Editorial: This college bribery scandal is a lesson in terrible judgment and values

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Published in Op Eds

The college admissions bribery scandal disclosed by federal prosecutors touched off national outrage on the juicy topics of elite education, privilege and celebrity criminal allegations. Wealthy, well-known parents are accused of paying to open "side doors" for their children to enter schools including Yale, Stanford and Georgetown.

William Singer, the admissions middleman at the center of the scheme, has pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy, and 50 parents and associates have been charged with related crimes. The alleged behavior is an offense against smart kids, especially those who may have had coveted university spots snatched away from them. Then there are the taxpayers, who contribute to funding higher education and expect their dollars to be used fairly.

The allegations of brazen test-cheating and admission-buying poke a decade-old wound in Illinois, where the Chicago Tribune's "Clout Goes to College" series exposed a shadow admissions system at the University of Illinois that gave well-connected applicants an edge over better students at a pace of 200 a year from 2005 to 2009. This practice, at a public university no less, gave places to students known to be underqualified as admissions officers complained in vain.

There are plenty of ways to have a great college experience outside the most elite schools, or to do well in life without college. But access to a plum university spot can be life-changing for any student, especially those without money or connections who must forge their own path to achievement.

Olivia Jade Giannulli, daughter of actress Lori Loughlin, one of the parents charged, didn't need an allegedly ill-gotten admission to the University of Southern California to make a go of life. Apparently she didn't even want it. She pitched products as an Instagram influencer and pouted about college on social media. "It's so hard to try in school when you don't care about anything you're learning," she posted.

What a stick in the weary eye of any diligent student who sweated over an admissions essay and deserved an honest shot at admittance at a time when USC was crowing about its declining acceptance rate. Just 13 percent of students who applied won a spot in 2018 as "a landslide of outstanding applications (raised) the bar for admits," it said on its website.

Competitive college admissions is a zero-sum game. There are only so many spots available, so for each cheater, a worthy student is displaced. And for every revelation of clout or cheating, untold numbers of young people get the message that merit doesn't matter, only money. Why strive in a rigged system?


Students from disadvantaged backgrounds already know they're competing against peers who have every benefit -- from healthy food, homework help and enriching vacations to freedom from worries about side jobs and student loan debt. Those who believe all young people deserve an opportunity to succeed in life should support rooting out the corruption and favoritism that hurts families who attempt to compete on the merits.

Any parent convicted in this scheme has done harm to the public, other students and their own children, too -- by corrupting the notion of achievement. Here's a lesson for the ages, and we offer it for free: The bought trophy never satisfies.

(c)2019 Chicago Tribune

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