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Valuing Potential, Not Privilege, in College Admissions

The recent undergraduate admissions scandal has rightly rocked the world of higher education. According to the indictment and news reports, dozens of parents, including well-known actresses and prominent business leaders, paid large amounts of money—more than $1 million, in some cases—to get their children admitted to top-tier colleges under false pretenses. In some cases, a nonexistent athletic career was invented; in others, a complicit proctor ensured a student would achieve a high score on a standardized test. In the words of The New York Times, the alleged scheme was “stunning in its breadth and audacity.”

Even with the frenzy of media activity, we don’t have all the answers to the story yet. However, it’s clear that, on so many levels, it’s a tragedy. How could so many accomplished people become so obsessed with a narrow view of status that they would engage in massive fraud to get their children into elite schools? What will happen to those students who are finding out that they got into college via fraudulent practices? What about the truly qualified students whose places at these schools evaporated, thanks to this alleged scheme? And what about the harm the fraudulent use of accommodations may have on genuinely disabled candidates?

Admission should be based on potential, not privilege. I am proud of being a first-generation college and law school graduate who paid for those state-school programs by shelving books, cleaning dorm rooms and delivering pizzas. I’ve spent time as a lawyer, as a law school dean and professor, and now as president of the Law School Admission Council, which administers the Law School Admission Test and provides numerous other services to law schools, students and candidates. Having devoted my professional life to advancing equity in education has given me perspective on some of the factors that might have led these families to pursue the path they did.

In today’s college environment, way too much is perceived to be riding on admission to a few highly selective schools. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni explored this landscape in his 2015 book "Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be." “Somewhere along the way, a school’s selectiveness—measured in large part by its acceptance rate—became synonymous with its worth,” he wrote. “Colleges know that many prospective applicants equate a lower acceptance rate with a more coveted, special and brag-worthy experience, and these colleges endeavor to bring their rates down by ratcheting up the number of young people who apply.”

This system is fueled by rankings, by the schools themselves and by those—including the U.S. Supreme Court—who continue to employ elitist hiring standards knowing of their discriminatory and harmful impact. In reality, there are many, many schools where students can get an excellent education, obtain the skills they need to succeed in their chosen profession (including as Supreme Court clerks!) and be happy. That last part is perhaps the most important: Rankings and selectivity should be only a small part of a search for a program that fits your needs. Visit a school, get to know it and find out what it’s about. And trust your instincts, because being happy where you are is a precondition of being able to thrive.

There are many concerning angles to this scandal, but for the Law School Admission Council, a key component is the integrity of testing procedures and the law school admissions community in general. Law school admission professionals are compassionate, mission-driven and comfortable using data in their mix of art and science to craft a diverse class. We take this moment to applaud their integrity and their hard work that is often fraught with challenges, as recent events made starkly clear.

This scandal also puts a renewed focus on standardized testing. Standardized tests, properly used, help even the playing field in admissions. In fact, their use came about to combat admission systems that looked too much like this scandal. The LSAT was designed to create fairness for law school hopefuls at a time when many law schools were declining to admit candidates who were women or Jewish or African-American or from nonelite undergraduate programs. It validly and reliably assesses the skills necessary for success in law school, including reading comprehension, analytical reasoning and logical reasoning.

We have a commitment to ensure that no test taker should ever have an unfair advantage over any other test taker. From tight security controls to sophisticated algorithms that detect cheating, LSAC is committed to ensuring the integrity of the LSAT and law school admission processes. Some people may chide us for just now “going digital,” but until we patented a new system for delivering a test digitally we were not satisfied that existing methods provided enough security. Scandals like the current one and other ruses that test security personnel have uncovered, show that our vigilance is warranted.

Likewise, our vigilance in advocating for the rule of law is also warranted. Just as one should not be able to buy their way into college admission, no one is above the law. As the legal process plays out in this case, I know I and many others will be watching to make sure those who are facing charges are treated the same as anyone else would be. This is fundamental to the concept of a society governed by laws, not privilege.

There’s still so much to do to make sure the education system, and the culture surrounding it, values potential over privilege. That effort is central to LSAC’s mission. We know that our world is uneven and that we must put our weight on the side of equity and access. When more people have access to a quality legal education, the diversity of the legal profession increases, which in turn improves the legal system’s ability to serve an increasingly diverse base of clients.

Those principles apply to undergraduate education, too. Fraudulently obtaining admission to a college is antithetical to what education is about. Instead, find a school that fits your needs and abilities and use what you learn there to join us in our vision of building a more just and prosperous world for everyone.

Kellye Y. Testy is the president and CEO of the Law School Admission Council, a not-for-profit organization committed to promoting quality, access, and equity in law and education worldwide by supporting individuals’ enrollment journeys and providing preeminent assessment, data, and technology services.