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Scandal prompts reflection on cheating, advantage in college admissions

March 29, 2019

Earlier this month, federal prosecutors charged 50 participants in a multimillion-dollar college admissions scheme in which wealthy parents bribed coaches and standardized test administrators to gain their children admission to elite colleges including Georgetown, Stanford and Yale. Bowdoin was not implicated in the scandal, but administrators have been monitoring the case and reviewing the College’s admissions procedures accordingly.

“It didn’t happen here, and you never say never,” said President Clayton Rose. “But there’s some fundamental reasons why what we do here is different than what went on at the schools where this took place, which gives me significant comfort that it would be very, very difficult for that to happen.”

One reason Rose feels confident that Bowdoin is less susceptible to such schemes is the College’s test-optional policy. Dean of Admissions and Student Aid Whitney Soule also emphasized this point, explaining that the policy mitigates a desire to cheat on standardized tests.

“Since we were the first college to not require [standardized tests], I don’t feel that we are imposing an expectation of testing for successful admission,” said Soule.

Even though there is no way for the Office of Admissions to know if an applicant’s standardized test scores are the result of cheating, Soule believes that the test-optional policy leads the College to rely less on test scores as a metric of evaluation.

Rose hopes that this scandal could lead other schools to consider a similar policy.

“One [key aspect of the scandal] is this notion of standardized tests and how valuable they are in the process of admission and how they’re misused or how they can be corrupted. I think this is a moment to really think hard about that,” said Rose. “I think we provide a long-term test of how it’s possible to be an exceptional college with exceptional students and not put any emphasis or optional emphasis on standardized tests, and more schools are doing that now.”

Both Rose and Soule think that the way the College handles athlete admission sets Bowdoin apart from the implicated schools. Rose said that the College’s small size and athletics structure, in addition to strict NESCAC regulations, would make it much harder for a coach to get away with falsely claiming that a prospective student is an athlete.

“If a first-year student who’s a supported athlete decides not to play, the athletic director will know about that and will meet with them,” said Rose. “It doesn’t happen very often, but there’s not a falling-between-the-cracks that goes on here, which is what can happen in other places.”

Soule finds the scandal disappointing and is concerned that it creates a false narrative around college admissions.

“It’s disgraceful,” she said. “It really undermines work that most institutions rely on that’s built on trust and integrity. And I have faith that our work is still built on integrity, definitely at Bowdoin.”

Rose echoed these sentiments.

“I don’t think it points to a broad corrupt system,” he said. “I think it points to corrupt human beings that took advantage of the system, one where trust is placed in people in various levels, and that trust was massively violated.”

The scandal has sparked a broader conversation across the nation and at Bowdoin about how wealth and privilege benefit students in the college admissions process. Some students feel that, while the issues of bribery are distant, topics of wealth influencing admissions are more pertinent at the College.

“I feel like money displays itself in more than just a purely transactional way … it’s your zip code, where are you from? What kind of school [do] you go to? Sometimes, what sport do you play? Are you a legacy? There’s a number of ways that money manifests itself in the college admissions process,” said Ural Mishra ’20. “So, yeah, I’m just surprised that people are surprised by this.”

Samantha Schwimmer ’21 went to high school with two of the students whose parents are indicted in the scandal. She said she knew many more who used legal channels, such as talking to connections at elite schools and paying external college counselors, to gain an advantage in the admissions process. She thinks that these issues are important to acknowledge at Bowdoin.

“I think that we need to move the conversation away from whether people deserve to be here to understanding that there are systems in place that allow certain students to get into college easier, and having money is one of the most significant ways,” said Schwimmer.

For Soule, the scandal shows a distorted view of the importance of higher education.

“What it absolutely reflects is that there are some people who are willing to place an importance on the idea of education in a particular place above all else, instead of what an education actually provides and what it is about,” she said.


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