In a scandal that not only rocked the United States but also shocked parents and students in China, U.S. officials have charged dozens of well-heeled parents, including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, over a multimillion-dollar scheme to cheat college admissions standards.
A teenager who did not play soccer magically became a star soccer recruit at the respected Yale University after her parents paid US$1.2 million.
A high school student was enrolled at the University of Southern California after he was falsely categorized as to have a learning disability so he could take his test with a complicit proctor who would make sure he got the right score. His parents paid at least US$50,000.
These were part of the cases exposed by U.S. federal prosecutors on March 12 when they charged 50 people in a brazen scheme to buy admission to Yale, Stanford and other big-name universities.
The cases show that even in the United States, which is thought to have more systems in place to curb corruption than some other countries, people can still go to great lengths to cut corners or cheat their way into prestigious places. When the wealthy or the powers that be successfully cheat the system for their children, they also force other hard-working students out of a chance to study at a university they deserved.
U.S. prosecutors’ allegations struck a chord among Chinese parents and students because in China, college admissions are no less competitive than in the United States, and there have been calls in China to give universities full power in selecting freshmen without heavily relying on the results of the National College Entrance Examinations (NCEE).
Admittedly, there are many drawbacks in the over-reliance on NCEE results in college admissions. For example, it turns students into examination machines, making rote learning, rather than creative study, reign in primary schools and high schools. A system heavily relying on a single set of exams also discourages students from developing in a more all-rounded way, such as taking on volunteering and leadership roles outside of the campus, doing more physical activities and developing interpersonal skills.
Previously students could receive bonus points if they won some kinds of awards, and as a result, some parents paid their way to obtaining such awards for their children, in scandals like those exposed recently in the United States. Most of such bonus points have been canceled, leading to an even more open and transparent admission system.
While the Chinese college admission system has been tweaked in different reforms over the years to reduce the shortcomings, the NCEE results remain the dominant factor in deciding whether a student is qualified to go to college and which university he/she should be enrolled at. Many still regard this one of the most fair and transparent systems in China, enabling students from disadvantaged families to climb the social ladder through hard work.
Although the current college admission system in China is not perfect, a cancellation of NCEE or a significant downsizing of NCEE factor in the enrollment system will be disastrous, which will most likely lead to a less fair and transparent system as money and power will always try to find a way to hold sway. The U.S. admission scandals have sounded new alarms.
With the 2019 NCEE approaching in less than three months, let’s keep our fingers crossed to hope for successful exams for the millions of students who have come a long way to fight for a better opportunity for their lives.
(The author is head of the Shenzhen Daily News Desk.)