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How The Rich Have Manipulated The College Admissions Process For Their Kids


For context, we're joined by journalist Daniel Golden. He's a senior editor at ProPublica and has been reporting for years on ways the wealthy help their children gain admission to these schools. Golden says in some ways, today's case is an outgrowth of what some may call unethical but perfectly legal activities.

DANIEL GOLDEN: In this case, the allegation is that these students essentially pretended to participate in upper-crust sports like crew or sailing when actually they didn't. But as I pointed out in my book, the actual preferences for these sports that are limited to very few people and are predominantly at prep schools or suburban public high schools are themselves an unfair advantage for the wealthy because, you know, most kids in, say, inner-city high schools never get a chance to try these sports.

KELLY: I wonder if a lot of people listening and reacting to this news today will say, look; this is the way it's always been, particularly at elite schools. If you're really rich, you're going to have a leg up; you will be able to have the financial wherewithal to affect the outcome in ways that families with lesser resources would not. What do you say to that?

GOLDEN: Well, I'd make two points. The first is that it's gone on for a long time, but it's not openly admitted. I mean, if you go to a college night at your high school, you know, they don't have two lines, one for ordinary applicants and one for the wealthy. They'll tell you you get in based on your test scores and your grades and your recommendations and so on.

The other point I'd make is that the problem of the rich buying their way into college is, if anything, getting worse because the percentage of alumni overall who donate - essentially make small donations to universities - is going down. So they're very dependent on big donors, the kind who give enough money to earn an admissions tit for tat. So it's something that is getting ever more out of control, and I think that's what this case might symbolize - the spiraling of this issue to a higher and higher level of urgency.

KELLY: As you read through this indictment, did it suggest to you that this is a few bad apples or that there are systemic problems?

GOLDEN: Well, it's hard to tell, but I think it does point to some systemic issues - not just the preference for upper-crust sports but also the use here of a private college counselor. You know, again, most kids in a typical public school rely on a overburdened guidance counselor who is also helping hundreds of other kids. The wealthy can spend a lot of money to use a private college counselor who's outside the system. And some of them are very good and well-intentioned and helpful, but certainly in this case, appears - the counselor appears to be quite unscrupulous. And I doubt that this is the only one.

KELLY: What surprised you in today's indictment?

GOLDEN: Well, I think the brazenness of the alleged behavior. I mean, it makes you wonder, why didn't these parents just make huge donations to the college of their choice or their child's choice rather than going to these extreme and apparently criminal lengths?

KELLY: There are specific universities that - the names come up in today's indictment. But what kind of impact do you expect to see on the wider community of elite colleges and universities?

GOLDEN: I'm not - I'm somewhat pessimistic on this issue that there will ever be a real change or at least for the foreseeable future because colleges are so wedded to cultivating the wealthy, and they see themselves as so dependent on big donations that it's hard for me to anticipate any fundamental change to the system.

KELLY: Really, though, for something like this that would prove so embarrassing to a college admissions office?

GOLDEN: Well, I think they might take a face-saving measures, but I'm talking about, you know, fundamental change to something that undermines the kind of very idea of equal opportunity and upward mobility. I don't see a wholesale fix.

KELLY: That is Dan Golden, senior editor at ProPublica and author of the book "The Price Of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way Into Elite Colleges." Thank you, Dan.

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