(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Look beyond the juicy stories of rich people and celebrities paying to have their children cheat on the ACT and SAT exams and buying their way into college. The real scandal behind the admissions indictments unveiled Tuesday is the way universities — including some of the greatest on earth — hand off to athletic coaches the power to decide who can attend.
This is a key element of the whole brouhaha: The people who run universities have decided that not every applicant should be weighed on the holistic scale that’s supposed to measure and balance a student’s abilities, efforts, talents and diversity.
When it comes to athletes deemed important to maintaining the quality of a school’s sports teams, the universities effectively allocate admitted-student slots to coaches. Once a coach has deemed a student worthy of recruitment, the student will be admitted, provided his or her grades and standardized test scores are above some minimum, which is typically far below the grades and scores of the average admitted student at the university.
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This is standard practice, as the indictments unsealed by the Massachusetts U.S. attorney’s office show. Even an Ivy League school like Yale University, where I attended law school, apparently does it this way.(1)
It’s this common norm of college admissions that enabled consultants to act as brokers connecting wealthy parents to coaches who would sell them admissions slots for their kids. In one case, the price of admissions was $400,000 to the coach — and $1.2 million (!) to the broker.
The only reason this worked was that, once the coach had agreed to treat the applicant as a recruited athlete, the applicant’s admission was guaranteed.
And the only reason the coach had that power was that the university had decided that he should.
To be clear, the structure explains why a parent with half a million dollars to spare would make an illicit and secret deal with the coach, rather than just donating the money directly to the university and expecting that the donation would put his or her child on a list of preferred students for admission.
A donation to the university would no doubt have helped a child to be admitted. But — and this is the crucial point — a donation alone wouldn’t have guaranteed admission. No university will directly tell a parent that any donation of any size is a guarantee of admission. The student’s application would still have to go through the admissions office and be evaluated by admissions officers, even if it appeared on a favored list of donors’ kids.
In contrast, the secret bribe to the coach did effectively guarantee admission, because the coach’s authority to admit recruits was essentially absolute. Bribing the coach was the most efficient way for the parents to spend the money they were prepared to dedicate to their kids’ admission.
No one was looking over the coaches’ shoulders. That’s why it was relatively easy for students to lie on their applications about their supposed athletic pursuits, including by falsifying essays and even photographs. Any serious review by admissions officers would have revealed these obvious frauds. But the admissions officers weren’t looking at the athletic admissions, or were being told to avert their eyes.
What’s bad about this arrangement isn’t just that it invited corruption. In fact, that’s not really the problem at all.
What’s bad about handing over admissions decisions to coaches is that it makes a mockery of the meritocratic idea that college admissions seeks well-rounded students who demonstrate excellence in a variety of domains.
It’s fine for universities to decide to take seriously a student’s athletic pursuits as a factor in admissions. College athletes really do put in a huge number of hours in pursuit of their goals. Excellence can be a value in its own right.
There is also a defensible argument that a well-balanced college class should include some great violinists, some great gymnasts, some great chess players, as well as lots of student council presidents and kids with terrific intellectual accomplishments.
But the way to achieve this kind of mix isn’t to give a handful of coaches total authority to pick students to admit based on their perception of the applicants’ athletic ability in the relevant sport. That treats athletic ability as the overwhelming, determinative factor in admissions, limited only by the side constraint that the applicant get over some minimum hurdle of grades and scores.
It’s fundamentally different from holistic admissions.
And let’s not forget, just about every college claims to do holistic admissions. The reason they do is that under current Supreme Court doctrine, holistic admissions is the only way universities can take race into account as part of their affirmative action policies.
If there are no holistic admissions, there is no remaining constitutional justification for universities to consider diversity. I would expect that, because of these indictments, future lawsuits against universities targeting their affirmative action policies will now bring up the scandal of handing off athletic admissions to coaches.
The simplest solution is for universities to stop giving coaches carte blanche over admissions, and to require a more integrated process of admissions even for excellent athletes.
The more radical solution would be to take the route of Oxford and Cambridge universities, which don’t consider athletic ability at all in their admissions decisions. Somehow those universities have managed to survive for almost a millennium each without it. Both universities field numerous sports teams. The athletic standard is often much lower than at a U.S. university (though not always). That doesn’t detract from the pleasure that students take in participating.
(1) The former women’s soccer coach at Yale has been charged and is cooperating in the case.
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Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President.”
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