The college admissions scandal is causing shock waves in the press and a great deal of outrage and hand wringing among the public. We’re right to be offended by the egregious misconduct of the guilty parties.

I’m writing this piece as both a parent of a high school senior in the midst of her own college application process, and as a 30-year consultant and guidance counselor with a business advising families about – you guessed it – the college admission process.

And I’m writing to suggest that we’re looking at this scandal the wrong way.

Sure, the guilty parties deserve whatever punishment they get, but the the takeaway from this incident is not that people cheat – it’s that the process by which high school students are selected (or not) by colleges and universities is by definition inexact and flawed.

Much of the coverage has angrily denounced the class bias extant in selective-college admissions, and the advantages upper- and middle-class students have. This is a systemic problem – outrage directed at college admissions is misplaced.

U.S. institutions of higher learning were founded on the principal of meritocracy – indeed, this is the underpinning of Jeffersonian democracy. A “meritocracy” means a system in which the talented are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievement.


To wit, college admissions should be based on the student’s merits and competitiveness, and not on family wealth and power.Significantly, this principle is also the driving force behind college financial aid, whereby families pay college costs according to their ability and receive, in effect, discounts according to their need.

Students and their families need to understand two important things as they embark on their college journey: One is that the admissions process is inherently unfair. The second is that the financial aid process, which will determine the price they’ll pay once accepted to college, is fair.

With this understanding, I wish to make about three important points about college admissions:

The truly talented are not necessarily accepted to selective colleges. Talent, when applied to college admissions, is undefinable. Thus, selective-college admissions is arbitrary and capricious.

A college’s selectivity does not define its quality. Happiness does. Most people believe that the colleges that are the hardest to get into are the best. They are not.

Acceptance to a selective college depends on luck and pluck. Certainly, a candidate to a selective college must have the goods in terms of minimal credentials, but nearly every applicant to a selective college falls within the “qualified” category. Students must find the right way to present themselves in hopes of getting the outcome they desire.


There is no nefarious plot to keep the underprivileged out of college. In fact, I’ve regularly seen deserving first-generation, low-income and minority students gain acceptance to wonderful colleges with incredibly generous financial aid packages.

What is required is an understanding of how to, if you will, game the system. This is neither a distasteful proposition, nor one that should be done through misrepresentation or criminal means. Applicants must learn how to make themselves stand out.

I tell clients that a good college is one where they will be happy, healthy and successful. A bad college is one where they won’t be. I’ve seen Ivy League schools that were terrible for a particular student, and so-called “non-selective” schools that were perfect.

Of the over 2,400 accredited four-year colleges in America, fewer than 120 are “selective” – meaning they reject over half their applicants. That leaves plenty of wonderful schools to select from.

Where a student attends college is less important to future success (measured by lifetime earnings and career satisfaction) than what the student does while they are at college. If a student is prepared to be in college, they will be successful.

Ignore the headlines. Pity or condemn the offenders as you would any white-collar criminal. Don’t let this “scandal” sully your view of the vibrant and wonderful colleges and universities out there. Understand that college admissions is imperfect and misunderstood. Learn how the game is played and do it with integrity and optimism.


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