US universities resisting reform in wake of admissions scandal

Public mesmerised by arrests for cheating to gain elite enrolment, but major reforms seen unlikely

March 19, 2019
Stanford University sailing coach John Vandemoer, centre, is questioned by reporters as he leaves the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse in Boston on March 12, 2019.
Source: Getty
Accused: coaches face charges

The Great US College Admissions Scandal has produced shock, anger, anxiety, jealousy, jokes, laughter, titillation, arrests, firings, moralising and more.

But will it produce major change? The betting right now appears to be on: “No.”

There have been suggestions, from the small – one US senator wants to end tax breaks for academic donations aimed at bolstering applicants – to the profound – one leading expert has suggested that colleges hold a lottery among any candidates meeting a minimum threshold.

But in the immediate aftermath of the FBI’s big bust, universities were largely sticking to the narrative that any blame rests solely with those formally charged in the case, that the system generally works well, and that any possible policy responses will be limited.

“I suspect, two years from now, things will be different,” said Terry Hartle, the senior vice-president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education. “I’m not sure it will be transformative.”

It is not just his prediction, but his hope. “What I worry about is that events like this have an outsized impact,” Dr Hartle said. “The public trusts colleges and universities to do the right thing.”

Based on early signs from both Congress and the White House, he may not have too much to fear. A full two days after the scandal broke, education secretary Betsy DeVos finally issued a statement saying that her department would check if any existing regulations were violated. She made no suggestion that the regulations themselves may be inadequate.

Such tranquillity stands in contrast to the sustained angry reaction among the wider public, where the scandal has held front-page news status for days, stoking demands for action to confront an apparent audacity of financial privilege that many said they long expected but could not prove. Some rejected applicants are suing.

Fifty people have been charged with paying, receiving, arranging or participating in bribery aimed at securing admission to leading universities over the past eight years. The operation allegedly helped 33 students falsify sporting and academic credentials.

The potential for serious public pressure on colleges may be getting diluted by the scandal’s numerous alleged components – cheating on admissions tests, cheating by sports coaches, falsely claiming a disability – that may make it hard to know where to start.

The celebrity factor is also squeezing out sober attention. A leading subject of breathless coverage is Olivia Jade Giannulli, the YouTube celebrity and 19-year-old daughter of television actress Lori Loughlin, one of the parents charged with paying bribes for admission to the University of Southern California.

Leading sector agencies have shown no haste to make changes. The National Collegiate Athletic Association, which oversees university sports, and the College Board and Act (formerly American College Testing), which oversee the main entrance examinations, all issued statements saying that they would review the FBI case seeking evidence of policy violations, but made no reference to changing the policies themselves.

“Maybe I’m being a bit cynical,” said Douglas Webber, an associate professor of economics at Temple University, who suggested a lottery system for admissions, “but honestly I don’t feel like much is going to change.”

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Despite furore, reform unlikely

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