ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

The College Admissions Scandal: A Call to Action

Michael Poliakoff
March 15, 2019

On March 12, the Department of Justice released an affidavit which implicated dozens of individuals in a fraudulent scheme to obtain college admissions through bribery, cheating on standardized tests, false representation of athletic participation, and more. A college admissions consultant based in California orchestrated the scheme, serving wealthy families across the country, including some celebrities in the deception. The institutions implicated in the scheme include, but are not limited to, Georgetown University, University of Southern California, and Stanford University. At these schools, rogue administrators or athletic coaches worked with the families to sidestep regular admissions practices. The story has shocked the American public, and added fuel to the ever-increasing public suspicion of the world of higher education.

Trustees at our nation’s colleges and universities must stand up and demand greater accountability and transparency in the admissions process. For many years, ACTA has provided resources and advice to help higher education leaders and governing boards address challenges that confront our nation’s colleges and universities, including skyrocketing administrative and instructional costs, assaults on freedom of expression on campuses, and declining academic standards.

Sadly, we must now add to our focus the urgent need for reform of the admissions process. Trustees must work with college presidents to implement policies that hold admissions officers, athletic directors and others accountable and to put in place a transparent process that awards  admission to students based solely on the merits of their hard work and talent.

ACTA has repeatedly warned of what is at the very core of this scandal: an overwhelming focus on prestige in college choice, rather than educational quality. Rather than valuing an institution for its demonstrated commitment to rigorous academic standards and to student achievement, too many American families view the name on a bumper sticker or diploma as a status symbol, like the designer name on a handbag.

ACTA has been working to fight the commodification of higher education for years. Our annual core curriculum report, What Will They Learn?, highlights a list of “Hidden Gems” that have a rigorous core curriculum at an affordable price. The report also generally finds that the most prestigious schools shirk their responsibility to promote a core set of knowledge and skills. There are hundreds of affordable institutions across the country that are deeply committed to student success, and we must all look to support them.

Finally, there is the selectivity game. Many institutions implicated define themselves on exclusivity: how many applicants they can attract and reject. Actress Lori Loughlin, in a wiretapped phone call, said that she needed “a roadmap for success as it relates to [our daughter] and getting her into a school other than ASU (Arizona State University).”

How terribly short-sighted! ASU’s president, Michael Crow, has garnered praise for his work to simultaneously raise academic standards and college accessibility, including a program to provide free online education to Uber drivers. In President Crow’s inaugural address, he pledged to create an institution that is “measured not by who the university excludes, but by who the university includes.” We need to see this spirit of ASU, widely known as “The New American University,” writ large in American higher education.

Unfortunately these elite families doubled down on prestige and exclusivity as signs of quality. It is a dangerous mindset for the nation. With college costs and student debt exploding, and social mobility feeling so far out of reach for so many Americans, this is a culture that is desperately in need of reform.


CONTACT: Doug Sprei, dsprei@goacta.org 

About ACTA:


ACTA is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to academic freedom, academic excellence, and accountability in higher education. We receive no government funding and are supported through the generosity of individuals and foundations. For more information, visit www.GoACTA.org, follow us on Facebook or Twitter, and subscribe to our newsletter.