EDITORIAL: Georgetown Must Actually Take Action on Admissions Scandal
The views expressed herein represent the views of a majority of members of the Caravel’s Editorial Board and are not reflective of the position of the newsroom staff or Georgetown University.
Affluent Americans are using their wealth and privilege to buy their children positions at elite universities around the country—shocking, right? The Caravel was not surprised when the Department of Justice unveiled an FBI investigation referred to as Operation Varsity Blues on March 12, exposing a multimillion-dollar cash-for-admissions bribery scheme. The criminal complaint confirmed something already widely known: preferential admissions processes upheld by admissions offices around the country undercut the supposed egalitarianism and meritocracy that universities claim to ensure through holistic reviews.
A part of the absurdity of the case is the extent that these wealthy individuals went to secure acceptances for their children. The criminal complaint identifies fifty participants that allegedly paid test administrators to change SAT or ACT scores, hired students to take the tests for their children, photoshopped the faces of their children so that they would look like athletes, and bribed athletic colleges to falsely declare candidates as athletic recruits.
William “Rick” Singer, the founder of a for-profit college preparation business at the center of this scheme, often gloated about his ability to create a “side door” for admissions. What he and Georgetown have failed to recognize is that this “side door” has always existed. Universities themselves were the first to open that door and have failed to close it. Consequently, missing from the statements released by Georgetown University and President DeGioia is a recognition that the university’s preferential admissions policies have created the conditions that Gordon Ernst exploited.
Ernst, Georgetown’s head tennis coach at the time, promoted several students to the admissions office as potential recruits despite the fact that none played tennis to the caliber claimed, or even at all, according to the Washington Post. In one prominent example, Ernst marked an applicant for a spot who claimed to have achieved a Top 50 U.S. Tennis Association ranking, despite having, at best, ranked 207th in Northern California before she turned 12 and without playing any tennis in high school. In return for the designation as a recruit, which massively increased applicants’ chances of acceptance, parents paid Ernst a combined $2.7 million to designate at least 12 applicants as recruits, according to the AP. Only the exceptionally privileged could afford this illegal shortcut to Georgetown.
Let’s be clear: Preferential treatment in admissions does not end with athletes. Applicants with a “legacy status” receive undue advantages and consideration. According to The Century Foundation, 75 of U.S. News & World Report’s top 100 universities give a boost in admissions to the relatives of alumni. Contrary to popular thought, legacy status does not serve only as the factor that bumps a candidate in the case of a tie. A Princeton University study shows that legacy status is a quantifiable advantage that places ‘legacy’ applicants ahead of the rest, equating to a 160-point increase on an individual’s SAT score on the 1600 scale. The Atlantic reports that a 2011 study on 30 elite schools found that children of alumni saw a 45 percentage-point increase in their chances of admission compared to otherwise equally qualified candidates who were not legacies, controlling for factors such as SAT scores, athletic status, gender, and race.
Specialized sports, like the ones involved in Operation Varsity Blues, have a high economic barrier for entry. For example, one in five families spends more than $1,000 per child per month on sports activities. The result is that 65 percent of college athletes nationwide are white. From 2017 to 2018, according to the NCAA: of the 232 Division I sailors, none were black; only 2.4 percent of golf players were black; and, 85 percent of lacrosse players were white. As a result, these admissions preferences—both for legacy students and for athletes—place almost all non-white applicants at a notable disadvantage.
The FBI investigation painstakingly highlighted the fact that the universities involved are not liable for the illicit actions of their current or former coaches. Since the fallout, Georgetown and other affected universities have painted themselves as the victims of the perceived exploitation by coaches. Given the common nature of these admissions practices, it is hard to feel sympathy for the universities affected or to see them as victims of circumstance.
Georgetown has seemingly taken action on this case. According to a March 12 statement, Georgetown placed Ernst on leave after the Office of Undergraduate Admissions identified irregularities in his recruitment practices and the university initiated an internal investigation. The University has complied with the DOJ and FBI throughout this process. Additionally, the Department of Athletics and Office of Undergraduate Admissions now perform audits to determine whether student-athletes are on the roster for the sport for which they were recruited.
Significant questions remain, leaving much still in need of explanation. If Georgetown placed Ernst on leave in December 2017 after identifying the reported irregularities and rule violations, why, then, did it omit this information when it provided a positive recommendation to the University of Rhode Island in July 2018? How will the University use this new auditing policy to ensure that student-athletes are playing sports, and what action will be taken against those students who falsified application materials and were in contact with Ernst during the scheme?
The University’s response has thus far been disingenuous. In identifying itself as a victim of the scandal, Georgetown removes its culpability in creating the preferential conditions necessary for this bribery scheme to succeed in the first place. As a result, it leads to action through inaction. The University can hide behind minor policy shifts and argue that it has responded to the controversy, but in reality, the shifts announced thus far have been minimal at best. The announced changes are common sense practices that the University should have enacted from the start. At the same time, the lack of definitive, transparent action perpetuates the systematic, structural inequality. In identifying as a victim of the scheme, Georgetown denies its ability as an actor of change that could take steps to reverse these preferential policies and move towards increased egalitarianism. Thus, the University response has been insufficient and insincere.
The University owes its applicants and its students more. It must first definitively and clearly decide the appropriate actions to take against those involved. The University of Southern California set the precedent when it announced that it would deny admission to all applicants connected to the cheating and bribery scheme. Georgetown University should follow suit and clearly state that it will deny and rescind admission to any applicant connected to this scandal. The University must also decide on a course of action for those currently enrolled who were admitted to Georgetown through such fraudulent means. It is the opinion of the Editorial Board that the University should remove those currently enrolled at Georgetown who cheated their way. In falsifying application materials and test scores, these individuals to varying degrees violated the basic premise of Georgetown’s Honor Code: “to be honest in every academic endeavor.” However, the University should still credit them for the work they have completed on campus and allow them to transfer those credits and hours to another institution to finish their degrees. The University should not allow them to complete their degrees at Georgetown, as that would degrade the value of admission into and completion of the Georgetown degree and further demonstrate that as long as you are wealthy and powerful (and most likely white), the rules do not apply to you.
The University should also carefully review and change its preferential policies. The admissions office should not know whether the athletics department is considering an applicant as a potentially valuable recruit because that permits bias in the evaluation process, an incentive to accept recruits that does not exist for other applicants. If the admissions office does not accept all recruits and spaces on teams remain, solutions exist: Georgetown students come from diverse backgrounds and have varied extracurricular interest. Many play these sports in high school, and even at Georgetown, and are qualified to continue playing. They could try out for and fill spots that remain after an athletics-blind admission process, and teams requiring additional members could recruit from club sports.
It is not the opinion of the Editorial Board that athletes on campus are undeserving of their positions here. Athletes across the board have worked hard in both their athletic and academic capacities to earn their spot at Georgetown and throughout the year work hard in the classroom to continue playing their sport. Those who abused the athletic system should be doubly ashamed for cheating their way onto campus and for doing so by leeching off the hard work of actual student-athletes. We do not propose these reforms to hurt student-athletes but to prevent further abuse of the system and to ensure a more equitable admission process. Closing the “side door” by instituting an athletics-blind policy would allow the University to increase the competition from its applicants and would produce a stronger admitted class than is otherwise possible.
The University, in light of its Jesuit values, must reassess its commitment to its students and alumni, as well as its mission and purpose. Universities are changemakers: they pave the path for social mobility. Preferential policies can be damaging and undermine these goals. The only way for the University to fulfill its purpose, its commitment to the Georgetown community, and its Jesuit values is to remove outside influences on acceptance, namely the practice of flagging applications as athletic recruits or legacy applicants, which allow for abuses of the system as witnessed in Operation Varsity Blues and the perpetuation of racial and socioeconomic inequalities.
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