Admissions Without Merit

Why parents and students should be held accountable for their actions in the “Operation Varsity Blues” college bribery scandal 

Lena Orlova // Contributor 

In a recent bribery scandal, a group of the supposed smartest, wealthiest, and most athletic students were discovered to have been cheating their way into elite US colleges—the same US colleges that many top-crop Canadian students apply to every year.  

In March 2019, 33 star-studded celebrity parents were indicted by the US Federal Court in what the FBI dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues”. The parents paid over $25 million between 2011 and 2018 to coaches, administrators, and middlemen who falsely inflated SAT test scores and faked athletic profiles. It worked: the parents’ kids got in. But now the parents are facing charges, the universities are upset, administrators are fired, and the people, of course, are outraged.  

This raises the question: should these students be allowed to stay? And if not, should they be forgiven and allowed to reapply?  

The United States Department of Justice stated that “in many instances, the students taking the exams were unaware that their parents had arranged for the cheating.” The fame-crazed parents, addicted to maintaining their status wanted to secure the same notability for their own children. It makes sense. We all want the best for our kids, and getting into an elite college like Yale or Harvard is a way to do that. In principle, these institutions adopt merit-based admissions, meaning that your abilities and accomplishments are supposed to be the indicator of future success, not your bank statement.  

The purported practice doesn’t account for the argument that the criteria greatly favours applicants from the elite. A child born into a wealthy family is going to be given more opportunities for high achievement, whether it be through private schools, private tutors, internships, trips to international competitions, first-rate sports gear, or volunteer exchanges overseas. Having an advantage in the admissions process begins long before the last year of high school. Once admitted, the majority of grads go on to become world leaders, CEOs, successful lawyers, politicians, or whatever they want, really. Any mention of an Ivy League education means something in the world— a winning future, an applaud, proud parents. That might not be everything, but it does mean it took an investment, monetary or otherwise.  

Falsifying accomplishments in order to gain admission is an ethical breach, not just a legal one. Accused parents secured what they wanted at the expense of an honest admission process. The indicted—the fortune holders—pooled their resources to facilitate the conspiracy. The child of this parent learns and develops the impression that the only way to get ahead is through lying, not personal merit. Extrapolating further, these students could likely develop either a belief that they are not good enough, or just as destructive, an unwarranted sense of entitlement. Without any repercussions in place, these students continue down the same path of moral deprivation as their parents. 

Expelling the student, in this case, does little to change their perspective and cut out the cycle of status-over-integrity. It’s a mere slap on the wrist for bad behaviour, which rarely works to get the point across, and they are bound to lie and cheat elsewhere in life.  

The point is that the end doesn’t justify the means. The promise of success should be held for ability, dedication, direction, integrity, practice, and self-actualization. These qualities are not earned by getting into an elite university, but proactive action and honest competition. It’s held by putting your mind to a goal and achieving, while keeping in mind how it affects others. It involves time and maturation, support from community, respect for the process.  

While the fairness of the college admission process that rewards wealth and privilege is part of a larger issue, in this case of blatant fraud, the students should be expelled but allowed to reapply. Parents should be charged and held responsible for their actions. And if the students do reapply, they should be on the same fair and equal ground as anyone else: with transparency, preparation and hard work. Even if they get a rejection letter, what matters is that they showed up on their own merit, not the merit their parents paid for.  

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