2019’s higher ed scandal: a problem with admissions or a problem with prestige?


2019’s higher ed scandal: a problem with admissions or a problem with prestige?

An interview with Kent Barnds, executive vice president of external relations at Augustana College

Update 9/19: On September 13, sentencing was handed down to one of the faces of the higher education admissions scandal. Felicity Huffman, known for her role on ABC’s “Desperate Housewives,” was sentenced to 14 days in prison, fined $30,000 and ordered to perform 250 hours of community service after pleading guilty to paying $15,000 to have her daughter’s incorrect SAT answers changed.

Huffman is the first of 35 parents charged in the conspiracy to be sentenced, with other defendants, including Lori Loughlin of “Full House” fame either awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty or preparing for trial.

The recent college admissions scandal painted an unflattering picture of higher education admissions: one of bribery, nepotism, and entitlement.

Kent Barnds, executive vice president of external relations at Augustana College in Illinois, recently penned an editorial for Inside Higher Ed that examined the scandal. I recently sat down with Kent to explore more thoughts about the implications for enrollment leaders.

AN: What did you find surprising in terms of the reaction to this series of events, as a longtime college enrollment professional?

KB: One area where we were shocked is that none of us knew anything about it. All of a sudden it was just plastered everywhere, “college admissions scandal.” I think that surprised people [in admissions] because we are a pretty close-knit group.

One of the most amazing things about this is just how much privilege is on display. I hope that higher ed will take some pause and learn a lesson here about privilege and how much influence it has in the college search and selection process.

But, at the same time, I still maintain that the college admissions scandal has very little to do with admissions professionals. Until I hear an admissions person is implicated, this is not an admissions scandal. Our colleagues work with integrity and responsibility and are working on behalf of their institution and its students.

AN: What, if anything, does this say about the relationship between money and privilege within the college search process?

KB: I think that what we see is that privilege has now been identified as the pathway to get into a super-selective place. What it’s really leading to is that there’s this idea in the American mind that there’s only a small set of institutions that are worthy, and that’s really sad.

I don’t think that parents, in this particular circumstance, were looking for a good fit at all. And I think this is the most tragic thing, is that we’ve gotten to a point where it’s all about where you get in. It’s not about where you can get the best education. It’s not about the place that is going to launch you into the best life.

AN: It really doesn’t seem like the parents gave any notion whether that was an appropriate institution for their child.

KB:  You do have to wonder whether there was a real assessment of, “Is this a place where my son or daughter is going to be challenged and supported in the right way? Is this a place where my son or daughter can pursue the academic program that they’re most interested in and they catch fire for that passion? Can they be involved in the right ways socially?”

Instead, what it seems to be all the way around, it looks just like status.

AN: You said in your op-ed that reform is more likely when the chase to be admitted is less important than earning a degree. Could you touch on that?

KB: The language that we use is important. We talk about stretch or reach schools⁠—that really is about the chase for admission. That’s about trophy gathering.

Rather, what we really ought to be looking at is not these metrics of who gets in and who doesn’t, but what a student wants out of their college experience and how best a college fulfills that experience over the time it takes a student to get a degree.