‘Varsity Blues’ Scandal Has High School Students Worried About College Admissions

By Catherine Gewertz — September 23, 2019 2 min read
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If high school students didn’t already question the fairness of the college-admissions process, the “Varsity Blues” scandal might have gotten them thinking about it. A survey released Monday finds deep wells of skepticism about whether they’ll get a fair shot from admissions offices.

Kaplan Test Prep surveyed 313 aspiring college students, and 57 percent said they’re worried that a less-qualified applicant might use their personal connections to nab their spot at their top-choice school.

Nearly one-quarter said they know someone who they think is less qualified than they are, but who “received preferential treatment in admission” because of their family wealth or connections.

Kaplan used email to survey students who had taken one of its SAT or ACT prep courses.

Varsity Blues, as you might recall, is the big prosecution unveiled in March, in which a slew of parents, coaches, college officials and test-prep professionals are being accused of cheating to get students from privileged families into elite colleges.

“I know numerous people that have connections to my top school, whereas I do not,” one student told Kaplan researchers. “I am especially concerned because I have a greater SAT score than them, but they will have an upper hand and be admitted. I have seen it previously with friends and now I am concerned for myself.”

Another student polled, however, thought the scandal would get colleges to “be more attentive and aware” of possible manipulations of the admissions system.

‘Side Door’ Routes to College Admission No Surprise to Counselors

It’s no secret that the scandal has admissions officials worried. In a separate Kaplan Test Prep survey of 322 admissions officers, 49 percent said it might have done lasting damage to the public’s perception of the admissions process.

Kaplan asked the admissions officers what colleges could do to persuade families that admission is not “rigged” against them, but few were able to provide “specific policy prescriptions,” the test-prep company said in a press release. The most common theme from their responses, however, was building more transparency into the process, Kaplan officials said.

When Kaplan asked the admissions officers if the kinds of illegal activities outlined in “Varsity Blues” are common, here’s what they said:

  • Very common: 4 percent
  • Somewhat common: 19 percent
  • Somewhat uncommon: 31 percent
  • Very uncommon: 27 percent
  • Don’t know: 19 percent

Only 11 percent said they’ve been pressured to accept an applicant who fell short of their school’s admissions requirements because of the applicant’s personal connections. When Kaplan Test Prep asked that question in its survey of admissions officers in 2015, 25 percent said they’d been pressured in that way.

Sam Pritchard, Kaplan’s director of college prep programs, said in a statement that “a lot more needs to be done to safeguard the [admissions] process and restore integrity and trust.” But he said it is “somewhat encouraging to know that the vast majority of colleges think these activities are uncommon, and fewer report being pressured to accept unqualified applicants than in years past.”

About the same proportion of admissions officers—12 percent—said they’d ever been pressured to accept an applicant that didn’t meet the school’s admissions requirements because of the student’s athletic talent, or potential to help the school’s sports program.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.