Cheating to get into College

March 13, 2019

Bribes and forgeries involving famous actresses, high-powered business executives, and a Stanford sailing coach—these sound like the ingredients for a tantalizing E! True Hollywood Story. Yet, strangely, we are merely referencing the day’s higher education headlines which contained one of the most publicized college admissions scandals in recent memory. In this article, we will touch on the scandal itself, however, our primary intent is to explore broader implications for the world of higher education admissions in the wake of these bombshell reports.

The scandal in a nutshell

On March 12, 2019, Federal prosecutors charged 50 individuals, including 33 wealthy parents of college-bound teens with committing an assortment of criminal acts, all in the name of getting their children accepted into elite colleges. The accused individuals, which include Hollywood stars and business leaders, hired an educational consultant named William Rick Singer who, using a network of corrupt athletic coaches, college administrators, and SAT proctors, facilitated bribes and orchestrated illegal activity which resulted in under-qualified applicants receiving acceptances from some of the top institutions in the country. Among the highlights of the multifaceted chicanery on display include:

  • Forgeries that included photo shopping clients’ faces on images of real high school athletes to procure admissions through the athletics department.
  • Bribing college coaches and athletic directors with large sums of cash. One student who never played soccer suddenly became a Yale soccer recruit for a cost of 1.2 million dollars.
  • Paying SAT proctors to give students answers and/or make corrections to their exams to ensure a particular predetermined score.
  • Obtaining a false learning disability diagnosis to gain extended time and access to cheating proctors.

The schools involved in this scandal are Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, the University of Southern California, Wake Forest, UCLA, and the University of Texas. You can read more of the seedy specifics just about anywhere on the web, but we want to provide our readers with some expert analysis from those who study the world of higher education admissions on what this sordid affair could mean moving forward.

Is attending an elite college really worth a seven-figure bribe?

If we take a moment to consider this entire scandal through the “alien lands on Earth and tries to figure out why humans act as they do” lens, you’d have to figure that the extraterrestrial visitors might first ask, “Why would successful people commit felonies and spend obscene amounts of money to get into a particular college when there are literally thousands of other reputable schools for their children to attend?”

According to Dr. James Hearn, a professor in the University of Georgia’s Institute of Higher Education, despite the rarity of an event like this, the “hotly contested, measurement-oriented competition for admission into highly selective institutions creates fertile ground for cheating.” Past academic research, such as the work of Dale and Krueger, has debunked the notion that attending an elite school is necessary for future success, but this hasn’t stopped parents from believing that their son or daughter’s admission into an Ivy League school is a matter of life and death. Hearn says that “the marginal economic and professional payoff of attending an ‘elite’ institution, as opposed to attending a less selective institution, is much smaller than most people assume” and that students actually “grow and succeed best when they find a good institutional fit.”

Dr. Hearn’s message is certainly one that is near and dear to our hearts here at College Transitions and also one of the themes of our critically-acclaimed book, The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process.

What’s the difference between this and buying your way in through a donation?

Clearly, from a purely legal perspective, one way of “buying your way into a university” is legal while the methods used by the 50 indicted individuals were felonious acts. Yet, an examination of this question from more of an ethical/moral perspective is quite a bit murkier and worthy of discourse.

What does this say about the meritocratic status of elite college admissions in general when Ivy and Ivy-equivalent colleges already grant a significant advantage to legacy students, those whose parents or other family members have attended a given school. Studies have found that legacies are 45% more likely to gain acceptance into top institutions and is equivalent to a 160 point gain on the SATs. Famously, Jared Kushner’s father made a timely donation of $2.5 million to Harvard University in 1998, months before his son was offered admission despite what were reported to be well below-average academic bona fides.

Part of the fallout of this scandal may be a public reexamination and discussion of legacy admissions policies and role of money exchanges (even legal ones) in the admissions process.

Will we see increased oversight of athletic departments at elite schools?

A Stanford rowing coach and the athletic director of USC were among the prominent players in this story, which raises the question—do athletic departments need to be watched more closely? Dr. Welch Suggs, a sportswriter and an associate professor at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia, believes that overall, “coaches are often the best admissions representatives a college could have” as they “get to know way more about the lives and personalities of the students they’re recruiting than a regional rep could hope to do.” Acknowledging that there were clearly a few bad apples, Suggs believes that the vast majority of coaches remain trustworthy but does suggest that additional documentation of a student’s actual athletic progress may need to take the place of lists of awards/distinctions which could easily be faked.

How might this scandal impact admission policies at selective/elite colleges? 

Lori Laughlin, aka Rebecca Donaldson-Katsopolis, and former Desperate Housewife, Felicity Huffman, may have stolen the headlines, but the more lasting and insidious aspects of this whole sordid affair is direct impact it could have on future college applicants.

Dr. Suggs worries that schools may “make applications harder by requiring applicants to provide documentation of all the things they put within their activities.” Additionally, they may “become more suspicious of requests for accommodations for learning disabilities, which is going to be a real burden for those with actual learning challenges.”

Dr. Noble Jones, the 2019 winner of the American Education Research Association’s Outstanding Dissertation Award, highlighted the fact that “admissions officers strive to make fully-informed decisions, but in reality they don’t have the time, energy, or resources to fully inform themselves of every single applicant’s contextual background.” Rather, admissions officers are “dependent on data as provided by other stakeholders” and their decisions “can only be as good as the information that is available to them.” Jones expects the fallout for students to potentially include “longer lines, deeper applicant pools, more scrutiny, (and) enhanced bureaucratic procedures.”

Will there be changes to SAT/ACT procedures?

Most assuredly, College Board as well as ACT public relations officials are formulating their response as we write. As Dr. Jones told us, it is now clear that “we’ve all placed undue faith in the sanctity of standardized testing” and changes will undoubtedly be on the horizon. This could include both increased proof of identity required on the part of test-takers and additional oversight of on-site proctors who clearly had too much free reign.

A Statement from College Transitions about Ethics in Admissions Consulting

Without question, the horrific and criminal actions of Mr. Singer do not in any way represent the field of private admissions consulting. Reputable and honest firms like College Transitions never deviate from the ethical standards set forth by organizations like the National Association for College Admission Counseling and the Independent Educational Consultants Association, of which we are members. Nationwide, 99.9% of parents who work with a private counselor realize that they are in no way “buying” admission for their child but are rather hiring an expert to assist their student in identifying “good fit” colleges and then striving to put forth an application that represents their true best self. Any firm that “guarantees” admission such as Mr. Singer’s can only offer such promises if they engaged in unethical conduct.