The college admissions cheating scandal has obviously hit a nerve. Every editorial cartoonist to which the Commonwealth subscribes has weighed in since the story broke, some more than once.
The public is outraged about rich families paying bribes to get their marginally athletic kids into elite academic schools. Contrast that, though, with the general indifference shown about poor families accepting bribes to steer their athletically gifted offspring to colleges with elite sports programs.
To me, it seems like just different manifestations of the same racket.
Colleges are big business, whether it’s from the fortune they make on successful athletic programs or the fortune they haul in from well-connected donors. Everybody’s working the angles, trying to get the edge that could land them a multimillion-dollar coaching contract, the eye of NBA or NFL scouts, or entree into the upper echelons of the business and professional worlds.
It’s not surprising — with so much money at stake — that greed and envy set in, rules get broken and rationalization becomes commonplace.
As with most of the scandals that have plagued U.S. colleges and universities in recent decades, coaches — most of whom were marginal students themselves — are again at the center of it.
This time, a clutch of coaches from lower-tier sports programs at Ivy League and similarly prestigious schools allegedly accepted bribes from wealthy parents to falsify their children’s sports credentials and designate them as recruited athletes. Because most of these schools give an admissions edge to athletes, even for those who compete in money-losing sports such as tennis and soccer, the fraud got these kids into colleges and universities that they otherwise might not have.
One of the alleged conspirators was a tennis coach at my alma mater, Georgetown University. Federal prosecutors say that Gordie Ernst took more than $2.7 million in bribes to list 12 applicants as recruits for his tennis team. Apparently the school got wise to what Ernst was doing more than a year ago and pushed him out.
When you read about coaches cheating, it’s almost always intended to make their teams better. What Ernst and the other nine coaches did, say prosecutors, was make their teams worse by giving up coveted admissions slots to kids who might not even play the sport once they got into the school.
Coaches in these poorly attended and poorly followed sports know they will never make the money, or attain the celebrity status, of their counterparts in higher-profile sports. So some of them were tempted apparently to close the earnings gap by manipulating an admissions system that they also knew was not totally pure.
Any academically prestigious school that has a successful big-time sports program — Georgetown, Duke, Stanford, Notre Dame — admits athletes that the school was not designed to teach. The schools steer these athletes into pud courses, give them tons of tutoring help (if they’ll take it) and turn a blind eye when they stop going to classes the semester they declare for their sport’s draft. The schools compromise their academic integrity in order to field winning teams that bring in loads of television revenue and help with both recruiting and alumni and corporate fundraising.
Sports aside, it’s also been long-established that one way for parents to get their children into a prestigious school is to write a huge check to that school’s endowment fund. You don’t even have to be an alum of the school to make that perfectly legal bribe. Harvard supposedly found room 20 years ago for President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, only after Kushner’s father pledged $2.5 million to the school. Charles Kushner himself didn’t graduate from a college within 200 miles of Cambridge.
It is galling when the wealthy — with all the advantages they can already give their kids to help them legitimately get into good schools — resort to bribing coaches, hiring test-taking stand-ins and producing fictitious portfolios.
This scandal, however, should not pop the bubble on what some call the “meritocracy myth.”
For every student that gets into a prestigious school by illegitimate means, there are hundreds that get in through intelligence, hard work and gumption. Many of them have their costs subsidized by donors whose motives for giving might not always be pure.
If the colleges refused to take that money, their hands might be cleaner and their consciences less troubled. But they’d also have an even more elitist student body, since without the endowments that provide financial aid, only the wealthy could ever afford Harvard or places like it.
That’s something to consider, too.
• Contact Tim Kalich at 581-7243 or firstname.lastname@example.org.