Admissions Scandal: Should It Matter Where You Went to College?

When people see this question they want to say, “No.”

Why do they feel this way? Why shouldn’t it matter where we went to school?

Maybe it’s because we all knew someone who went to a very good school and doesn’t appear to be smarter than anyone else.

“Good schools aren’t all they’re cracked up to be,” we tell ourselves and anyone who will listen.

In light of the recent college admissions scandal involving some high-profile celebrities and some national educational institutions, I’ve seen this line of thinking quite a bit in the media and online.

If you’re not familiar with the story, 33 parents are facing federal charges in an investigation that was code-named, “Operation Varsity Blues.” Sounds like a made-for-TV movie, doesn’t it?

This real-life drama stars actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, among other accomplished parents, who allegedly were willing to pay certain individuals to ensure that their kids were moved to the front of the line in the college admissions process.

Winning the award for best college in a supporting role is a tie between eight leading universities: Stanford, UCLA, the University of Southern California (USC), Georgetown University, Yale, Wake Forest, University of Texas at Austin, and the University of San Diego.

Can’t Kids Get a Good Education at Any College?

The answer is that under the right circumstances, yes, but let’s take a step back for a moment. The truth is, people send their kids to college for reasons other than simply to learn in a classroom.

Years ago, I remember working on a communications research project for some colleges, and we surveyed high school students on what they looked for in a university. The most prominent factors among high school seniors were nice dormitories, nice gym facilities, a vibrant social atmosphere (i.e. the party scene), an impressive school name for your resume when you graduate, and for some, just enough distance between the college campus and home to keep parents at a distance.

Of course, most parents would likely have a different set of priorities for their kids. As someone who has put two kids through college and who has many friends who have done the same, my anecdotal research, if you will, told me that parents want their kids to get a good education, to major in something that will help them get a good job when they graduate, to minimize the impact of loan debt on themselves and their kids, and to have a good college experience. For some, they may also want their kids to build a network that helps them in life as well.

None of this may be alarming, but when you look at the notorious examples set by the recent Hollywood moms and dads, and it’s apparent that while they, too, had the best interests of their kids in mind, maybe their hopes and dreams were on steroids.

Since these parents obviously had more than enough money to cover tuition at an expensive private school, that wasn’t the issue. Rather, it’s more likely a combination of things, starting with the obvious notion that the kids themselves did not have what it took academically or athletically to get themselves admitted to the chosen schools.

So, we can presume that the parents either really wanted the kids to go there, or the kids really wanted to go there, and the parents were willing to move mountains of cash to make it happen. According to news reports, some parents were willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars just to gain a favorable admissions decision.

So if it’s not all about classroom learning, what’s the driving force?

One reason may be that attending certain schools bring with them a social strata you just can’t get from other schools. Related, their new college friends will probably be their lifelong networks, they hope. Parents know that career and business opportunities five, ten or even 20 years from now will be traced back to this time when they went to an elite school with elite classmates from elite families.

In short, the parents probably think they are buying their kids a future that the kids could not attain for themselves.

Does this justify their actions? No, 1,000 times, no. But it does explain why some were willing to risk the penalty of law to do what they did. It was not about the education.

From a crisis communications point of view, in the coming days and weeks, you can expect all sorts of public relations professionals to explain how colleges need to be more transparent and accountable, that they should apologize (What’s crisis communications counsel in 2019 without the obligatory apology?), and they should bring back merit-based admissions policies.

In a twisted way, you might hear a college or two use this situation to reinforce perceptions of the high value of education they provide. In this context, while technically it may be true, it would not be honest.

My take?

As a corrective action, the parents involved here should openly admit their mistakes and take responsibility in a court of law.

But if the schools, the celebrities and even the media covering them want to be truly transparent, the one thing they all may need to acknowledge is that college is about much more than a classroom education, and that in itself is not necessarily a bad thing.

The bad thing is breaking the law to get it or provide it. Keep in mind, parents and students come and go, but if the colleges aren’t held accountable for the fix, the system doesn’t change.

Where did you go to school? Let us know on Twitter @OBrienPR

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TimOB