The “Varsity Blues” college admissions cheating scandal reflects our national obsession with image over substance in higher education. The young people caught in this mess had other options for continuing their schooling — but not at the institutions their parents perceived to be prestigious.
How did we come to this situation? In part, due to our reliance on a set of outdated measures of collegiate quality; measures that focus on institutional wealth and student rejection rates as indicators of educational excellence.
Once again, a national conversation about higher education is centered around elite, mostly private universities, which enroll a frighteningly small percentage of students in this country; and around student athletes, who comprise an even smaller percentage.
At some point soon, “Aunt Becky” and her parental peers will no longer be a trending topic. We’ll be left with two largely inaccurate perceptions: first, that universities of great wealth and exclusion are the best. Second, that there is widespread dishonesty in the admissions process.
In the first case, there are many indicators of institutional quality, as shown by the diversity of rankings available. Increasingly, institutional wealth and rejection rates are losing their import to these rankings. Other measures — graduating under-represented students and post-graduation success among them — are gaining traction.
For context, here at the University of California, Riverside we enroll and graduate more low-income students than the entire Ivy League combined and more than half of our undergraduates are the first in their families to go to college. And these students are succeeding: UC Riverside is one of four UC campuses ranked within the top 10 by U.S. News and World Report for enhancing student social mobility, a gauge of earnings progress from one generation to the next.
As for the belief that admissions processes are rigged: No doubt, there are bad actors in admissions. But the numbers are small and the opportunities are scant. Again, using the University of California as an example, there is no such thing as “legacy” admissions and we enroll more than 238,000 students, a number more than double the enrollment of the entire Ivy League. By many measures, our UC schools are just as good, or better, than the universities on which “Varsity Blues” parents were so focused.
Those elite universities do not represent the broad reality in America. I hope this scandal leads us to a new appreciation for the vast array of quality higher education institutions in this country. As a society, we can eliminate the over-inflated focus on a few wealthy schools and their behaviors.
Kim A. Wilcox is chancellor at University of California, Riverside.
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