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College admissions scandal: Will anything disrupt higher education?

Actress Felicity Huffman arrives with her brother Moore Huffman Jr., at federal court Monday, May 13, 2019, in Boston, where she is scheduled to plead guilty to charges in a nationwide college admissions bribery scandal. Steven Senne, Associated Press

Do you believe actress Felicity Huffman got off with a light sentence — two weeks in prison, a $30,000 fine and community service — for paying someone to rig SAT answers so her daughter could be admitted to the acting school of her choice?

Or maybe you believe the sentence fit the crime, or perhaps that prison is too harsh.

I’m not going to shed much light on these questions, other than to pose another one. If Huffman, or the 51 other people indicted in the college admissions scandal uncovered by an FBI probe known as “Operation Varsity Blues,” had instead donated richly, and legally, to the school of their choice, and their children had been given preference on that basis, would it have been much different?

The obvious initial answer is yes. The 52 defendants were charged with bribing, cheating on tests and falsely asserting their children were athletes in order to gain admissions. These are dishonest, criminal acts that, allowed to proceed, would destroy the integrity of the nation’s system of higher education.

At the same time, however, let’s not pretend that many prestigious universities treat all applicants the same, regardless of wealth, celebrity or benevolence.

In his now 13-year-old book, “The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates,” Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Golden details how the wealthy and influential work the system to the benefit of their children.

The book’s introduction details how two rival politicians, Al Gore and former Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, had sons admitted to Harvard and Princeton, respectively.

“Both were middling students who preferred partying to homework and the company of jocks to scholars,” the book says. “Their academic records — and, in the teenage Albert Gore III’s case, brushes with authority — would ordinarily have destined them for second-tier colleges. Yet both were admitted ahead of thousands of stellar candidates to their first and only choices, two of the nation’s best and most selective universities.”

My point isn’t to draw a connecting line between preferential admissions practices and the college admissions scandal. In addition to lying and cheating, the defendants in “Operation Varsity Blues” didn’t provide anything of value to the schools in question. Distinguished alumni at least make donations or lend prestige to their alma maters through their achievements or election to high office.

But these persistent practices, coupled with rising tuition and a nationwide student loan burden that now tops $1.6 trillion, challenge the notion of any sort of egalitarianism when it comes to opportunities based on merit, and that’s not good for the country.

The overriding question is whether anything will come along to disrupt this age-old system, or the dominance of legacy institutions whose diplomas carry enormous weight in the marketplace.

A decade ago, I was writing about how free online courses and a tech industry that valued learning, innovation and creative energy over degrees would disrupt a tradition-bound system of higher education.

I’m still waiting.

Meanwhile, a number of smart people are seeing signs of change on the horizon.

Aaron M. Renn, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, wrote a piece last year that identified six forces that could change higher education as we know it. These included the high costs of tuition and the student-debt burden, the availability of online courses, and a “credentialing cartel” the tech industry continues to challenge. It also included an interesting twist on the coming population bust, which I have outlined in previous columns. Overall enrollment will soon plunge, which could challenge the existence of some colleges.

Ray Schroeder wrote a piece for insidehighered.com that said “microcredentialing” could help to raise the profile of online courses that provide the “communication, leadership and social skills that businesses say our graduates lack.”

Writing for Forbes.com, contributor Brandon Busteed wrote earlier this year about a study that suggests companies will hire talented students directly out of high school and then pay for their college education. He predicted as many as a third of all traditional students will do this during the next decade.

“This shift will go down as the biggest disruption in higher education,” he said.

If they come, these types of disruptions wouldn’t likely end attempts at cheating — a practice probably as old as the human race. Nor would they put an end to the oversized influences of the rich and famous.

But they could make higher education a little more accessible and fair to everyone else. Ultimately, that also could make traditional efforts to game the system seem all the more pathetic.