Like everyone, I’m both appalled and fascinated by the college admissions scandal. Already 50 people have been indicted, and that number is sure to grow. They’ve just begun to investigate the criminality, fraudulence, and bribery in the world of college admissions. Rick Singer isn’t the only scam artist in this field. There are certain to be other pockets of corruption in college sports departments throughout the country waiting to be burst wide open by aggressive journalists, prosecutors, and maybe even a few administrators with courage.
The situation is ripe for corruption. Supply-and-demand creates pressure, and if parents for whom money is no object are willing to do anything to get their kids into the “right college”….
As it is, college in the USA – at least, at elite private colleges – is a rich person’s game. Today, the colleges I went to – Columbia and Sarah Lawrence – cost, respectively $68,405 and $66,990 a year for tuition, room, and board. Who can afford four years of that?? (And think how much money you have to make before taxes, to be able to afford those tuition bills.) And that’s before buying a computer, text books, and plane flights. Or you have to take out so many loans that you are in debt forever.
(Funny, when the TG and I went to Sarah Lawrence, it was in neck-and-neck competition with Bennington for the dubious honor of being the most expensive college in the US. I guess times have changed. For the record, the most expensive college in the country is currently Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, CA, at $69,717 a year. Columbia is #2 and Sarah Lawrence is #4.)
My parents were the opposite of rich, and I had some very good scholarships. But for parents who can afford these tuitions, what’s another quarter- or half-million from your 401(k) to secure your child’s future? Someone spent $1.2 million for a spot at Yale. I wonder what his return-on-investment would have been.
Acceptance rates at the top schools are extremely low: 5.1% for Stanford, 6% for Harvard, 6.3% for Yale, 7% for Columbia, etc., etc. Any edge you can get – however you can get it – is up for consideration … if you have no scruples, morality, sense of fairness, common sense, or real love and respect for your child.
I admit it: I’m a college snob. I’m proud I went to good colleges (Columbia and Sarah Lawrence, with a semester at a school in Dublin.) Today, when I meet someone who went to Harvard or Yale, I reflexively think, “This must be a smart person.” And I’m not the only one who feels that way.
I remember how impressed everyone was that Barack Obama, an inexperienced, first-term senator, had been Editor of the Harvard Law Review, as if that was incontrovertible proof of his brilliance. And Bill Clinton’s Rhodes Scholarship gave an unknown governor from Arkansas some instant intellectual and international credibility.
And it’s not just Democrats. Trump always brags about how he graduated from the Wharton School of Business, even though he first went to Fordham, a good but lesser school. And we all know how Jared Kushner’s father bought his way into Harvard for a $2 million “donation.”
But even before that, Dwight Eisenhower cooled his heels as President of Columbia University for a few years after World War II, to grow a little intellectual Ivy over his raw Texas mesquite, before he ran for President of the United States.
The status and connections that flow from going to a top college are undeniable. As it is, the 1% at the top of our economy controls the country. For them to monopolize all the slots in all the top schools only works to further their stranglehold on society. We need to even the playing field; not watch it tilt further in favor of the already privileged. Just the other week, I had lunch with a fellow writer who went to a top school who got a famous college friend to blurb his book. And that’s not to mention having a reading/signing at his local alumni club. Among the main benefits of going to a “good school” are the people you meet there and their continuing support and help throughout your life. It can mean your first job, your first big break. I am Prime Example #1. The TG and I are “college sweethearts.” Who knows what would have happened to me had we not met, had I not transferred to Sarah Lawrence went it “went co-ed?” It was the best move I ever made. And indeed today, many of my closest friends are the friends we made in college.
A good college education is an experience that lasts a lifetime. That’s why these rich parents were so willing to cheat: for their vision of what was just the right school for their precious children.
Legacy admissions are another issue. Neither of our kids applied to Sarah Lawrence, but if they had, I damn well would have expected Sarah Lawrence to accept them. Over the years, we’ve given a decent amount of money to our double alma mater, and our kids’ records would have qualified them for Sarah Lawrence, which has flexible admissions standards. A lifetime of financial support is worth something, right? It’s a complicated issue. I wouldn’t want to see a deserving underprivileged kid denied admission just because he wasn’t connected. We need more social mobility, not less.
If there can be athletic scholarships, which are arguably given to enhance a school’s self-esteem through winning, why shouldn’t there be a few legacy scholarships for long-term friends of a college who help enhance a school’s self-esteem through long-term support? It’s not like buying a whole building in one shot, like Kushner’s father. It’s like buying a small part of a building, one brick at a time. If there can be athletic scholarships, why not a few legacy scholarships? If you don’t throw those into the mix, alumni giving and enthusiasm will dry up.
The more I think of it, the University of Chicago has the right idea: no varsity sports. Let the pros be pros. Colleges and universities should concentrate on education, not big-time sports. That goes for a lot of high schools, too.
Make no mistake: there are real benefits to a good education from a good school that are more than just status and connections. I got a terrific undergraduate education, combining one year of Columbia’s famous rigorous humanities program with two and a half years’ of Sarah Lawrence’s total freedom, plus a semester of specialized study in Dublin thrown in. I had good and bad luck with teachers, but I found a few mentors and scholars who influenced me positively to this very day. I’m still in touch with my Sarah Lawrence “don” after more than forty years.
I cherish my college days. I had great experiences – and quite a good deal of angst, too. But at college I was exposed to concepts, artists, and writers who have enriched my entire life. I heard great Shakespeare lectures by James Zito and lectures by the great Joseph Campbell, who was the crown jewel of Sarah Lawrence’s faculty at that time. I studied writing with Hortense Calisher. I sat in classrooms spellbound while Seamus Deane analyzed “The Dubliners” and Mary Lavin talked about writing short stories. (In fact, I just now discovered how the school where I studied in Dublin got a famous writer like Mary Lavin to come lecture. Turns out she was married to the president of the school. Actually, they had an amazing little faculty including poet Thomas Kinsella and Yeats’ scholar James Mays.)
Probably the best course I took was a full year course (like most at Sarah Lawrence) in “Occult Philosophy” taught by Roy Finch. A history of mysticism … the Gnostics … pre-Socratic philosophy … the rivals of early Christianity … sufism … John Scotus Eriugena … Jacob Boehme … Giordano Bruno … all the way up to Gurdjieff. I did big papers on Samuel Beckett and Gnosticism, and Job as a key figure between Adam and Jesus.
And I had a mentor in the poet/activist June Jordan who said to me, “You’re a writer.” And that was that.
These are the kind of formative experiences that college is supposed to provide.
“NON, JE NE REGRETTE RIEN!”
Knowing what I know now, if I had it all to do over again, I probably should have at least tried to go to Harvard or Yale. It’s a lifelong advantage. After college, the guys who wrote for the Harvard Lampoon would get instant jobs, just as Yale drama students all get agents. I had a good high school record, and even though Harvard rejects more than 2,500 valedictorians every year and I wasn’t that, I had a decent shot. As it was, back then, there was no such concept in the college admissions’ game as a “reach school,” or I would have tried for one of the biggies.. But I had my heart set on Columbia – an Ivy League school in the New York I loved – and I got the OK from them early, even though they had no Early Decision.
As it turned out, Columbia was the wrong college for me. Too big, too impersonal, and with a two-year lab science requirement. (I didn’t read the small print. I hadn’t taken a science course since 10th grade.) Plus I had a couple of mediocre teachers there, too. But I had the smarts to transfer to Sarah Lawrence, the best move I ever made in my life. Sarah Lawrence was filled with committed professors teaching courses in depth. No majors, no tests, no grades: just pure learning. And guaranteed, regular one-on-one meetings with your professors for customized “conference courses.” It’s still a unique place.
So I always tell high schoolers I meet that as much as you might worry and agonize over the college admissions experience and “where you go,” you can always transfer if you make a mistake. Nothing is forever … except perhaps a felony on your record.
I’ve always said, “Nothing is more important than your kids’ education.” And I believe it. We moved to the town we live in for the good public schools. As it turned out, they weren’t right for our kids, but we eventually found good schooling for them elsewhere. Managing your kids’ education -- trying to enhance their learning experiences so they have the best chance to become the best adult they can be -- is one of the most important and difficult tasks that a parent has.
“THANKS, MOM AND DAD!”
I feel sorry for the children involved in this scandal. They’ll be branded for life. And I’m sure there are all kinds of “internal affairs” investigations going on now in colleges across the country that will expose other individuals. Rick Singer said that he “helped” 800 families. I’ve read that he started out as a legitimate college-admissions coach/preparer, but he went crooked (fixed SAT tests and purchased sports scholarship slots) pretty quickly. More of his “success” stories are certain to be unmasked, as well as the clients of other operators like him.
I bet that some rich kids and their rich parents are sitting around pretty nervous these days.
“Do I turn us in? They might go easier.” “They might never find out.” “Are you kidding? There’s a trail of emails! There are bank transfers.” “Oh, shit.” “I can’t believe you did this! You’ve ruined my life!!” “No, there’s a way out of this.” “No, there isn’t. We did something wrong.” “You did something wrong. You’re the one who dragged us into this mess.” “Then you should have stopped me.” “I can’t believe this is happening.” “It’ll be OK if we -- ” “No, things will never be OK. Ever again.”
Something like that.
Good colleges are a fundamental resource for our entire society. They belong to everybody, not just the super-rich.
SOME COLLEGIATE LINKS
Sarah Lawrence College
School of Irish Studies – a catalogue of the contents of the archive of the School of Irish Studies, the venture of the University College Dublin, that I attended
Conan O’Brien’s brilliant Dartmouth commencement speech
Tim Minchin’s brilliant commencement speech
“Varsity Drag” from GOOD NEWS with June Allyson and Peter Lawford
The Marx Brothers in the classroom in “Horse Feathers”
Ivy League schools
The Seven Sisters colleges
US News & World Report college rankings
Best Private High Schools -- 2019