College admission scandal grew out of a system that was ripe for corruption

As part of the “Operation Varsity Blues” case that federal prosecutors announced March 12, dozens of people – including Hollywood actresses and wealthy businessmen – stand accused of having bought their children’s way into elite colleges and universities.

As a researcher who has studied how young athletes get admitted to college, I don’t see a major difference between this admission fraud case and how many wealthy families can buy their children’s way into elite colleges through “back” and “side” doors.

In my research, I show how most intercollegiate sports are fed by wildly expensive “pay to play” youth sports pipelines. These pipelines systematically exclude lower income families. Attending so-called “showcase tournaments” to get in front of recruiters takes money.

In many ways, then, those ensnared in the current criminal case – which alleges that they paid for their children to get spots on the sports teams of big name schools – couldn’t have succeeded if the college admissions process wasn’t already biased toward wealthier families.

Bypassing the front door

Even if college sports is taken out of the equation, the college admissions process already favors wealthy families in a variety of ways.

It has long been known that higher family income usually correlates with higher standardized test scores. There are many test prep companies, including some that guarantee higher scores for approximately US$1,000. Taking advantage of test prep may not be “fraud.” But it certainly provides advantages to the wealthy that have little to do with academic merit.

In his book “The Price of Admission,” Daniel Golden highlights a number of other ways wealthy families can buy their way into elite universities. These include large donations, financing new buildings, creating endowments and playing on parents’ celebrity status. These also have little to do with an applicant’s academic merit, but would never be considered criminal.

Sociologist David Karen has documented how attendance at expensive boarding schools gives wealthy students an admissions advantage to Ivy League universities. That may not be fraudulent, but it certainly seems unfair.

Athletics and admission advantages

So how do the wealthy get an advantage when it comes to college athletics? Research has shown that recruited athletes receive the largest admissions advantages independent of academic merit.

The advantage varies by sport and athletic division, but is almost universal within higher education. Many sports – particularly squash, lacrosse, fencing and rowing – are pricey to play, so rich kids get opportunities that are out of reach for the poor. Even non-elite sports such as soccer and softball are subject to class-based restrictions.