Bribing Your Way to an Ivy

Thirty-three parents indicted for college admissions fraud

On Tuesday, March 12, thirty-three wealthy parents who paid for their children to be admitted into elite colleges, as well as the coaches who accepted these bribes, were exposed for their fraudulent behavior. It remains to be seen what the repercussions will be for those indicted, if any. But regardless of the consequences, this has exposed the often shady behavior of wealthy families attempting to get their children into college.

The parents, including people as famous as actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, committed fraud by working with the Edge College & Career Network, a “college preparatory” company founded by William Singer. In exchange for thousands of dollars from these parents, Singer falsified standardized test scores and bribed coaches to grant “athletic recruit” status to students, some of whom had never even played the sport they were admitted for.

Singer’s business guaranteed exact SAT and ACT test scores for the students. These scores were made in one of three ways. In one method, the students were told that they had to take the test in a separate room for some reason, and afterwards one of Singer’s crooked proctors would “correct” the exam to achieve the specific promised score. In another, someone else simply took the exam in the place of the student; and in the third, the proctor would aid the student in answering the questions. Likely in order to avoid suspicion, the scores he aimed for were decent, but not overly high.

Singer also convinced top athletic coaches to designate students as athletic recruits in order to guarantee their admission with lower grades and test scores than would be acceptable for standard admitants. These students were not, of course, star athletes. In some cases this consisted of simple bribery, in others, falsifying photographs as proof of athletic prowess.

Singer will be sentenced on June 19. Until then, he is free on $500,000 bail. The students who were accepted to colleges under false pretenses are not being charged, and neither are the universities themselves. The University of Southern California (USC), the main college implicated in the scandal, has said that it will deny future applicants connected to the fraudulent practices and will review current students admitted through these actions on a case by case basis.

This scandal has also sparked a conversation about the various legal ways that privileged students game the college admissions system to increase their chances. Reed student and Quest  editor Katherine Draves has had personal experience with the kinds of parents who work within the bounds of legality to greatly increase their children’s acceptance rates. Draves was raised in an affluent community where Ivy League acceptance mattered more than anything else. She said, “Students did anything to get a leg up even years in advance. People would pay $30,000 a year to send their children to reputable college preparatory high schools, with massive grade inflation and practically guaranteed good recommendation letters. If a student was getting lower than an A- in any class, private tutors were quickly hired.”

Draves added, “Multiple kids that I know went on ‘service trips’ in which they paid over $10,000 to take a few pictures with brown children for their Instagram, and a story for their admissions essays. Students did every extracurricular under the sun — which is easy when your mom (or more likely your nanny) drives you everywhere, cooks for you, runs your errands, and proofreads your homework.”

In this community, the advantages continued into the actual college process. “Families paid thousands of dollars to travel to visit schools and do on campus interviews. Most students saw an SAT or ACT tutor weekly for six months to a year to prep for their exams. Many even started tutoring before the PSAT to guarantee National Merit Scholarship status. Almost all students have private college counselors who usher them through the admission process. Counselors advise primarily on admissions essays and help with brainstorming, writing, and editing,” Draves said.

“Alumni and trustee connections were exploited the most. If a child was deferred or placed on a waitlist, parents would call everybody they know to put in a good word for their child. Also, people used their famous family friends to write recommendation letters — one girl I know got a recommendation letter from Bill Gates (gotta love those family connections).”

In light of the breaking news this week, Draves emphasized, “This scandal is not the problem, it is a symptom of the true problem: the entire system is broken.”

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