You've probably heard of the "Operation Varsity Blues" investigation which resulted in rich and famous people like Lori Loughlin, Felicity Huffman and the Mossimo guy going to prison. Turns out paying bribes to guarantee admission for their children into prestigious schools is just a bit illegal. Unacceptable: Privilege, Deceit & the Making of the College Admissions Scandal by Melissa Korn and Jennifer Levitz goes beyond the headlines to report how these affluent parents found themselves serving federal time.
The book revolves around William Rick Singer's schemes to sneak well-to-do students past the admission departments of elite universities such as UCLA and USC. The college consultant described three ways to be admitted to a highly selective school:
- the front door in which you submit your application and hope you get in.
- the back door in which you (or rather, your parents) donate a ton of money and hope you get a second look.
- the side door.
I should point out that I was admitted to UCLA via the "front door" as was my wife and a number of our friends. Meanwhile, USC has long been known as the "University of Spoiled Children" because of its reputation as a school for rich students who get in via the "back door". But "side door" schemes don't fit the stereotypes. All they require is that the school be desirable enough for people who have the money to find the cracks in the process.
One side door is athletics. Big-time sports like football and basketball bring in plenty of money, but smaller sports like tennis, rowing, soccer, sailing, water polo and volleyball struggle to get funding. Schools with decentralized finances create incentives for coaches to raise funds for their sports. Thanks to Title IX schools are required to give female athletes opportunities to participate, but women's sports tend to not be as profitable as men's basketball and football. So there's the motive.
Coaches also have the means to get students admitted without going through the rigorous process non-athletes must navigate. The reason is that schools want their sports programs to be competitive (if only as a recruiting tool) so they give coaches autonomy in who they recruit. While there might still be an academic achievement bar to clear, sports recruits don't compete with the general population for admission. If the crew coach says he wants to bring in a student to be a cox on the women's eight, he can flag her without worrying about the admissions office asking a lot of questions.
You might have already spotted a catch in the plan: what happens when these recruits turn up for practice and can't actually play the sport they were recruited for? It would be awkward for scholarship athletes, but remember that these students don't need help paying for school.1 They are walk-ons who need never walk onto the field, court or pool.2 If anyone asks, they can always claim to be injured.
To keep admissions offices in the dark, Singer's team created fake athletic resumes for their clients. For instance, a non-sailor was awarded invented sailing accomplishments in order to get admitted to Stanford. According to the authors of Unacceptable, some of the teens had photo sessions pretending to play, say, water polo in the backyard infinity pool. In other cases, photos were simply taken off the internet and doctored. It seems possible some of these students didn't even know their parents had conspired with Singer to manufacture a fake athletic past.3
Another "side door" was straight up cheating on SAT and ACT admissions tests. In the beginning, the scheme was to have someone else show up to the testing center. But a separate scandal made that scheme harder to pull off. That didn't stop Singer. As a workaround, he found two exam administrators (one in Houston and the other in southern California) who were willing to be bribed to turn a blind eye to cheating. In some cases, Singer's ringer, Mark Riddell, fed answers to the test takers. In other cases, Riddell simply corrected wrong answers with an eraser and #2 pencil after the test was done. According to the authors, some parents didn't want their children to know their scores had been faked since that would hurt the student's self confidence.
I took my SAT at my own high school and I was assigned a testing location for the ACT, since my school didn't offer that test. So how could Singer's clients use his fraudulent test stations? Turns out students with diagnosed learning disabilities can obtain special accommodations for standardized tests, including extra time, private sessions and flexibility of test location. As long as the parents can concoct a reason (wedding or bar mitzvah, for instance) their child would be allowed to take the test at the site of their choosing.4 Best of all, since 2003 colleges aren't notified that these accommodations have been granted.
But what if the student doesn't have a learning disability? That's the easiest (and cheapest) part of the operation. If you know the right psychologist, you can get a (fake) diagnosis for a few thousand dollars. Students with real learning disabilities usually need to get help from their school to obtain these accommodations and there's no guarantee via that path.
And a guarantee seems to be the point. These incredibly rich parents are used to just paying money to get what they want. And what they want, if Unacceptable is accurate, is to tell their friends their children go to a brand name school. It's a mindset that doesn't understand the stress and uncertainty of the traditional college admission process. Even donating a bunch of money directly to a school can't ensure their children will be admitted (though it does help, of course).
Perhaps just as important, these parents didn't want their friends and children knowing about the influence they had. Reportedly one parent was angry to learn his child had become suspicious about the test scheme. Unlike making a large donation to get a building named after them (with an understanding it would help in the admission process) these parents "donated" money in less public ways.5 Maintaining the illusion of raising high-achieving children was worth the price.
At the highest levels, the admissions system thrives on uncertainty. You can read about it every day on College Confidential's Chance Me forum.6 Students (or parents worried about their students) want to know if a bad grade or a less-than-perfect test score will block them from being admitted to the school they've set their heart on. They want to know if their extra circulars help. Does being a competitive fencer help if the school doesn't have a fencing program? Should I retake the SAT one more time?
Unacceptable does a good job explaining the various schemes and how the government built its case. It also delves into the lives of hard-working athletes whose images were stolen, but didn't get into these elite schools themselves. It's a striking contrast to the spoiled children who can't get motivated to pretend to play the sport that helped them get admitted. Still, I'm not sure that's the crux of the problem.
For all the importance people place on what schools students can get into, we seem to be missing the fundamental purpose of higher education. Under all of the pomp and circumstance, college is a rite of passage. It is the way teenagers journey to adulthood. For the rich and/or famous people who paid for their children to enter through the side door, college admission had been transmogrified into a certificate of parental excellence.
The striking thing about the figures in Unacceptable is the lengths they go to preserving their image without ever (apparently) examining the person behind it. I stopped being surprised at their hubris or appalled at their lies. In the end, I just felt pity for parents who don't have the courage to let their children succeed (or fail) on their own. Going to college is supposed to be about forging your own path, but how can that happen when your parents won't let you taste disappointment? To quote G. K. Chesterton out of context:
The [parenting] ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.
I did find one student who recieved a scholarship. He was Canadian and therefore would have paid much higher tuition than California students. But the scholarship only covered a quarter of the tuition according to the LA Times. ↩
Allusion to Jesus noted. ↩
In one case, a student innocently mentioned being able to take the ACT at home because he was sick. That isn't allowed, so it raised the suspicions of other parents and a rival college coach. The whole thing was an elaborate cover to keep the child of the cheating parents from knowing the truth that Riddell was taking the real test for him in Houston. ↩
The money was still nominally a donation and parents even deducted the cost on their taxes. Whether they believed this was real or properly understood it was a bribe seems to vary by person. ↩
Full disclosure: I'm a Community Manager for College Confidential. ↩