Letter to the Editor: The real lesson of the college admissions debacle

May 16, 2019, 1:13 a.m.

Dear Editor,

After reading about Stanford’s reaction to the college admissions scandal in your newspaper, I have come to the unhappy conclusion that the Stanford administration is entirely missing the point. The primary reason ordinary Americans are mad at Stanford is not because a few people got in with fake credentials, but rather that the scandal underlined the existing systemic biases in admissions towards the wealthy. Any real response to the scandal must include a serious reevaluation of Stanford’s admission practices. Such a rethink would also benefit Stanford by creating an admissions system that better accomplishes Stanford’s core admissions objectives of finding and shaping the brightest minds in our generation. Although there are many ways in which our current admissions system implicitly favors the affluent (Can’t we agree to abolish alumni preferences already?), a key part of any reform should be the special process for admitting student athletes.

Stanford’s decision to create admissions fast-tracks for traditionally elite sports like sailing undermines Stanford’s already woeful economic diversity. While elite sports have in recent years attempted to diversify, elite sports continue to remain out of reach for many students from schools without the budget for such pursuits. Stanford can and should continue to recognize excellence in unusual or difficult-to-enter fields, but the merits of such applications rightfully belong in the same admissions pool as everyone else. At a university where more students come from families in the top one percent of incomes than from families in the bottom 40 percent, wealth shouldn’t be an all but essential predicate for accessing special admissions paths.

Furthermore, if Stanford’s goal in undergraduate admissions is to create a diverse student body made up of the most promising future leaders and innovators, no sound reason exists for favoring athletes from a handful of specific sports in the admissions process. I will be the first to volunteer that many recruited athletes are exceedingly brilliant, hardworking, creative, honest and overflowing with other virtues. Indeed, the many recruited student athletes I had as classmates and friends at Stanford generally possessed far more potential for greatness than I could ever hope to claim. However, if Stanford is trying to recruit the best of our generation, there is no inherent reason to systemically favor rowers over dancers or football players over dodgeball players.

I would also argue that recruiting student athletes through a separate admissions process does a disservice to the recruited athletes. Although many of us are accepted to Stanford in part because of demonstrated skill or potential in a given area, most students change their extracurricular activities and passions during their undergraduate career without feeling any serious obligation to continue with their original field. When athletes are given special admissions consideration so that they can engage in a specific extracurricular activity upon arrival (their sport), it is only natural they feel a duty to play. While most athletes cherish the camaraderie and joy of playing with their team and do so with no adverse consequences, that is not always the case. As a former hearing panel chair for the Office of Community Standards, I have reluctantly concluded that the intense mental and time demands of student athletics, combined with a sometimes unhealthy sense of obligation to a student’s sport, creates a dynamic where even good students can feel the need to make bad decisions. While the vast majority of student athletes don’t engage in academic misconduct during the entirety of their Stanford career and misplaced priorities can tempt non-athletes to break the rules as well, the Stanford community should constantly strive to create an environment that supports integrity. No student should feel that Stanford cares more about what they are going to do in the four years after admission than Stanford cares about what they are going to do in the forty years after graduation.

It seems remarkable that for a university that celebrates creative disruption and fetishizes progress, Stanford’s admissions framework is all too similar to that of its hide-bound Ivy League peers. The Stanford community can and should call on the Stanford administration to do better. Of course, if the Stanford administration can’t think of a better way to do admissions, I have no doubt my fellow alumni will be able to think of a better way to make a positive social impact with our donations.


Caleb Smith, ’17 MA ’18

Contact Caleb Smith at caleb17 ‘at’ alumni.stanford.edu.

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