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College as a Commodity: Competing Perspectives on the State of Higher Education

In the past few weeks, college admissions departments across the United States have been under scrutiny, as several administrators and coaches in America’s most elite universities have been accused of accepting bribes from celebrities and wealthy elites. The Department of Justice has arrested upwards of 50 people connected to the case, and even Hallmark movie star, Lori Loughlin has been accused of paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to secure her children’s place in USC. At the heart of the scandal is a college consultant,William “Rick” Singer, who used his non-profit, Key Worldwide Foundation, as a cover to accept and transfer bribes from desperate parents to his connections in college administrations. The scandal calls into question college admissions practices and advantages of the wealthy in that process.

However, media focus on elite colleges offers a warped perspective of the admission process. Shery Boyles, Meredith College’s Director of Admissions, noted that the practices of the most selective colleges do not reflect the efforts of the rest of America’s universities. And the facts back her up. While institutions like Harvard and Stanford are releasing record low admission rates, many more regional colleges are struggling to meet their enrollment goals. The Chronicle of Higher Education published a survey analyzing about 100 public and 250 private institutions and found that 44% of public colleges and 52% of private colleges missed their enrollment goals. Michael Reilly, the executive director of the American Association of College Registrars and Admissions Officers, confirms this assessment in an article for The New York Times, saying, “most campuses nationwide fail to meet their enrollment goals.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s survey notes that many “tuition-dependent institutions” have had to grapple with changes in a difficult market. Factors like rising operational costs, increasing competition and changing demographics are some of the obstacles regional colleges must face in order to stay ahead. Boyles described how college admissions has changed over the past few decades, saying that technological advances like the internet give students access to more information on a wider variety of schools, perhaps increasing the amount of competition between regional schools.

Boyles also stated that there’s been an increase of what she describes as “bulldozer” parents, who want to remove all obstacles for their children. Bulldozer parents could explain why college admissions representatives report that parents are often the ones to fill out applications and the success of the surprisingly legal college consultation industry, as explained by Dana Goldstein and Jack Healy in an article from The New York Times. Joyce Smith, the CEO of National Association for College Admission Counseling, wrote about the “commodification of higher ed” in a letter to members of the organization and warned parents and students to stop thinking of college as a status symbol and “a commodity to be bought and sold.” Some elite institutions have tried to move to a more “holistic” review process, something more commonly found at smaller regional institutions, in order to be more inclusive in their admissions process. Regional institutions have tried to expand their programs and boost their marketing in order to bring in more students. Boyles stated that Meredith College itself has had a holistic review process for quite some time and tries to admit students without regard to socioeconomic status. In fact, more than ⅓ of Meredith’s student body is eligible for Pell Grants. She says that Meredith’s admissions counselors read every single application that is sent in, and they try their best to partner with families to make Meredith affordable.

No matter what perspective you look at it from, this scandal is an indication that change must come for colleges across America if they are to stay in business and keep public favor.

By Rebecca Dowdy, Opinion Editor


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