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Why We Shouldn’t Be Surprised by the Admissions Scandal

Tyson Schritter / COO, Abound and Colleges of Distinction

Earlier this month, news broke of a highly orchestrated admissions scandal, which has now cast a shadow on such “elite” universities as USC, Georgetown, Yale, UCLA, Wake Forest, and the University of Texas at Austin. Parents, administrative officials, coaches, and even a few Hollywood celebrities are being indicted for their involvement in the scandal, having conspired to cheat on college admissions exams, falsify photos to represent non-existent affiliations with high school athletic teams, and bribe college administrators and coaches to guarantee admission to these major universities. Some parents paid at least $200,000—and as much as $6.5 million—to guarantee their son or daughter admission into a top university.

The Scandal That Was Inevitable

In the wake of such a massive admissions scandal, it’s worth considering how our culture’s extolling of “elite” universities is partially complicit in all of this. The majority of schools involved in the scandal can be found in the top 25 of U.S. News and World Report’s popular university and college rankings list, which to many parents and students is regarded as a “Holy Grail” that definitively marks the hierarchy of college quality. Historically, these lists have perpetuated the notion that admission into a top school guarantees a life of assured success. And to those who doubt this pervasive power and allure of the rankings system, this breaking revelation should give cause to reconsider; though the admissions scandal highlights some extreme criminal examples of the lengths some parents have gone to, it’s clear that many place a lot of weight on the importance of admission into a “top school.”

If anything, this scandal has helped us examine the unhealthy and unreasonable belief that only the top 25 schools in the entire country can offer students a quality, engaging, and meaningful academic experience and, therefore, lifelong success after graduation. There are hundreds of schools, including smaller liberal arts colleges, that are just as committed to delivering a deeply impactful academic experience but are instead overlooked by media outlets like U.S. News. Consequently, students are choosing schools for their prestige or how they would look on a résumé, not necessarily for whether they have what will help them grow academically, intellectually, and professionally in the way that fits them best.

College Rankings Inflate the Importance of Prestige

The U.S. News and World Report’s rankings system uses a quantitative method that measures schools based on seven categories, many of which can be manipulated both intentionally and unintentionally to yield certain results. We have written about the limitations and problems embedded within the U.S. News & World Report rankings, and we aren’t alone. In his piece for The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell exposes the fallacy in the college rankings system and explains how it does a disservice to prospective students and their parents. He uses the analogy of buying a car to illustrate his point: if we were to use a single rankings system to create a list of the “best cars,” we would be pitting SUVs against sedans against convertibles, all of which have certain strengths and weaknesses depending on what a given customer values. The same goes for colleges, which vary in size, location, disciplines and extracurriculars, values, mission, and so on. The U.S. News & World Report rankings fail to account accurately for the nuance that makes each of these colleges different. As a result, students and parents are influenced by incomplete—and sometimes artificial—analyses of schools.

A Way Around the Rankings Craziness

At Colleges of Distinction and Abound, we believe that each college offers its own unique experience. That’s why we use both quantitative and qualitative methods to evaluate a school, not just sterile statistics that only tell  part of the story. We go beyond numbers to look at the ideas, people, and mission behind each institution. We understand that not every student is going to have the best experience at a certain school simply because it ranks well according to certain statistics. After all, colleges don’t offer a one-dimensional service; they are complex communities where students are challenged academically and personally in different ways. They offer several years of an immersive experience that not only prepares students for meaningful work, but helps them forge personal identities and values; build lasting relationships with peers, mentors, and professors; and widen their understanding of the world and their place within it. Selecting a school to attend is a critical life decision—one that shouldn’t be based solely on statistical categories that weigh SAT/ACT scores, professors holding a terminal degree, or endowment sizes.

Unlike the U.S. News and World Report’s rankings, we look at schools a little differently and outside of a hierarchical model. We recognize that each school has a unique set of attributes that might fit perfectly for one student but not for another. With such a wide margin of difference among colleges, we evaluate schools based on four criteria that draw from both quantitative and qualitative evidence: Great Teaching, Successful Outcomes, Vibrant Communities, and Engaged Students.

The Four Pillars of a Great Undergrad Education

For the category of Great Teaching, we evaluate the quality of teaching, the size of the classes, and the demonstrated commitment professors have to help students learn, grow, and succeed both during and after college. No matter how renowned they may be, and no matter how robust their research credentials are, a scholar’s quality as an educator has no basis if they don’t engage, mentor, and teach with active interest and passion. We prefer professors who utilize their wealth of research and industry experience to help students learn.

Successful Outcomes” refers to more than a job right out of college. At Colleges of Distinction, we highlight schools that go above and beyond to make sure their students are prepared for meaningful work, good citizenship, and a lifetime of learning. We look for strong internship programs, challenging capstone courses, and experiential learning opportunities to ensure that students are challenged in ways that foster future success and prime them for the workplace beyond the job interview.

Our Colleges of Distinction are more than beautiful campuses with manicured lawns. These Vibrant Communities are made great by students, faculty, and staff who are committed to the support of one another. Student experience is more than what goes on in the classroom, so we look for diverse clubs, inspiring guest lectures, leadership organizations, theatre, sports, and more. These experiences are how students make memories and cultivate meaningful relationships during their college career.

The last criterion we consider is Engaged Students, which doesn’t merely extol a school’s “selectivity” or the statistical “quality” of students based on class standing and college admissions test scores. For this category, we look at how colleges inspire students to take an active part in their learning. We understand the difficulty in quantifying this aspect, so that’s why we analyze how colleges encourage active learning through personalized instruction, study abroad programs, and service opportunities. These components help students develop new ways to synthesize information and solve problems as versatile learners, not just ones who are good at regurgitating facts.

This is the area where certain impersonal ranking systems are perhaps most skewed and easily leveraged. In the case of the recent admissions scandal, for instance, the excessive and illegal efforts were heavily in relation to admissions test scores. Since universities are weighed and ranked by how selective they are, schools continue to demand higher and higher SAT/ACT scores and GPAs from prospective students, which in turn places increased pressure on high school students (and their parents) to compete against their peers at any cost.

A New Direction?

The college admissions scandal is only the latest consequence of a culture that places too much emphasis on an exclusive list of schools that seem to magically offer a much better and more fulfilling life upon admittance. While the U.S. News and World Report rankings do evaluate schools on certain attributes, they don’t take into account the whole story. A college is more than a compilation of test scores, endowments, and published faculty; it’s a place where students are invited to learn more about themselves, others, and the world. It’s a place where students gain the skills to find meaningful work and become engaged members of their families, communities, and the world. And it’s an important decision that shouldn’t be based on only one idolized list of ranked schools.

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