College admissions have never been a strict academic merit system. Consider the extra weight given to demographic diversity of the student body (a good thing), or to student athletic ability (a controversial but justifiable thing), or to family ability to pay (a college budget thing). At some universities, add considerations of political connections, or legacy enrollments or past or predicted family donations to the school (none of those a good thing but irresistible to some administrations). This reality, though, shouldn’t lessen the outrage over FBI allegations that 50 wealthy parents, entrance test administrators, college administrators and college coaches used bribery and fraud to gain student admissions into selective universities.
Part of the visceral reaction comes from the galling notion that these families weren’t satisfied with the inherent advantages they already enjoyed from being wealthy and white. The other part was well articulated by prosecutor Andrew Lelling: That for every student admitted by deceit, some deserving student somewhere was denied.
Lelling’s description of a “zero-sum game” has relevance to another group of college students – an extremely small group -- who did nothing fraudulent but nonetheless leave professors such as myself baffled and annoyed. These are students for whom academics are not a priority. At all. They exist at every university – they are not readily apparent during the admissions process – and they are most easily identified by their abysmal class attendance record. More than once, usually speaking generically, I have told students that if they wish to waste their money and educational opportunity, that’s their (unwise) choice. But I’m not sure I’m right about that. Because each of those students took the spot of some other applicant who would presumably be putting forth the effort to gain something from the educational chance they’d been given. If you’re there instead of someone else, do you not have some responsibility and obligation to appreciate the opportunity and to give a flip?
Whether talking about uninterested students or the students in Operation Varsity Blues, it’s necessary to think about who they might have bumped out, though that’s unknowable outside an admissions office. Maybe it was another rich, white, accomplished applicant who worked just as hard or harder in high school. Or maybe it was an average achiever trying to overcome an impoverished home life and a failing high school and who just needed a break and a scholarship to become the first in the family to go to college. Any scenario is unfortunate, but when I imagine the latter kind of case, I despair.