To Bribe or Not to Bribe

For those who can’t afford to, or would rather not, bribe, here are some thoughts for anyone facing college admission.

Coming from a family of teachers at all levels; having spent most of my working life in one college or university or another,  including a dozen years as an academic advisor at a major university; being the parent of two college grads and of a current high school junior with high ambitions and qualifications both academic and athletic, I’ve got more thoughts about the subject of college and college admissions than any most busy person (meaning most anyone alive today) would have the time or patience to read at length about.

So I will attempt to give only what seems most important.

Anyone who doesn’t know that money can boost the odds of admission to an elite college and would like to understand a legal way the practice can work should watch The Gilmore Girls, in which Rory finds her way to an elite college through diligence, generational wealth, and an elite prep school. This, I believe, is an excellent route, but it might take several generations of hard work to achieve.

Another way, this one open to many of us currently in the financially bottom 99 percent, is sports. When my Zoe was eight years old, playing softball in a small, local recreation league, at all-star tournaments her mother and I often witnessed that the girls from our more prosperous competing leagues had textbook swings, quite different from most of our league’s girls. Meaning the prosperous families hired professional coaches. Since Zoe’s mom’s best friend was a pitching coach, we got a deal on that skill, and after year or two during which we came to believe Zoe would stick with the sport, her pitching coach referred us to a good and reasonable batting coach. Over these past eight years, we have paid well over $10,000 to her personal coaches. And since she eventually moved on to travel softball, that has cost us another couple thousand a year plus the gas money and lodging tournaments require and later the fees for showcase camps where college coaches come scouting. I’ll estimate we have spent around $20,000 on softball. And, we certainly have no guarantee that softball will factor into her acceptance to a college. Still, I don’t in any way begrudge those expenses. Softball has offered us lots of good times. Where some folks take dune buggies to the desert, we play softball. My advice here: if your kid loves a sport, give her or him every advantage you can afford, and have some fun in the process, but don’t bet the bank on it. For a closer look at the college sport scholarship route, read this article.

The same goes for private high schools. Because Zoe has always been eager to learn, we visited and considered two elite private schools but decided to give our local school a chance. Our high school has good reputation and has served Zoe quite well. We know several students who paid close to $30,000 per year at elite private schools, and we haven’t seen evidence that the choice substantially benefitted their kids as far as college admission. This is not to disparage private schools, because they are clearly the best place for some students, especially those who are more comfortable in smaller classes and will benefit from more personal attention from teachers. Again, if you can afford a private school, or have reason to believe a scholarship might be offered, look into that option.

Now that Zoe is a junior, we have faced the SAT and/or ACT test score challenge. And these days, every student aiming for college should spend some energy on test prep. A few options (in order of ascending cost) are reading a fat book; taking a daily summer or weekly class; and private tutoring. Since students can take the tests multiple times, we let Zoe choose what prep she preferred. She spent some hours on free sources from Kahn Academy and Princeton Review, mostly learning test strategies, and scored so high, not only did it save us the cost, and her the time, of tutors or classes, she has since begun tutoring on her own. So, in all, we have been blessed, as I wish all families could be. But such is not the case.

Before deciding how much stress to put on yourself as the parent or yourself as the student regarding test preparation, try asking, “What are my (or my student’s) reasons for college?” Because from this should come answers about what colleges to choose and consequentially how much test scores matter.

One of Zoe’s travel softball teammates could hit the ball so far over the fence it made us spectators gape in awe. She was also a straight A student, a great infielder and a quite personable girl. But at sixteen, she gave up travel ball, and one reason was, she had no interest in playing college softball and wanted to pursue other pastimes. Though she intended to go to college, she didn’t care much about a scholarship because her school of choice was the local state university whose tuition was relatively low, and her career goal was to become an elementary teacher, for which the state university offered a well-respected curriculum.

Other teammates of hers hope to become doctors, veterinarians, physical therapists, and since many colleges are known for their reputation in preparing students for particular careers, to identify a goal early on can narrow the choices of where to apply, and consequently which schools to read up about.

Deciding what kind of education would most benefit a particular student can be tricky.  Zoe, for example, is great at math and science, but is that what she should pursue, and why?  She has aptitude, but what career would make her feel most fulfilled, or most benefit our troubled world? And suppose she decides upon a STEM field, what specific major (math, engineering,  biology, chemistry, physics etc. ) will she most likely pursue.

Also, it’s wise to ask about each particular student, how mature is he or she, how motivated, how good a reader, listener, test-taker. I believe most everybody should attend college, but which one. Stanford or USC is hardly the best route for everybody.

A too often overlooked question: should the student go straight to a four-year college, or begin at a community college. I can testify that community college can in many cases be a far more beneficial arena in which to spend the first two years than state universities. Classes, in general, are smaller, and the same instructors may be also teaching at the local university.  My son and older daughter, who were hardly traditional scholars in high school, began their higher education in community colleges and are now quite pleased with their working lives. One is high school teacher, the other a school district administrator.

As an academic advisor, I often encountered students who should not have come to a university right out of high school. One common reason, they had no clue what their education should lead to. In hundreds of cases I witnessed, once students without career goals chose majors they found excitement in learning about, they  brought their grades (and their happiness) from poor or mediocre to excellent.

One girl I remember well returned to the college after flunking out and spending two years at a community college before she could gain readmission. She had earned straight A grades at the CC while, she told me, “My dad wouldn’t give me a dime. He said if I earned my way back into [the state college] and got a B average, then he’d start giving me money again. You watch, I’m going to get straight A’s. I’ll show him.”

With all the recent news about bribes being paid to assure admission to an elite university, it’s well worth asking, what’s the big deal about an elite college?

Several reasons to try for an elite institution come to mind:

Academic challenge, a mighty good reason, and one that can help in job placement following graduation and in making a good start in life-long learning. Many profs at elite colleges are smart and stimulating.

Opportunity to meet influential people, a decent reason, I suppose, though I have to wonder why don’t these people wealthy enough to bribe already know their share of influential folks.

Bragging rights. No comment, because you might just catch me one day sporting a bumper sticker or wearing a t-shirt from Zoe’s elite school, should she attend one.

At least one of the students admitted through a bribe cited her reason for choosing that school was its good parties. Do you suppose this kid told her parents that was her reason? And if so, did they bribe anyway? And if so, how does anyone that stupid make lots of money?

Whether using money to assist in college admissions should be considered unethical is not a question given to easy answers. In my mind, it depends upon whether the student deserves admission based upon merit. Because not all worthy students can be admitted. Too many excellent students seek to fill too few available seats.

If I were outrageously wealthy and any kind of decent human being, I would be looking for places to donate large sums, and if Zoe chose to go to go to an elite school, I might bestow a few million, if she met their qualifications, and I might be miffed if they didn’t accept her, and for sure I would look for another place to donate next time. Because I know that often the decision is based upon standards as suspect as money,  like ethnicity quotas or performance in very minor sports that don’t offer a whole lot of competition, or essays written by paid essay writers, or SAT scores that don’t mean a whole lot since the kid spent a year and a half in a prep class. Anyway, I would hope my donation went to build the school’s endowment, which would allow it to offer admission and reduced tuition to students who would otherwise need to mortgage their future and perhaps their family’s future to the student loan racket. And this is what endowments can do.

As the president of Perelandra College, I belonged to an organization of private college presidents, and at our annual meeting I sat in on discussions of whether or not colleges should willingly comply with some Education Department proposals that would require them to advertise the real average net price rather than the price before common discounts.  To bring this down to earth, imagine you are in the Ritz Carlton and notice the posted rates in the room (the rack rate), and the rate for a double queen is $800, when you just paid $320 for your room. Now transpose this to the pricey private college that becomes much less pricey once you start the bargaining. Apparently some folks are so rich, they don’t bother to bargain, so they get hit with the rack rate, on account which the college can discount the tuition for you the bargain seeker.

Please don’t mention the above to your multi-millionaire friends.

Instead, bargain like crazy, and look at every other option including shopping colleges before you agree to a dime of student loans.

Student loans, in my humble opinion, rank at or near the top as the curse of our times. Because I am old, I can look upon them from a studied perspective. During the years I was an undergraduate, state taxpayers covered 80% of my college’s budget. Last year they covered 10%.

Now, if, as most of us believe, we all benefit from an educated population, why in the devil are we relegating our students to years of indentured servitude?


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