Colleges aren’t completely innocent in cheating scandal: Wall Street Journal board member

Wall Street Journal board member Mary Anastasia O’Grady on how the college cheating scandal revealed potential problems about higher education in the U.S.

I have been paid $1,000 per hour to tutor students for the SAT. My students have received admission into universities such as Harvard, Princeton and MIT.

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Erica Olsen, who received admission into Stanford after taking my SAT course, was reportedly one of the college students who this week filed a class-action lawsuit against Yale and other institutions for alleged unfair admissions practices amid the largest college admissions cheating scandal in history. (According to FOX News, Olsen is no longer involved in the lawsuit.)

I am part of the problem — my SAT prep is only available to families who can afford it. College admissions favor the wealthy, and always have. Affluent parents are willing to pay whatever it takes to help their child get into a good college.

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Families spend thousands (sometimes millions) on private schools, sports leagues, extracurricular activities, summer programs, admissions consulting, SAT tutors and more in hopes that their child has an advantage when it comes time to apply for college. Usually, the money spent does show a return on an investment. A student who completes a Prep Expert SAT Course will improve their SAT score on average about 200 points, which is often the difference between college acceptance and rejection.

The unfortunate reality that most colleges don’t want to face is that their admissions process is flawed in that acceptance, to a certain extent, can be bought. The recent college admissions cheating scandal is just a more extreme version of what has been going on for decades — wealthy parents paying their children’s way into top universities. Of course, there is a difference between being given an upper hand in life by way of test prep that still requires students to put in the effort to improve their abilities, albeit with assistance, versus giving a bribe to a college athletic coach to lower the admissions requirements for your child.

Most parents buy admission by playing within the rules, but as we have seen this week some are willing to break the rules. An altogether entitled, corrupt and in some cases illegal system exists in full force among the wealthy. In 2012, dozens of Long Island high school students were caught paying tutors thousands of dollars to take the SAT on their behalf using fake IDs. In 2017, Chinese companies leaked and sold SAT exams to wealthy parents and students before test day.

If fair and equitable is what you are looking for, college admissions is not the place you are going to find it. Unfairness, cheating and lying will always exist in the college admissions space. However, the college admissions scandal led by William “Rick” Singer gripped the nation not only because of its size, but also because it allegedly involved high-profile celebrities — Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin. If the scandal had only involved no-name wealthy parents, it would not receive half of the publicity it has. America loves a juicy, celebrity tear-down story.

American culture is also obsessed with name brands. What was the motivation for the dozens of parents involved in the scandal to lie, cheat and bribe for their kids? They were obsessed with getting their children into a name brand school, such as Yale or USC (my own alma maters).

America’s top universities have built up such cache in our minds, that we often believe that attending a certain college will lead to a student’s success. These schools have been so good at marketing their names to be synonymous with success, that parents will go to extreme lengths to assure their child’s acceptance. Universities are the ultimate luxury brand marketers — their prices keep rising without a commensal increase in value.

Unfortunately, there is no simple solution to fixing the problem. Opponents of test prep lobby to have universities remove the SAT as a requirement for college admission; however, when Harvard receives 40,000 applications for 1,600 spots each year, they need a standardized way to quickly compare applicants — and GPAs simply aren’t comparable across high schools. In addition, many of the universities that no longer require the SAT as part of the admissions process still award students scholarships based on high SAT scores — therefore, students who didn’t take the SAT are stuck with a higher tuition bill.

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Khan Academy attempted to democratize test prep by offering free SAT classes via pre-recorded videos, but this usually doesn’t work as well as a live, expert tutor walking students through their individualized questions and trouble areas. Until there is a major shift in paradigm of higher education, college admissions will, unfortunately, favor the wealthy who can pay for it.

Shaan Patel, MD, MBA is a perfect SAT scorer and founder of Prep Expert, a test preparation company that offers SAT & ACT courses, private tutoring, and admissions consulting. Shaan closed an investment deal for Prep Expert on ABC’s Shark Tank with billionaire Mark Cuban.