Reflections on a College Admissions Scandal: A Teachable Moment

News broke yesterday that several wealthy parents have been indicted for spending exorbitant sums trying to bribe their children’s way into elite colleges and universities. The social and news media responses to the scandal highlight the narrative of academic meritocracy and fairness that we like to believe about higher education, and rest on the assumption that admission to highly selective, ‘elite’ schools is a gateway to a happy, healthy, and above all wealthy life. It is, however, untrue that higher education is entirely meritocratic, particularly on academic grounds, and it is also untrue that the selectivity of the college someone attends plays an important role in their long-term success or happiness.

Admissions to elite schools is not and has never been entirely meritocratic. Selective admissions arose as a way to keep non-white, non-Protestant, and non-wealthy kids out of the most prestigious schools in the country (Karabel, 2006). Athletics, development, and legacy status are major components of most elite private schools’ admissions decisions (Golden, 2007). None of this is news.

Higher education does serve as a way for students to improve their lots in life, but the name of the school a student attends – or its admit rate – is generally not what makes the difference. A student can slack off at the most selective school in the country, and thus learn little to nothing, build no new skills, and see little benefit from their experience. A student can work hard and learn a ton at a non-selective community college or regional campus of a state school and thereby elevate their post-graduation prospects. It is what you do in college, not where you go, that matters. In the recent white paper from Challenge Success on college admissions, we detail this research and discuss its implications for applicants and their families (Challenge Success, 2018).

This admissions scandal is sad not just because it represents a violation of trust, but because it lays bare how harmful our assumptions about higher education are. Many in our society sincerely believe that the difference between admission to an elite college and rejection from the same is the difference between success and happiness, on the one hand, and poverty, misery, and failure on the other. That’s simply untrue.

Many commentators are lamenting the effect of these parents’ attempts at bribery both on their own students and on the students who didn’t get in as a result of these bribes. They’re right to feel that there is injustice in the wealthy using their wealth to secure advantages, and I certainly agree that elite colleges should do better to make their admissions processes more equitable and transparent.

However, what is lost in that outrage is the reality that spending, say, six million dollars to help secure admission to an elite school is a colossally bad investment. The student who ‘benefited’ from this outrageous expenditure is not benefitting all that much, really. They would be just as well-off, in the long run, attending pretty much any other school.

Similarly, the students who didn’t get into these elite schools specifically because of these bribes are likely to be just as well-off at the schools they are attending. Research by Dale and Krueger (2014, 2002) suggests that the kinds of students who would be on the cusp of admission to, say, an Ivy League school, will do just as well attending just about any other school, regardless of selectivity. That’s because it’s not the school that makes the difference. It’s the student, and what the student does in college once there, wherever “there” is.

The other missed opportunity, in the discussion of this scandal, is to start a conversation about the deeper culture of cheating – and stress, and disengagement – in American schools. Across the country we see students cheating to get ahead, believing that if they do not cheat, they will be cheated by peers who are cheating (Challenge Success, 2012). We see a growing crisis of students not getting enough sleep, of suffering from physical and mental health problems, of using drugs to self-medicate or to stay up just a little later to finish their homework. We’ve painted a picture of success that is far too narrow, and, sadly, the coverage of this admissions scandal reinforces that narrative. It says: admissions to an elite college is success, or at least is a prerequisite for success. That’s wrong.

We can do better by our students, not just by changing college admissions to be more equitable, but by changing the narrative around success and scarcity in our culture. There are many kinds of success, and many roads to get there. If our definition of success costs us the health, well-being, engagement, and emotional development of our children, or our own personal ethics, we should reconsider that definition.


Challenge Success. (2012). Cheat or be cheated? What we know about academic integrity in middle & high schools & what we can do about it. Retrieved from:

Challenge Success. (2018). A “fit” over rankings: Why college engagement matters more than selectivity. Retrieved from:

Dale, Stacy B., & Krueger, A. B. (2014). Estimating the Effects of College Characteristics over the Career Using Administrative Earnings Data. Journal of Human Resources, 49(2), 323–358.

Dale, Stacy Berg, & Krueger, A. B. (2002). Estimating the payoff to attending a more selective college: An application of selection on observables and unobservables. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 117(4), 1491–1527.

Golden, D. (2007). The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges–and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates (Reprint edition). New York: Broadway Books.

Karabel, J. (2006). The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton (Reprint edition). Boston, Mass.: Mariner Books.

Steinberg, J. (2003). The gatekeepers: Inside the admissions process of a premier college. Penguin.

Paul Franz is a Research Associate with Challenge Success. He supports the organization’s data analysis and reporting efforts. In addition, Paul has served as a Challenge Success school coach since 2013.