What the college admissions scandal reveals for your child

By General Education Advice

“I am shocked to find out gambling is going on.”  Perhaps only fans of Casablanca will get the reference.  But much like the audience laughter stemming from Renault’s pretend surprise that corruption occurred, my reaction to the college admissions scandal was anything but a surprise.

That we have inequality, that we have corruption, that we have behind the scenes dealings are all part and parcel of most societies and endemic in the human condition. Indeed, in other countries and in other historical periods, all of the above was much more prevalent.  While there are probably not that many living, if you meet graduates of Harvard before 1940, you can be nearly certain that they were from wealthy families (and are white Christian men) but you would have little idea if they were smart.

So… “it is what it is”.  My days as a prosecutor may have made me a realist but I also am an optimist and am certain we are progressing, albeit not fast enough.

What really matters to parents is what the scandal reveals, at least to those who didn’t already know: it is really difficult to gain admission to elite colleges.  More importantly, if you are from what our clients sometimes say “a normal Connecticut family” then you must understand the following:

(1) the standard admissions numbers for elite colleges – as low as they are – are actually lower.  In other words, if an elite college has an admissions rate of 20%, this includes those who are athletes and VIPs.  Those types get in at much higher rates.  In other words, recruited athletes do not apply to dozens of colleges.  Typically, they apply early decision to the one school where they have agreed to commit.  So, for example, a college that has 100 spots for athletes essentially has 100 applicants for 100 admissions.  I’ll spare you the math but it means that the overall admissions rate is actually lower for everyone else.

(2) The SAT numbers for “normal Connecticut students” are far higher than the mean of the school.  So, for example, if a college has a mean SAT of 1400, the athletes and VIP admits collectively have a lower (often much lower) median SAT.  Let’s say that as many as 500 students at any of the Ivy-league and/or top 25 colleges have a mean of 1300.   This requires 500 students without such hooks to average 1500.

(3) College has become intertwined with psychological success in ways that most well adjusted Connecticut parents don’t understand.  The families involved in the scandal do not have practical worries. They are all in the 1%.  They could simply set their child up with a business or make some phone calls to get their child a job even if the child attended Podunk State.  As numerous studies show, elite colleges really do make a huge difference for “normal” students who want upward mobility.  But for these families, the real reason to attend an elite college stemmed from psychological reasons.

Not fun to hear but all true.