the game has turned into, though—so parents better get wise.  The next time you get one of those solicitations, think twice before investing your time, money and hopes in an application, and instead focus your efforts on a university that actually wants your child to attend.