Admissions scandal is nothing new

There’s not much more that hasn’t already been written about the college admissions cheating scandal (“Bribing your way to college,” Reuters, Mar. 14). However, one thing does merit further consideration.

It’s Campbell’s Law.  More than 30 years ago, Donald Campbell, an eminent social scientist, warned about the danger of measuring ability by any single influential metric.  He said that the more any quantitative indicator is used for decision-making, the more it will be subject to corruption and the more it will corrupt the very process it is intended to monitor.

As long as scores on the SAT and ACT are given so much weight by admissions officers, they will invariably create an atmosphere that serves as an incentive to cheat.  For example, in 2011, in what The New York Times called “one of the most conspicuous cheating scandals in memory,” five students from prominent and respected families in Great Neck, N.Y. received as much as $3,600 to take SAT and ACT tests for students with undistinguished records. They were charged with felonies, while the 15 accused of paying them faced misdemeanor charges.

The irony is the SAT was originally supposed to be a way that merit – not parentage – would be the basis for admission to college.  At least that was what James Bryant Conant, then president of Harvard, intended when he supported the test.  But over the years, his vision was corrupted.  The history was laid out in detail in “The Big Test” by Nicholas Lemann in 1999.

As long as cutthroat competition exists for admission to elite colleges and universities, I see little hope for significant change.  Money in one form or another will always play a dominant role in who is accepted.  We can eliminate legacy preferences and development cases, but money speaks louder than anything else.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)

2 Replies to “Admissions scandal is nothing new”

  1. Agree that the current college-admission scandal is nothing new. More generally, given human nature, there will always be a few people who will try to get something that they are not entitled to by paying a bribe and there will always be a few people who will accept the bribes. Actually, compared to the rest of the world, the US is relatively bribe-free. In most second-world and third-world nations, bribery is implicitly accepted as a usual part of doing business; salaries are low with the understanding that those receiving the low salaries will accept bribes — kind of like tipping. Not sure about how common bribery is in the other first-world nations.

    The main takeaway from the current college-admissions scandal is that colleges should implement safeguards against athletic coaches selling their limited number of get-in-w/o-competing slots and pocketing the bribe $.

    Given the literally millions of college students, the number of students and parents involved in the current college-admission scandal is tiny. Doubt that more than say 1/100 of 1% of college admissions involve bribery.

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  2. Labor Lawyer: The obsession with college, particularly with brand-name schools, does a terrible disservice to young people. They’ve been led to believe that without a degree from an elite school they have a bleak future. It’s time to explode that myth. Only then is there a slim chance of eliminating wrongdoing.

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