An Interview with Diana Sheets: Violating Democratic Notions of Fairness with Respect to College Admissions

Apr 2, 2019 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Diana, I daresay that everyone is still reeling about the recent allegations of these college admissions scams. What was your initial reaction?

I was deeply saddened. It seems that everything is “for sale” in America. Having “privileged” parents bribe admissions personnel or sports coaches or enable their children to cheat on SAT and ACT exams in order to have these less-than-qualified students admitted to selective colleges and universities that they would never have gotten into on their own merits violates fundamental notions of fairness. The sense that many honest parents and children have is that playing by the rules and working hard to get admitted into the better schools no longer succeeds.

It used to be that these efforts paid off. Students who studied hard, developed skills, and demonstrated their talents had the greatest opportunities and appeared most likely to succeed. Today, however, the perception is that success in gaining admission to select colleges and universities is achieved through money that can buy the right connections. That outlook is augmented by the feeling that it’s no longer necessary to work hard to achieve great outcomes. The belief has emerged that talent and hard work don’t guarantee favorable outcomes in college, if not life.

Consequently, struggling parents and their children are prone to think that the system is rigged and that money determines opportunity, rather than hard work, initiative, intelligence, and integrity.

But I would caution students from reaching these overly cynical conclusions. Does it really work that way? If a student is accepted to college by payoffs or other illegal methods, will he or she actually have the character and determination to develop the skills necessary to succeed? Or do challenges and obstacles wear down the student who never really had to work hard at anything?

Peggy Noonan, who was a speechwriter for President Reagan, has an interesting take on this. In a column she wrote for “The Wall Street Journal”, she talks about “success robots”. By this she means that students who go to privileged schools no longer appear interested in learning and forming long-lasting friendships. Instead, they are obsessed with “gaming” the system to get ahead. In other words, they seek the outer trappings of success, rather than the knowledge and character that builds success and forms lasting connections with other people. Noonan concludes her essay by suggesting that students “aim at smaller, second-tier colleges, places of low-key harmony, religiously affiliated when possible—and get a real education”.

And what will be the result of this choice? Noonan emphasizes, “You’ll be with a better class of people—harder-working, less cynical, more earnest”. Her underlying message was clear: genuine effort, genuine work, and genuine character ultimately yield success.

I agree. However, that doesn’t mean we don’t punish cheaters or that we allow institutions of higher learning to foster inequities. Both institutions and individuals need to understand the consequences of their actions and be punished for their transgressions. For without standards, without excellence, without having students learn that they must work hard, compete, and demonstrate their abilities, our society falters.

If colleges and universities can be bought, naturally, we’re inclined to think, “so can jobs and almost everything else”. The result? Rot permeates our infrastructure and our meritocracy crumbles.

Let’s acknowledge that the obstacles are greater for children who come from less privileged backgrounds. Often, they come from broken homes. Frequently, their parents can’t spend the time and resources to ensure that their children succeed. Consequently, their children often have less access to books and training. They might not have the social skills that will open doors to opportunity. For many of these students the sense of frustration grows that no matter what they do and no matter how hard they work, it doesn’t matter since the system is rigged and their failure in school, if not life, appears to be a foregone conclusion. As a society, we must demonstrate that these perceptions are misguided. We must actively foster opportunities that will empower children from less privileged backgrounds. Their success is important for our society. We must not let them down.

2) Diana, it is one thing to take those test preparation courses for the ACT and SAT and, perhaps, develop test skills to help students do well in standardized tests. Do you think anything is wrong with attempts to make sincere, honest high school students better prepared for the SAT and ACT and other college admissions tests?

Not everyone is naturally gifted at test taking. Most students do better with preparation. Years ago examiners used to suggest that test results were based on innate intelligence. But today most people understand that practice improves performance. As a student who never performed well on standardized exams, I spent a year reading intensively before taking exams to be admitted to a university. I didn’t attend a performance academy or hire an instructor to improve my scores, I just took demanding courses, read lots of academic books about subjects related to my studies, and wrote a number of academic papers and essays about relevant topics. It made an enormous difference in my test results. No doubt I could have improved my scores even further by working with tutors or taking “cram courses”, although ultimately, I believe, the reading and writing probably did me the most good.

Naturally, I believe students should be able to prepare for tests. But understand, the more you read and write, as well as the more you study, the better your results.

3) Moving right along, I understand that there are legal indictments currently against a number of wealthy parents who allegedly donated large sums of money to get their children into colleges and universities. How does this strike your democratic notion of fairness?

I want students to succeed through their own efforts, don’t you? That’s my democratic notion of fairness. Nothing is gained in our society by having parents “help” their students cheat their way into colleges and universities by bribing admission personnel or test administrators, or, for that matter, coaches.

If we permit this, the long-term outcome might be that our government devolves into a Kleptocracy, that is, leaders who cheat and steal resources from others to enrich themselves and enhance their power and political clout. In a Kleptocracy, societal knowledge and excellence diminishes because power is wielded by a thoroughly corrupt leadership. Democracy falters under those circumstances. We don’t want our government to devolve to a society that mimics the current failed Russian state. So it’s important to punish individuals who cheat the system and attempt to buy influence. Safeguards need to be implemented to ensure fundamental notions of fairness. Simply put, we want to reward students who work hard and demonstrate skills and talent while, simultaneously, punishing those students who obtain opportunities through bribery and/or cheating.

4) I am really appalled by some of these students who have entered college vis-a-vis their parents unfair influence. Can we conclude that their children will contribute absolutely nothing to our society? What say you?

Parents today are worried that it’s increasingly more difficult for their children to succeed than when they went to college. They’re desperate to try to find ways to help them. The perception of many parents is that if they don’t get their children into the best schools, the prospects of their children will be limited. But the best way for children to succeed is for parents to instill values emphasizing education from birth—if not earlier—and to keep encouraging children throughout their formative years. Read to them. Take them to museums. Challenge them intellectually. Have them talk about their studies and encourage them to write reports, not just at school, but as a way of understanding and mastering analytically what they have read. Emphasize that learning is fun and creative. Strive to make this enthusiasm infectious. The more students learn, the more likely they will succeed and understand the nature of the world in which they live. Academic and social skills facilitate success. Conversely, if parents attempt to buy their children’s admittance to college, it’s an admittance of failure on the part of the parents and, by extension, the children.

For many of those children admitted to schools by means of bribery or unfair influence, the outcome will be a sense of entitlement. With this entitlement generally come laziness. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean some of these students won’t prosper. Perhaps they’re bright, but never worked hard before. Maybe, some will thrive if they are curious, if they want to learn, if ideas open their horizons to different values. So I wouldn’t say that all these children will contribute absolutely nothing, but they risk believing that cheating the system is the only way to win and that, in turn, fosters laziness, which induces underachievement or even failure.

5) Now, what about those photo-shopped faux athletes gaining admissions to colleges via the “side door” or “back door”? This is especially appalling to me since I played college basketball and had to demonstrate my athletic prowess to get accepted. What’s your reaction as an exemplary novelist who has worked long and hard to learn her craft?

The world has really changed. Talent used to drive success in many things. Now, we’ve become a “credentialed society”. Some parents feel they can buy credentials for their children by bribing officials to admit their children to prestigious colleges or universities. This, they hope, will enable their children to graduate from great schools and, in turn, will prove an essential stepping stone to their subsequent success.

As a writer today, I don’t think success—particularly in fiction—is determined by talent. Certainly, it used to be, but now it’s knowing how to leverage book sales through celebrity or honing in on a winning topic that will emotionally attract readers, rather than enlighten them with a nuanced understanding of the world. Today, books are generic.

What do I mean by this? It’s as if fiction is created on an assembly line. Originality virtually ensures failure. The writer has to write for the common reader and present the values and emotions that validate that reader’s sensibilities. Writing programs teach their students how to accomplish that. Writers used to have something meaningful to say and sometimes even a distinctive style. Not anymore.

Conversely, an athlete’s prowess can often be objectively measured. And that’s the irony here, the parents, the coaches, and the schools “dropped the ball”. Parents were able to “buy” coaches who admitted their nonathletic children into the athletic programs. Colleges and universities either didn’t know or chose not to examine too closely the source of the money enriching their facilities. Parents should be punished. So should their children who are the beneficiaries of corruption. So should the coaches. So should the schools who benefited financially by having their coaches or sports programs awash in money that came through bribery. Think these students are innocent? How could students with no experience in pole vaulting or rowing really believe they were entitled to this kind of special admittance? They didn’t know? When? Initially? Then, at what point did they become knowing accomplices in the scam? My point is that eventually, they have to know. And that knowledge makes them culpable.

6) How does this impact the value of a college degree in general?

Now, we’re getting somewhere. I believe that the college degree over the years has been greatly devalued and therefore more subject to bribery as parents desperately try to leverage opportunities for their children. This is particularly true in the humanities since these disciplines today almost never teach anything valuable or instructive. Instead, the purpose of an education in the humanities nowadays is to convince students that they are morally good people, rather than have them learn anything instructive about civilization. What students are taught in the humanities at present is a misguided notion of social justice and a skewed conception of identity politics, neither of which confers any value to businesses or, for that matter, society.

Consequently, an education in the humanities these days is not about what students learn, but what prestigious institution they attend. Because it is at these privileged colleges and universities that students gain “righteous social capital”. On the other hand, if students pursue a degree in engineering, something that has actual utility in society, then, as Kevin Carey noted in “How Much Does Getting Into an Elite College Actually Matter?”, published in “The New York Times”, engineering graduates of “less selective public universities” actually “earned more than similar students who chose other majors at more selective universities”.

7) Even more DISPICABLE are allegations about “faked learning disabilities”. How long a shadow is this going to cast on kids with real exceptionalities and handicaps?

Given that parents and their children are looking for every leverage possible, it’s not surprising that they are exploiting the label of “disabilities” for personal gain. But there are ways to ensure that only those students in need are permitted to take advantage of these resources.

8) How is this current scandal going to impact an excellent student from some lower socio-economic city who has both good grades and is a stellar athlete?

Certainly, there is the risk that deserving students from lower socio-economic communities who might also be great athletes will be adversely impacted. Obviously, we don’t want that and must make every effort to make sure this does not happen.

However, I also want to emphasize that universities and colleges are vulnerable. The cost of higher education is so expensive these days, these institutions cannot afford the taint of bribery scandals. Corruption makes these institutions suspect. Their financial records will be scrutinized more closely and federal and state authorities can take punitive actions that will severely impact these schools. Educational institutions cannot afford the bad publicity. They must rectify the situation immediately to ensure that deserving students from lower socio-economic strata are rewarded for academic excellence and athletic process.

9) And what is this entire mess going to do to an excellent hard working student who is from some minority group? Who sincerely wants to learn and possibly attend medical or dental school some day?

As a society, if we do not ensure upward mobility for hard working students with talent—regardless of whether they are minorities or economically disadvantaged—we are failing as a society. But we also need to ensure that the brightest and most talented students are not neglected.

10) What have I neglected to mention?

When you couple the academic admissions scandal with the exploding student debt crisis, the universities, colleges, community colleges, and trade schools have a “double whammy” problem that unless addressed satisfactorily could resort in much more regulation and enforcement in how institutions of higher learning conduct their business and what guarantees they are prepared to make to their students in terms of job opportunities, debt abatement, and efforts to ensure that students graduate on a timely basis. Admission scandals and the ballooning debt crisis of students represent serious problems for these institutions. They cannot afford admissions scandals and need to begin to address proactively the burgeoning debt crisis impacting their students or face significant government intervention.

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