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Explosive cheating scandal illuminates hidden inequities of college admissions

An explosive scandal around bribery and cheating in college admissions has prompted new questions about access, race and inequality in elite higher education. Judy Woodruff explores some of them with Daniel Golden, senior editor at ProPublica and author of a book on the unfairness of college admissions, and Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, an organization focused on racial justice.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The college admissions scandal that was revealed this week has sparked conversations around the country, not just about the scheme itself, but much bigger questions about access, race, class and inequality in higher education.

    On Tuesday, the FBI and Department of Justice detailed a sweeping cheating and bribery scandal involving parents and high-profile celebrities paying big money to make sure their children could get into some of the most select universities.

    We explore some of the questions that this has touched off with Daniel Golden. He is a senior editor at ProPublica and author of "The Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates." And Rashad Robinson is the president of Color Of Change. It's an organization focused on racial justice.

    Gentlemen, welcome to both you.

    Rashad Robinson, let me start with you.

    What do you think this scandal, as we said, involving parents and coaches and one particular consulting firm, says about inequality in American higher education?

  • Rashad Robinson:

    I think it highlights a lot of things that so many folks already knew, but also brings to bear sort of a whole series of questions about how large and how vast this is.

    If someone like Mr. Singer could be able to get such access to coaches, to admissions counselors, to parents, one has to imagine this can't be the only person that sort of engaged in this type of behavior.

    And so I do think it's incredibly important, as we look at what's happened here, that we just don't think about the exposure of this one single incidents, but think about all of the ways that the rules and the structures within the system have allowed this to happen.

    The schools, who have in many ways tried to kind of lay the blame elsewhere, have created systems and structures that make it easy for these things to happen, having sort of the option for access to polo and other sports that don't exist in urban communities, don't exist sort of in wide ranges, and so already creating tracks for rich students or wealthy, creating all of these avenues also for donations.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I want to ask you about that, systems and structures.

    Daniel Golden, you wrote in your book about the unfairness of many of the ways students of privilege were getting into elite colleges, others being left out.

    What parallels do you see, what differences do you see between what you wrote about in 2006 and what's happening right now?

  • Daniel Golden:

    Well, this is essentially what I wrote about in my book, but taken to a much more extreme level.

    I primarily wrote about donations to universities that were used to facilitate admission of these children of the rich and famous. This is straight-out bribery. You know, so I focused on institutional preferences, like legacy preference for children of alumni who skew white and wealthy, or the athletic preferences for upper-crust sports that were just mentioned.

    This exposes those vulnerabilities, but it also goes way beyond that, in the most disturbing way. And the one thing it showcases that is particularly interesting is a sort of rise of these private counselors, who are paid by the wealthy to get their kids into college.

    And they're beholden to nobody, whereas a guidance counselors in a high school, they need to find the fit for all the students, what's the best college for this or that student. These counselors are simply, at the behest of the wealthy, going as far as they can to get kids into college.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Rashad Robinson, whether it is donations by parents with large financial means, or whether it is the rise of, as Daniel Golden says, private counselors, is there a growing gap in this country between what some students and their families are capable of doing to get into schools and what others are capable of doing?

  • Rashad Robinson:

    Well, it absolutely follows the growing inequality we see in this country, in the way that policies, from huge tax cuts, to the sort of lack of access to quality education in high school and elementary school, the fact that the kind of funding of our schools travels along racial lines in so many ways.

    And since 1980 in this country, schools have become more and more segregated,. And so the opportunity that folks have once they leave those schools to get into or be seen by elite schools or colleges as a whole, all of that sort of plays into this.

    But once students get to these schools, sort of the ways that black students are sort of looked at and questioned about whether or not they belong there, all the while so many of these big institutions accept more legacy students than they do accept black students, provide access to folks who have already — whose parents have already gotten through the door.

    And they're only getting through that door after their parents, not from what they have achieved on their own.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that raises, Daniel Golden, something you wrote about this week. And that is, while the number of — the actual number of legacies — or, I guess, the percentage of legacies may be shrinking, you still have a problem with an advantage that students coming from families of means have over other students.

    Is there a racial component to that?

  • Daniel Golden:

    There is a racial component.

    The legacy preference for alumni children disproportionately benefits whites. And the proportion of legacy students at elite universities can be anywhere from 10 percent to 20 percent of the student body, or even higher.

    And combined with these other preferences, like those for the sort of aristocratic white sports, for development admits, who are kids of non-alumni who are rich and prepared to donate, and other preferences can be a lot bigger percentage than that.

    And people tend to criticize traditional affirmative action in a vacuum, as if the rest of the system were merit-based, and affirmative action was the only preference that interferes with that. But, actually, you know, it's dwarfed by the combined prevalence of these other preferences that favor the rich and the white.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Only about a minute left, but I want to ask each one of you very quickly, what more needs to be done by these schools? Because a number of these elite schools would say they are trying to balance the students they accept, that they're trying to get more students accepted and into their college population who come from backgrounds that are not privileged.

    What needs to be done, Rashad Robinson?

  • Rashad Robinson:

    Until these schools put even a percentage of effort into equity and fairness as they do into capturing that $1 million or $2 million donation from the parent with the kid with the 2.0 GPA who shouldn't be in their school, we're going to continue to have these problems over and over again.

    But be really clear that, as this country changes and as diversity changes, organizations like mine and others will be raising our voices and holding those institutions accountable.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Daniel Golden, how do you see what needs to be done?

  • Daniel Golden:

    Well, I would love to see a fundamental revamping of college admissions preferences.

    I would eliminate legacy preference. I would eliminate preference for athletes in sports that most kids don't get a chance to participate in. And, in response to this particular scandal, I would advocate regulation and licensing of private college counselors, and obviously greater attention paid to recruited athletes in terms of whether their profiles are legitimate or not.

    This case seems to show that their admission is more or less rubber-stamped, while they're — when they're recommended by the coach, and that should change too.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, it is a big subject, and one that we're going to continue to look at as the conversation continues.

    Thank you both very much. Daniel Golden and Rashad Robinson, thank you.

  • Daniel Golden:

    Thanks for having me.

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