A Catholic Perspective on the College Admissions Scandal

While one can cheat his way into college, he cannot cheat his way into learning.

(photo: Pixabay/CC0)

When the recent story broke about the widespread college admissions scam, it quickly became clear that there was no shortage of culprits. The parents received the most finger-pointing, and maybe that makes sense. After all, if academic success is the door to admissions, these parents picked the lock. But they didn’t act alone, as admissions directors, financial executives, students, and coaches were in on it, too. There will be indictments to come, but the questionable system of college admissions has itself been indicted.

To begin, let’s be clear about what this scandal is about and what it’s not about. This was not about learning. These parents were not buying an actual education; while one can cheat his way into college, he cannot cheat his way into learning.

This is about parents buying their kids’ way into an aristocracy. They were buying their sons and daughters the ability to say “I graduated from USC,” or other elite schools, and buying themselves the status of parents whose kids were “good enough.” Paradoxically, maybe everyone involved in this scandal did all of us a favor by clarifying the question of what college is now about.

As William Deresiewicz phrased it in his book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, “To ask what college is for is to ask what life is for, what society is for—what people are for.” Even more foundational is the question Lewis Carroll asked, “Who in the world am I?” These are the primordial questions that parents and their children should discuss before they ever thumb through their first college brochure together.

Judging by the schools their children attend and their courses of study, it’s doubtful that many Catholic parents are asking questions like these. Many Catholic parents foster their children’s faith for 18 years and then write huge checks to an institution that undermines that faith for four of the most impressionable years of their lives. We expect their beliefs to be ridiculed, but shouldn’t we at least stop financing the environment of ridicule? In too many cases, parents take on debt only to see their children default on their faith.

I’m tired of hearing heartbreaking stories from parents about how their kids lost their faith in college. That might not sound fair on my part. But you know what isn’t fair? Expecting your child’s faith to grow in a barren wilderness—that’s not fair. I’m not sure if R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” is an official school song anywhere, but it easily could be. In fairness, college is not the only place to lose one’s faith, but statistically speaking, it might be the most efficient one.

Of course, the argument will be made that I’m naïve—that I ignore the fact that people need jobs, and a degree from the right college opens the door to the right job opportunities. Deresiewicz has the correct reply:

You need to get a job, but you also need to get a life. … Anyone who tells you that the sole purpose of education is the acquisition of negotiable skills is attempting to reduce you to a productive employee at work, a gullible consumer in the market, and a docile subject of the state. What’s at stake, when we ask what college is for, is nothing less than our ability to remain fully human.

Clearly, we should not draw a false dichotomy between preserving faith and finding a good job. At present, there are still some colleges in America that promote and foster the Faith, and there are also some colleges that are respectful of Christianity. It’s also worth noting the heroic work done on college campuses by FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) and others who preach the faith in often radically secular environments. Nevertheless, it is true that we must often make sacrifices in order to live our faith with integrity, and our choices about college are no exception.

One last point, since test scores like the SAT played such a big role in this scandal. There are many children in America who grow up measuring their intelligence by their GPA or SAT math scores. That’s not only sad, but it’s based on a lie about what intelligence is. Years ago, there was a priest who applied for a seminary scholarship but was turned down in a letter that claimed he was “not up to the required standard in mathematics.” He nearly gave up on his dream to be a priest, but there was someone who believed that his kind of intelligence and creativity went well beyond the confines of mathematics. He was eventually accepted to a seminary, ordained, and changed the world by teaching millions of families the importance and joy of saying the Rosary together. His name was Father Patrick Peyton.

Something to remember the next time you see your math scores.