About the admissions scandal

An interesting thing happened last Tuesday. 50 people—including a college admissions consultant, SAT and ACT test proctors, university coaches, and wealthy parents—were charged with mail fraud, wire fraud, honest services fraud, and racketeering. Here’s a good rundown of all the people involved. This has been big news this week, and I assume you already know about it.

All week, while I’ve been on family vacation for Spring Break, I’ve been reading and thinking about the scandal. What do I want to say to current and prospective clients? To their parents? To Apply with Sanity readers? I have several things I want to say.

What they did is both illegal and wrong. I want to say this first and say it clearly. Faking a learning disability to get extra time on standardized tests is wrong and illegal. Cheating on the SAT or ACT is wrong and probably illegal. Bribing people—especially using a charity to execute the bribe—to dishonestly get something of value is wrong and illegal. Lying on college applications and/or financial aid forms is wrong and illegal. I don’t think it’s a waste of anyone’s time or tax dollars to prosecute this case. This is a big deal. I’m glad they got caught, and I hope others doing similar things also get caught.

However, please keep in mind…

This case represents a tiny number. There are around 20 million college students, and this case deals with 45 of them. Even if it turns out to be bigger, even ten times bigger, it’s still a drop in the bucket. This case is not representative of how college admissions consultants work. It’s not representative of how athletic coaches work. It’s not representative of how parents work. The story is so sensational exactly because it’s so far from normal.

It’s hard to know what to think about the students involved. Very little has been written about the students, and I don’t think any of them have made a public statement yet. Since their parents are charged with a crime and there’s an ongoing case, I doubt any of them will. Apparently a few of the students had no idea what was going on. In one of the recorded phone conversations, Rick Singer assured a father that his daughter wouldn’t know her test scores were fraudulent. It’s hard to believe, though, that none of the students knew what was going on.

Remember that it’s entirely conceivable they would get accepted without the bribes. I haven’t seen anything yet showing the kids were horrible students or slow thinkers. All the schools involved have very low acceptance rates—under 20%. These colleges get more qualified applicants than they can take, and they have to deny students who would do just fine. For these schools, it’s not a good assumption that didn’t get in means couldn’t get in. That’s true for anyone applying to U.S.C., Yale, Stanford, or Wake Forest. What these parents wanted and paid for was guaranteed acceptance to the schools. Because of the low acceptance rate and quality of the applicant pool, nobody has guaranteed acceptance to those schools. At least they’re not supposed to.

I see a silver lining in this. There’s a general assumption out there—you’ve probably seen it in the news this week—that wealthy parents have a perfectly legal way of bribing colleges to take their students: making donations to the college. While I can’t guarantee that a donation never helped an applicant, I do know that it doesn’t generally work this way. Elite colleges are rich colleges. Yale’s endowment is almost 30 billion dollars. Even a few million dollars isn’t worth it to them to take on a student who isn’t going to do well. Plus, Yale expects that any of their graduates can go on to make lots of money, so the prospect of future donations doesn’t really stand out to them. I talked this weekend with a friend of mine who works in fundraising for a university (not Yale). He told me “actually it’s much easier to make the call to a big donor and say sorry, Timmy didn’t qualify than it is a year later to call and say sorry, Timmy flunked out, or sorry, Timmy’s in jail.”

A few years ago the Washington Post ran a story about the “watch list” the advancement office at UVa keeps about big donors and their kids or grandkids who are applying. And while the advancement office did want the admissions office to be aware of the donations, the actual requests were pretty boring:

The 2011 list, for example, shows that one hopeful was initially marked as denied. Then an advancement officer scribbled a handwritten note on the tracking file: “$500k.” A typed notation said “must be on WL,” for wait list. A final handwritten note urged, “if at all possible A,” for accepted. The final decision on the applicant was not shown.

$500,000 for a courtesy wait list spot doesn’t make financial sense.

What I see as the silver lining in this week’s news is more evidence that donations are not bribes. Part of Singer’s sales pitch to the parents is that donations-as-bribes don’t work. In one phone call, he told a father that using the institutional advancement (i.e. big donations) “back door” doesn’t guarantee anything: “they’re just gonna give you a second look. My families want a guarantee."

Because admissions is so secretive, it’s hard to convince people that the wealthy don’t just buy their way into elite colleges. They don’t. And this crazy case gives some more evidence: why pay a million dollars in illegal bribes if a legal million dollar donation would do the trick? There are ways that wealthy families get an advantage in college admissions, and that will be this Thursday’s blog post topic. But for the most part, donations aren’t the legal bribes we often think they are.

So does this case worry me? Has it prompted me to do any soul searching as an Independent Educational Consultant? Does this change the way I think about things? Honestly, no. This wild and weird outlier has little relation to the everyday workings of college admissions. I’m glad they got caught, and I hope they are punished. But this isn’t normal. I know that some people smuggle drugs in pineapples, but it doesn’t change the way I think of fruit. I also know that some people cheat on college applications, but it doesn’t change the way I think of admissions.

Well, there are two aspects of this that do bother me. One is that some of the students were asked to fake learning disabilities in order to get extra time on ACT or SAT tests and to get the students into a testing room alone with the bribed proctor. If this case erodes trust in accommodations for students who truly need them, then that’s really bad. If it makes kids with legitimate needs have to jump through extra hoops or be denied services or accommodations because they’re not trusted, that is very, very bad. If you find yourself suspecting that someone is a cheat just because they have accommodations, please stop yourself immediately.

What worries me even more is a cynical view that cheating is normal, and that you have to cheat to get accepted to a good college. I think of this as the “Lance Armstrong defense.” Even as Armstrong was admitting to doping to win the Tour de France seven times, he still maintained that he wasn’t cheating, because he knew that all the other top riders were doping. He told Oprah Winfrey “I kept hearing I'm a drug cheat, I'm a cheat, I'm a cheater. I went in and just looked up the definition of cheat and the definition of cheat is to gain an advantage on a rival or foe that they don't have. I didn't view it that way. I viewed it as a level playing field.” If enough high school students come to believe that cheating is normal, and that you have to cheat not to get ahead, but just to have a level playing field because everyone else cheats, then that will eventually destroy the whole system. We can’t have that. And we don’t need that—most students don’t cheat to get into college, and there’s no good reason why they’d have to cheat.

I’m an associate member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association. Here is IECA’s statement on the scandal, which is worth reading.

Thanks for reading! Come back Thursday for more about wealth, privilege, and admissions. There are lots of ways to get regular updates from Apply with Sanity: like on Facebook and Twitter, and get the monthly newsletter. I love mail: comments and questions are welcome and appreciated.

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Photo by  Zoe Herring

Photo by Zoe Herring