A Quest for College Cash
Demystifying the admissions process in a new prime-time reality show
The Donald may have pulled back the veil on the corporate boardroom, but a new reality show called The Scholar , premiering June 6 on ABC, will boldly go into another, equally mysterious inner sanctum--the enigmatic world of the college admissions office.
The premise is simple: Ten bright-eyed high school seniors, veterans of the essay-filled slog that is the admissions process, will live in a house together--a la The Real World --as they compete for a full-ride scholarship worth up to $240,000. (Four of them will also walk away with $50,000 prizes.) The students are as diverse a group as can be conjured up for prime-time TV: Max lives in a rough neighborhood in Oakland, Calif.; Scot, a black belt in tae kwon do, has been home-schooled his entire life; Milana, a Russian immigrant, wants to find a cure for cancer. All are high achievers (the lowest grade-point average in the group is a 3.9), and all need financial help to go to the elite schools--Harvard and Columbia are both mentioned--to which they've been admitted.
Apart from the rollicking good time putting 10 brainy 17- and 18-year-olds in one house is sure to provide, the purpose of the show, producers maintain, is decidedly high-minded: to "demystify" the murky admissions process. As the students compete in six episodes filled with leadership contests, school-spirit competitions, and Math Olympiad-style brainteasers (think cryptograms and stick puzzles), they're evaluated by a "scholarship committee" of three admissions officers from elite universities. How do they pick who wins? Producers won't reveal details--only one episode has been released to the press--but they insist the show will help viewers see how selective schools really operate. Says Shannon Meairs, one of the show's two creators and a former Pepperdine University admissions officer: "Every parent in America wants to know what happens behind closed doors."
The Scholar 's timing is certainly good. College anxiety seems to rise ever higher each year, as do college price tags--total costs now average $11,354 a year at public schools and $27,516 at privates. But admissions experts outside the show--in, um, the "real" real world--say they don't know if a reality show, however noble its intentions, can possibly capture the subtleties of the actual admissions process ("Are they reading essays and wading through transcripts?" is a common refrain).
Sticker shock. And in some cases, experts worry about the show's implicit message--that the cost of college is threatening kids' dreams. "When Max got accepted into Columbia, we saw the tuition, and it was $47,000 a year," worries one parent, a high school teacher, in the first episode. "We were very concerned because it cost what I make a year." But at most elite colleges, needy students never pay anything close to the sticker price. In fact, at Ivies like Columbia (where the actual tuition and room and board is closer to $41,000), a family making $47,000 a year would typically pay around $11,800 after financial aid. "If the message is 'These places are unaffordable unless you hit the jackpot,' that's really tacky and inaccurate," says Gordon Winston, a professor of economics at Williams College. ( The Scholar's producers say that in later episodes, the show will address the fact that kids at the same school pay different prices.)
To its credit, The Scholar does seem to try to toe a wonky line, dribbling admissions truisms throughout the show. "Brains," as the host puts it in the first episode, "is just one part of this competition." Indeed, one of the scholarship judges--a Columbia admissions officer--solemnly intones: "We're looking at things like creativity, intellectual depth, and ethics." And while in real life, the admissions process never comes down to a pop quiz on 19th- and 20th-century literature, the show does capture some of its intricacies.
Even if The Scholar doesn't live up to its loftiest goals, it may succeed in luring viewers the old-fashioned way. "College is more than just about academics," the narrator says at one point, before flashing to an image of two contestants cuddling. "It's also about social awakening." Brainy it may be. But it's still reality TV.
This story appears in the June 6, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.