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The Unveiling of the Educational Meritocracy

As the saying goes, “For every system, there is a counter system.” And, the recent Federal indictments of 50 individuals only becomes the latest example of an educational counter-system. College coaches, athletic department administrators, parents, and Rick Singer, the independent college admissions consultant, collectively found a way around the admissions office, the “front door” of colleges, to what Mr. Singer called the “side door.” The Federal prosecution challenges the ideals of the educational meritocracy—that guaranteed lifelong success awaits “high achievers”.

Yet, from the vantage of a 16 year veteran of the annual college admissions pilgrimage, I am not surprised. The inflation in the college admissions process, which is reflected in average admitted students’ GPA’s in the high 4’s and low 5’s and annually record-breaking numbers of applicants, creates a subjectivity in the admissions process.

With so many similar appearing, highly qualified candidates, admissions officers have the unenviable jobs of parsing the details and drawing lines between an acceptance and a denial. So, every year, a student with a 4.6 GPA with 1500+ SAT scores, the requisite leadership activities, community service helping the less fortunate and some essays exposing their youthful insight to today’s world, are not admitted. And, conversely, recruited athletes with lesser academic and standardized test scores on their resume are admitted at the same campus. 

We all deride any whiff of impropriety and the seeming advantage for another as we compete in the meritocracy, while simultaneously some secretly (and in the 33 parents indicted not so secretly anymore) wish for one’s own student to have the “leg-up” in the admissions process—although don’t behave criminally. 

Yet, competitiveness in education is entrenched long before college applications, thus students learn to play “the game” of school. Over the years, students admit that common amongst them and their peers, they “cheat” by copying friends’ homework assignments, so they don’t lose the points and harm their grade. Students sometimes withhold a study guide from an academic arch-nemesis,  purposefully seeking to manage the grade curve in the class. Students also attempt to manipulate their teachers, abiding by an unspoken “code” amongst their peers to not ask questions in hopes of artificially signaling that the class collectively doesn’t understand the curriculum, so the teacher’ll devise an “easier” test.  Additionally, students create and read Reddit strings where commentary and complaints about a day’s SAT or ACT are happening almost in real-time.

Fearing being on the “losing” end of the college admissions “arms race” coupled with the natural human frailty of avarice, causes a “win at any cost” mindset, so any otherwise upstanding young person and their parents can and do make unscrupulous choices (which is not to condone the criminal behavior already acknowledged by Rick Singer and several other co-conspirators.) I simply seek to add context to how a name brand college acceptance has become “a commodity”, providing “social clout”, as termed by a former client, who’s now an Ivy League student.

We, independent college admissions consultants, exist because parents and students have a need for information and counsel, as they deliberate one of life’s forks in the road and usually the first major decisions as a person crosses from childhood to adulthood. Yet, the proliferation of information available through the internet, the dearth of counsel from school administrators and doubts about the objectivity of other parents in their networks has left many families to seek professional advisors. Thus, as educational consultants, we have the responsibility to seek the greatest value in the education of a youngster, which often means being an objective voice to both navigate through the emotion of “growing up” and be a sounding board as families reason through the various choices to make the most confident decision in a college. 

The meritocracy in education guarantees equity of access, not equity of outcome. So, after we settle our indignation that someone else selfishly broke the “rules” of the meritocracy, we’ll once again realize no one is winning anything. As an education is the development of a young human into an adult human who has a purpose and a talent to exact in our world, I hope that we can get back to the business of asking, “Why are you going to college?” and “What does ‘being educated’ mean to you?” rather than thinking admissions to college is a prize to be won no matter what.