College admissions scandal sparks reform and ethics examinations in higher education

College admissions scandal sparks reform and ethics examinations in higher education

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks during a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on a budget on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 26, 2019.

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Almost two weeks after the college admissions bribery scandal, conversations surrounding the ethics of the situation have college faculty all over the country pausing to examine their own practices.

On March 12, United States federal prosecutors revealed what they have dubbed the largest bribery scheme in college admissions ever to be prosecuted by the Department of Justice.

Affluent parents, including a handful of celebrities, paid hefty sums of cash to third-party organizations to secure their son or daughter’s place at elite universities including Stanford, Yale, Georgetown, the University of Southern California (USC) and the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA).

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, these third-party fixers used two “side doors” into the coveted colleges.

“The first such door: well-placed bribes to test proctors, resulting in high SAT and ACT scores,” The Chronicle reports. “The second: under-the-table payments to athletics coaches in exchange for designating clients’ children as recruited athletes, giving them a leg up.”

Associate Professor of Business Dr. David Smartt considers this scandal fraught with ethical dilemmas that highlight issues of bribery, privilege and elitism that are, at their core, morally problematic.

“It totally disrupts and destroys the sense of fairness in the system,” Smartt said. “It’s totally unfair to a student who could not afford that extra payment to be denied admission just because they couldn't pay this bribe; it undermines the credibility of the admissions process.”

Some parents also exploited the system by having their child fake a learning disability that would allow them to take a college entry exam alone, sometimes with a bribed proctor.

Lindsay E. Jones, Chief Executive Officer of the National Center for Learning Disabilities, told The Chronicle this form of cheating is disheartening because it is now even harder to believe students with genuine disabilities.

“My fear is that it’s really going to hurt the people who need help the most,” Jones said. “[Students with learning disabilities] fight stigma and discrimination every day to get accommodations on tests just to allow them to show what they know.”

In the scandal, athletic coaches also accepted bribes from parents to fill slots allotted for schools’ athletic departments with non-athletes, guaranteeing their child’s acceptance.

Vice President for Enrollment at Lee Phil Cook assures that athletic coaches at Lee University do not have any say in a potential student’s admittance to the school.

“I’ve been at this 26 years, and there hasn’t been one conversation with a coach or anyone else, quite frankly, about whether someone should be accepted or not,” Cook said. “That process is independent of external influences.”

This scandal has undoubtedly exposed loopholes in the admissions process as a whole, not just with elite schools. Now officials are struggling to determine what security measures should be put in place to close those gaps.

Cook believes the ultimate security measure, specifically at Lee, is trusting the integrity and morality of the individuals in decision-making positions.

At Lee, that trust is put in Phil Cook and Director of Admissions Darren Echols, as well as financial aid workers and other faculty members. It’s up to them to ensure they are not behaving unethically.

“For security measures, there’s nothing in terms of protocol or a policy other than we just don’t do it. It’s unethical and shouldn’t be done,” Cook said.

Lee’s membership in professional organizations such as the National Association of College Admissions Counseling, the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the North American Christian College Admissions Personnel require compliance with certain standards that also seek to prevent such scandals from happening.

According to Cook, Lee is held accountable by not using agents or third-party organizations like the ones utilized in the scandal. Lee’s hospitable approach to admissions also discourages bribery from parents.

“Generally speaking, Lee is going to have an approach to students even if they haven’t had great success in high school,” Cook said. “We’re going to give them a chance, though not everyone is accepted.”

Since not every college in the country is as accepting as Lee, the results of the scandal have yielded an overwhelming sense of public distrust in the system. Obvious repercussions are being applied to those directly involved in the scandal, but even those working at these selective colleges who were uninvolved are reevaluating their processes.

“At a minimum, [these schools and organizations] need to do some self-evaluation and fix what’s broken in their structure that’s allowing for this kind of thing to occur,” Smartt said.

Many national collegiate organizations have come out to remind universities about their compliance with their principles, code of ethics and what they should be doing when admitting new students.

Though these organizations are not policing every school, many employed in higher education are convicted with a sense of introspection.

“The people at Lee who are making decisions [are making] sure we are making good decisions, that we are doing the right thing, that we are people of ethics,” Cook said.

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