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Ethical Bribing

Every year on Christmas Eve, Santa Claus would drive through my home town sitting on top of a firetruck waving to people lined up on the sidewalks as he drove by. My father and I made it a tradition to hold hands and huddle together in the cold night air, as we eagerly awaited Santa to pass by my house. Santa never stopped for anyone along his 3-hour ride, but he would stop and hop down off the firetruck for me. I felt super special. To be honest, as a child, Santa terrified me. We teach our kids to be cautious of strangers yet, I was supposed to be ok with Santa Claus, even though he seemed to change his size and appearance at every instance on every street corner and shopping center. Never the less, I was the envy of all the kids in the neighborhood because Santa would stop at my house.

When I was older, I asked my father how he managed to get Santa to stop just for me. He smiled and said, “A bottle of whiskey and a $100.00 bill.”

From then on, whenever I was hoping a decision would go my way that was under the control of another individual, my father would open his wallet, hand me a $100.00 bill and point to the liquor cabinet. He was jokingly implying that the Santa bribing method was foolproof and would work on everyone. He was joking that I should use it to influence people to get the outcome I wanted. We would have a good laugh and I would keep the $100. This routine always helped defuse my stress over the uncertainty of any situation that I was waiting for closure on. Oddly enough, I never spent the cash he gave me.

Fast forwarding to the present, I have to admit I was not totally surprised when the news was flooded with stories about rich and famous people bribing school officials, falsifying documents and cheating on tests to get their children into brand name schools. I just didn’t realize what a lucrative business it was! I know wealthy parents can afford to get their children access to opportunities that will make their kids shine on college applications, as well as pay for professional advisers to help their kids embellish their college applications. However, I was surprised that parents would intentionally and grossly falsify credentials, pay off people to lie or have someone take the standardized tests for their kids. Why would they go to these extremes? Did they not believe their kids were good enough? Or would they have been embarrassed or feel less than their fellow parent peers, if their kids didn’t get into those brand-named schools, while their friends’ children did? Did they not have a big enough check book to buy a building for the school to bribe the school ethically to accept their kid? And yes, I know using the word “ethically” and “bribe” is some kind of oxymoron. The point is that we see it happening every day. We are only surprised by the news of bribing to gain admissions into schools because of the excessive costs it fetched and the willingness of parents to do it.

Would people have a problem if someone donated $70 Million to a school with a promise to gain acceptance for their kid, if it came along with a documented commitment to financially support the education of 200 other underprivileged or middle-class kids at the same institution? Probably not, because it was open and declared up front. However, the poor rich kid would most likely be scrutinized that he/she/they only got in because mama and papa wrote a big enough check and not because they were smart.

Here’s the problem: The pressure to get into the brand name schools (notice, I don’t say best schools!) is overwhelming. For most students, getting into a top ranked school is coupled with suffocating thoughts of debt. We live in a culture where the brand name of the institution means more than the quality of the education. Students who work part-time jobs and attend schools they can afford are super successful. Regardless of what school a person attends, it is the individual who ultimately gets out of their education, what they put into it.

While diversity within academic institutions is the politically correct word of the day, we see no diversity of institutions represented in the country’s academic leadership or national science and engineering boards. Meanwhile, everyone scratches their heads wondering why higher education is so out of touch with the public and the majority of the population. Cases of mental illness and student suicides are exploding. Schools race to hire mental health counselors in an attempt to stop the tsunami of cases caused by stress and pressure placed on these young people.

Further exasperating the situation is the caste system that is metastasizing in academia. Faculty employed in academia openly discriminate against community colleges and online degree providers. These programs are dismissed as lower-class, bargain basement education. To them, the only thing worse than a community college education is an online degree.

The most wonderful engineers and impactful citizens I have met have earned their education at a diversity of institutions. As obvious as it may sound, you get out of education what you put into it. Going to a brand name school does not make one a better engineer, than someone else who went to a community college or earned their degree online. And where an individual earns a degree certainly does not mean that one person possesses more upstanding character than the other, even though some schools would like you to think it does. Yes, quality facilities may matter and access to latest technology matters, but each school, even online education providers, have their own way of ensuring quality delivery of education.

Every school has a network, and it is access to those networks that people really want to buy into. Unfortunately, if only the brand name schools have a presence in the upper echelon positions and political appointments, it makes it really hard for others, not in that clique, to get equal access. This is especially true for underrepresented groups of individuals. We have diversity initiatives in schools to bring in students from all different backgrounds, gender and economic status, but look at the faculty. Have any of them attained their degrees from the cheapo depot of schools or online? Most likely not.

So, how does this all fit in with the rich and famous parents bribing their kids’ way into brand name schools? It shows that education needs a public awareness make-over. It shows that, while valuing diversity within institutions is a song sang at every institution, it’s being sung out of tune and out of tempo. We need to value the diversity of the many kinds of institutions and the hard-working talented individuals that graduate from them.

The educational paths successful people took required resilience and resourcefulness. Many work multiple jobs, supported families and learned along the way how to juggle life, work and parenting. Going to school is not a place to go just to “find yourself”, it’s too expensive. It’s a place to be educated and gain the competencies to build the foundations for a career that will hopefully enrich lives of the individual and future generations.

Sorry to shock you, but Institutions are actually influenced by the giving potential and public stature of a candidate’s family. If they tell you it plays no role, they are giving you an alternative “truth”. It’s happening, so why not make it ethical by opening the bidding and having their kid understand that they are part of the philanthropic deal to help sponsor other middle-income/low-income, diversity students?

If institutions stopped proclaiming that students get accepted solely based on their own personal merit and credentials, and instead, had an open incentive program (you pay for your kid plus a premium to support many more strong students that can’t afford to come), then the institutions would be getting those millions of dollars to support the much needed financial aid for deserving students and avoid the high priced bribing scams. Perhaps then, schools would truly have some diversity.

The opinions presented here are solely those of the author and not of the IEEE or the author’s employer. If you have any complaints or difference of opinion, you are welcome to write it on the back of a one-hundred dollar bill and send it to the IEEE Foundation.

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