College Admissions System Must Be Examined Post Scandal, Niles Says

Originally published on March 13, 2019 11:19 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Paying for college has taken on an entirely different meaning. We've known that wealthy parents can use their influence and their money to get their kids into better schools. But what we heard about yesterday, if true, is egregious and illegal.

Federal prosecutors said they uncovered a scheme in which rich parents bought their kids admission to elite schools like Yale, Stanford and the University of Southern California. We're told they bought falsified exam scores. They bought fake photos, making it look like their kids starred in sports they didn't even know how to play. Some 50 people are charged. More than half are parents, including Hollywood stars and some big-name business leaders. This is FBI Special Agent Joseph Bonavolonta.

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JOSEPH BONAVOLONTA: This is not a case where parents were acting in the best interests of their children. This is a case where they flaunted their wealth, sparing no expense to cheat the system, so they could set their children up for success with the best education money could buy, literally.

GREENE: Stefanie Niles has spent years working in college admissions. She's president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling and vice president for enrollment at Ohio Wesleyan University.

Welcome.

STEFANIE NILES: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

GREENE: Thanks for coming on. Did this case surprise you?

NILES: It did, and it didn't. It didn't because of what you had said earlier about the lengths that parents will go to to get their children into college. But I would say this was an extreme. And so to that end, it certainly surprised me to hear that parents would enter into these illegal situations in order to secure a spot in a selective college or university.

GREENE: Yeah, I was wondering. I mean, everyone has said that the connections can always be exploited. Money can be exploited. So aside from the fact that there's an FBI probe, why does this stand out? Why all the outrage that we haven't seen before?

NILES: I think because it did go to this extreme, I think because of the names that are involved in this particular case, because it really drives home the point that this - there's so much pressure. There is an inequality in the system that allows for this to happen and to go on undetected for quite some time before, indeed, it now has been detected. I think it raises the issue of the vulnerabilities in the process and, again, these extreme lengths that people will go to.

GREENE: How difficult will it be to change the system to deal with this inequality? I mean, should universities somehow be held accountable for accepting these students? - because they haven't been charged here.

NILES: No, they haven't. And I think this is still a developing case. And there's still certainly more for us to learn about the role that universities played in this. It does appear, at this point in time, that individuals were largely involved - individuals employed by institutions, so that those institutions did not have knowledge. And so, really, those institutions - excuse me. Those individuals should be held accountable for their actions. Obviously, as more details are uncovered, we'll learn more if there is - there are additional individuals or, indeed, institutions that should be brought to light in this situation.

GREENE: I just want to think about the impact on families here. I mean, first of all, what is it like for a student who had no idea his or her parents got them into college this way?

NILES: I can only imagine what these young people are experiencing now. I've seen some of the very unfortunate social media entries into the children of some of these individuals. And, you know, they are being subjected to extremely harsh criticism for something they didn't do. And that's a difficult situation for any young person to be in. And, of course, these young people had no knowledge or - of what their parents had done on their behalf.

GREENE: And then what do you advise parents should be telling their students who really felt like they may have earned a spot at a school like Yale or like Stanford? And now, seeing this story unfold, that other families had the ability and the money to actually, potentially - I mean, if these allegations are true - to buy their way in.

NILES: Yeah. I think what's fortunate here is that this has come to light. And it does allow these - this situation, if, indeed, this is what happened, to be exposed and to examine the system that enabled it to occur so that, hopefully, in the future, this can be prevented. The organization that I work for - both my institution, Ohio Wesleyan, and the National Association for College Admission Counseling - strive to ensure that all students have access to a high-quality educational experience.

And so hopefully that message will continue to resonate, that there are many many options for students, many terrific educational opportunities that they can pursue. One doesn't need to secure admission to just a handful of institutions to be happy and to live a life that is very successful.

GREENE: Sounds like there are some deep systemic problems that you feel like to be dealt with here.

NILES: I think this will continue to raise those issues - raise issues that we as a higher education community will explore and we as a society will explore.

GREENE: Stefanie Niles is president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. She also serves as vice president for enrollment at Ohio Wesleyan. Thanks so much.

NILES: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.