Las Vegas Sun

October 20, 2019

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Public R1 universities undervalued as elitists clamber for acceptance

The news of a national scandal surrounding admissions procedures at top research universities in the U.S. is both disappointing and unsurprising. Families with incomes that would be the envy of most Americans are able to make donations — or offer bribes — to ensure their children’s enrollment at elite universities.

This is merely the latest example of how the upper class holds a sense of entitlement to higher education in the United States. Cheating the system is seen as inconvenient but necessary to maintaining a privileged status for a generation that has earned no such benefit. Undeserving students, who then find themselves in classrooms with peers who epitomize the value of hard work and study, are destined to repeat the failures of their parents. Institutions that ignore this obvious charade, or that are complicit partners in an illegal, immoral process, deserve to be held accountable.

Certainly there is value in attending and earning a degree from America’s best colleges and universities, including those named thus far in the scandal: Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, Wake Forest, the University of Texas, Southern Cal and UCLA. But is the value so much higher than the education available at other universities that criminal behavior is necessary?

The allegations laid out in the appropriately named “Operation Varsity Blues” are a sad reminder of the beliefs that some wealthy Americans and our society hold about higher education. The notion that some institutions are not good enough is divisive and dismissive of the great opportunities available at those schools. Recent news reports remind us that some view the entrance to the hallowed halls of elite institutions as more important than personal integrity and equity. The Brookings Institution’s Richard Reeves has long pointed out the troublesome nature of “legacy admissions,” in which elite colleges and universities admit the children of their alumni networks at alarmingly high rates. This practice perpetuates the norm of who goes to and thereby belongs in America’s most prestigious institutions of higher education. Ultimately, those most advantaged by the extra consideration of legacy admissions are students and families who neither need nor deserve any additional advantage.

But what so-called advantages do students receive from these institutions that are not available at hundreds of other colleges and universities? Why are parents, coaches and facilitators willing to commit criminal acts to move an affluent student’s application to the top of the pile? While pure greed motivates some to participate in the scheme, we cannot forget that privileged parents are buying more than a seat in a classroom. They are purchasing access to networks and relationships among the elite in our society. They are buying a safety net to ensure that their children can compete successfully against those who study more, work harder and play by the rules.

In December 2018, UNLV and UNR both joined the list of the nation’s top research universities, as designated by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. The 131 institutions on that list include nearly all of the universities named in the current college admission cheating scam.

While each of these institutions offers an opportunity to its students, we should especially recognize and reward the value our many R1 public universities provide to students from diverse economic backgrounds. Doing so would require a complete shift in the narrative, one where affluent families view state universities as a reasonable option for their children, and one where elite universities recognize a responsibility to serve the interests of all students.

Public universities offer students a real opportunity at upward mobility. As Reeves revealed, UNLV is unmatched in the Mountain West region in terms of taking students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and delivering an education that elevates their future earnings into the middle class.

And perhaps that is the most difficult part to swallow: Educators know that the millions of dollars exchanged in bribery for the benefit of affluent students could have made a life-changing difference if invested in the education of underrepresented students. Perhaps the money that will be recovered from guilty individuals should be redirected to such a higher purpose.

As an instructor at UNLV, I have the immense privilege of teaching and learning from students who are nothing like those associated with the admissions scandal.

My students worry about balancing employment with their education, qualifying for scholarships and internships, and maintaining their grades as first-generation college students. Among my class of future public policy scholars sit former Culinary Union members, firefighters, real estate professionals, paralegals and veterans, each bringing his or her earned, real-world experiences to the classroom. Their perspectives and their contributions to the learning environment are worth their weight in gold. I am confident they possess the knowledge and conviction to change the world.

UNLV students are a stark reminder of the reason why viewing elite schools as the only meaningful place for higher education is a problem. The despicable actions of those involved in the latest scandal draw attention away from the power of institutions like UNLV.

The most diverse public national university in the country is situated in the center of Las Vegas and is a first choice for many of the college-bound population in our region. And that is not because UNLV is conveniently located down the street. UNLV’s growth and success is due to its commitment to be a community-responsive, inclusive, and fair and equitable research and learning powerhouse that now sits at the same level as many of the most prestigious institutions in the nation.

R1 public universities are an asset to students from all walks of life, and thereby an asset to the future of our communities. Now is the time to acknowledge their value and recognize their accomplishments.

Caitlin Saladino is a doctoral candidate in public affairs at UNLV, and instructs courses as part of the Brookings public policy minor program. She serves as the director of strategic development and operations at Brookings Mountain West and the Lincy Institute.