As a college adviser, I’m disgusted by the lack of fairness described in the indictments against 50 people in the college admissions fraud case announced Tuesday. And I feel badly for the hardworking kids denied admission because spots potentially went to clients of admissions consultant William “Rick” Singer.
But the shocking thing is that people are shocked. Pay-to-play exists in all walks of life — government contracts to operate restaurants, jobs for donors to political campaigns and, more recently, college admissions.
Colleges are businesses and have institutional agendas, such as recruiting kids from underprivileged backgrounds, underrepresented minority groups, families of alumni and athletics.
And of course, so-called “development cases,” or ultrawealthy families the administration hopes will donate to the college’s endowment. Businesses need money to cover expenses and grow. It’s not a news flash that admissions isn’t a pure meritocracy.
However, I admit I was surprised by some aspects of this scandal, but perhaps not how you might think.
I met Rick Singer in 2010. A mutual friend introduced Singer to my old partner and me in a nondescript office in Miami, where he told us about his business. He said that motivational guru Tony Robbins sold him the name for his business (“The Edge”), and described how he flew all over to meet clients, including, he claimed, Steve Jobs.
What troubled me the most was that Singer told me that a wealthy man from overseas contacted him because his son was wait-listed at a well-known university. He had heard that Singer had a “side door” way of getting his son in. The man, by way of Singer, offered the university $6 million to admit his son. (I shudder to think what the “back door” was!)
Here’s the part I had the toughest time swallowing: According to Singer, the university said no. My first thought was, “Good for them!” because I suspected that this was the exception, not the rule.
Still, why would this rich man care where his kid went to college? Singer’s answer was one word: status. He wanted to be in the right social circles.
I wondered the same thing when this story broke. I understand, on some level, that private equity guys, CEOs and celebrities crave status. We all do, on some level.
So I see the argument for Stanford, Yale and other similar schools. But UCLA? The University of San Diego (acceptance rate: 50 percent)?
No offense, but has the obsession with college status filtered down to second-tier and lower schools?
The bigger question is, What does all of this mean for average families with college-bound teens? Here’s my take:
Yes, the system is rigged. Yes, I wish things were different. But they’re not. It’s not helpful to live in the “Land of Shoulds,” to quote my wife, Pearl. I prefer to deal with reality.
Some stuff is out of your control, some is entirely within your control. You can’t change who your parents are, their bank accounts or where they went to college or what TV show they appeared on.
But you can affect your academic performance, the courses you take, your standardized test scores and extracurricular activities.
You also can choose the colleges you apply to. If you don’t get into an elite college, the world will continue to spin on its axis. There is no proven correlation between where someone goes to college and how much they earn. (Google economists “Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger.”)
Our kids will succeed in college, and, more important, the 40-plus post-college years, based on their efforts, not where they went to college. They’ll succeed based on their work ethic, grit and resilience.
Qualities that money and wire fraud cannot buy.
Andy Lockwood is an author and owner of Lockwood College Prep in Glenwood Landing.