A Massive College Admissions Cheating Scandal Gets People Talking

by Diana Drake

This week, the U.S. Department of Justice went public with its investigation into “Operation Varsity Blues,” an ongoing scandal to allegedly influence admissions decisions at several elite universities that is considered the biggest such fraud of its kind ever prosecuted in the U.S.

Federal prosecutors say that 50 people took part in the scheme, including wealthy CEOs and famous Hollywood actors, most of who paid William Rick Singer, CEO of a college admissions prep company called The Key,  thousands if not hundreds of thousands of dollars to help their children get accepted to the likes of Yale, the University of Southern California, and Stanford, to name a few. Singer didn’t just use his influence. He is, in part, accused of bribing sports coaches and standardized test officials, to provide unfair admissions advantages to the student applicants of his wealthy clients. “There were essentially two kinds of fraud that Singer was selling,” U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said. “One was to cheat on the SAT or ACT, and the other was to use his connections with Division I coaches and use bribes to get these parents’ kids into school with fake athletic credentials.”

News of the cheating scandal has led to conversation and debate around everything from the advantages of wealth and privilege to issues of race and access. Many are questioning the fairness of the entire college admissions process, prompting some university officials to do damage control. Eric Furda, dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania (which was not one of the schools named in the scandal) and a familiar voice on higher-ed admissions through his podcast, “The Process,” responded to the breaking news by saying, “We believe we have a culture of compliance here and have put in place appropriate policies and practices to prevent the kind of unlawful and unethical activity reported in the news today. But it is always important to be reminded that this kind of situation does arise, so that we can be vigilant in our efforts going forward.”

‘One of the Most Important and Defining Moments’

Above all, Operation Varsity Blues has sparked outrage, especially among the current pool of diligent, if not somewhat anxious, college applicants. “I’m furious,” fumed Stephanie Cook, a high school junior at Fort Worth Country Day in Texas, U.S., who has begun her application process to schools like the University of Pennsylvania. “There cannot be two systems to get into college — those that are honest and play by the rules versus those that are dishonest and can enter through the back door or side door! This case has brought to the forefront that college is more about brand and therefore diluting the core values of academic learning and growth. The pressure of wanting acceptance to a brand-name college is causing a level of irrationality and unethical behavior that has led to fraud. There needs to be clear ethical standards and a paradigm shift that success is defined by strong moral values, experiences and learning opportunities.”

Still others were less stunned and more pragmatic. “I was not surprised by the fact that there was cheating going on in the college admissions process,” said Jacob Chang, 19 and sophomore at the University of Chicago. Chang, who graduated from Princeton Day School, a private high school in Princeton, N.J., is responsible for media relations and research at JUV Consulting. JUV is a marketing firm run by high school and college students that helps companies and brands successfully engage Generation Z, including kids between the ages of 10 and 21.

“For a huge proportion of Gen Z, the college admissions process is perhaps one of the most important and defining moments of their youth,” added Chang. “Writing the Common App essay and waiting for release days in order to hear back from their dream schools causes immense anxiety that no 18 year old should have to feel. Many parents also join this process, hoping that elite college admissions will make them look like good parents and give them something to brag about. As a result, it is inevitable that people with the means will try to make this process as straightforward and seamless as possible for their families.”

Similar opinions and emotionally charged reactions to the admissions scandal have been lighting up social and traditional media channels all week. Clearly, this topic has touched a national nerve.

“I feel strongly that their degrees should be rescinded, and for those who are currently students, I think they should be expelled.” — Shaun Harper

It’s worth reflecting on how much attention this story has captured, noted Julian Jonker, an assistant professor of legal studies and business ethics at Wharton who spoke about the scandal on the Knowledge@Wharton radio show on SiriusXM. “It picks up two themes that define public life at the moment,” Jonker said. “The one is a pervasive distrust of elite institutions, and the second is a belief that money is the universal solvent. If you look at the commentary in the media, this is sparking a conversation about whether this is just the tip of the iceberg. To use Singer’s metaphor, there is a front door through which students come by showing their test scores and their ability in other fields of life. There’s a back door through which some wealthy students have been able to come by making donations to colleges. And Singer was providing a side door for them. The conversation at the moment is about whether the existence of that side door shows something about the front door and how that works, like being able to pay for tutoring and test prep, [giving] the wealthy a systematic advantage in admissions.” Jonker was quick to add that Singer’s “side door” is ethically distinctive, because bribing test-admissions and college officials to gain admission is fraudulent and illegal.

Shaun Harper, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education and Marshall School of Business, and founder of the USC Race and Equity Center, also joined the Knowledge@Wharton radio show discussion. He expanded on this notion of “money will find a way,” to get you access by saying, “money and whiteness” will always find a way. “The thing we’re talking about in terms of universities starts much earlier,” noted Harper. “Our schools in the U.S., our K-12 schools, are just about as racially segregated now as they were before the passage of Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, which was supposed to integrate schools. It’s the way in which race and wealth tend to co-mingle in our country. In other words, wealthy white people get to send their kids to very elite private preparatory schools with lots of resources. So, it’s not that those kids were born more talented than black and Latino and lower-income Asian students, it’s that they were born into wealth and their parents were able to buy their admissions to elite, private preparatory schools that become a pathway or railroad to elite higher education.”

Hard Work and Character

Harper was also very clear on what he believes should happen to the students who were accepted to colleges under false pretenses. “Having been a professor for 16 years at Penn and USC, two elite universities, when someone plagiarizes in a thesis or doctoral dissertation, their degree is rescinded. I think that same standard has to be held for someone who cheated to gain admission to a university. For those who have graduated, I feel strongly that their degrees should be rescinded, and for those who are currently students, I think they should be expelled.”

So, how do we address this concern that money will find a way to get people access to top universities? “We need a change in our cultural ethos as a society,” suggested Jonker. “We need to see that what’s important at the end of the day is not just getting into the school, which then acts as a signal of your status and so on, but what really matters is that you work for your achievements, and through your achievements you show your good character.”

While that will no doubt require a seismic shift in thinking and acting – underscored by the FBI’s higher-ed fraud charges — at least one promising voice rose above this week’s media din.

In the article “’What Does It Take?’: Admissions Scandal Is a Harsh Lesson in Racial Disparities,” the New York Times featured the reactions and insights of high school students at Ewing Marion Kauffman School, a predominantly black school in Kansas City, Missouri. The words of 17-year-old Khiana Jackson, a senior at Kauffman who has been accepted at the University of Chicago, but is waiting to hear from her top choices, including Yale, perhaps captured the feelings of other students who have worked tirelessly to achieve their education goals and are feeling cheated by the details of the pay-for-play college admissions scandal.

Jackson said, “I’m not going to feel like I’m at a disadvantage compared to them because I know that I have character, I have values that they haven’t had to develop,” she said. “They’ve had things handed to them. Having things handed to you versus having to earn the things you have, they create two different characters.”

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Conversation Starters

What aspect of this college admissions scandal interests you the most? Is it the need for higher education reform? The ethical issues surrounding the scandal? The racial divide inherent in college access? Choose one and write about why you find it so compelling.

Some people believe that as a result of this scandal, colleges will completely change the way they handle admissions. Do you agree? What do you think will come of this high-profile FBI investigation?

Shaun Harper believes that any student who was accepted to college as a result of this scam should be expelled, or their diploma should be taken back. Do you agree? Why or why not?

What is work ethic? How is work ethic at the heart of this story?

3 comments on “A Massive College Admissions Cheating Scandal Gets People Talking

  1. College. It’s a universal goal for every child up until the year they graduate. A finish line for their educational careers before university. An accumulation of, for most, 12 years of rigorous schooling, sports, music, summer jobs, summer internships, competitions and awards. A testament to what every student thinks is their true character, their value as a person. This article and the entire college admissions scandal that has been unfolding in recent times is an attestation to how far off the concept of college has been derailed. Personally, as a high school sophomore in Southern California, I have seen this derailment first hand.

    From fellow students taking a thousand AP classes freshman year they have no interest in to being forced to play an instrument or get on a varsity sports team, I’ve seen it all. The idea that it is no longer students pursuing their passions or interests, but rather a school name is what daunts me the most. The fact that the mindset going into college admissions is no longer, “I will be the best person I can possibly be” but instead “I need to go to this university” is harmfully rewiring the brains of this nations youth. This is evident when looking at the recent suicide of a 16 year old student in Newport Harbor High School, very close to my high school. The student, pressured by the competitive nature and constant comparison to his peers by his parents, left a harrowing note before he took his own life as a result of the toxicity and burden of the college admission process. He explicitly wrote that “you are looked at as a loser if you don’t go to college or if you get a certain GPA or test score.” This incessant need to get a certain number on a test or get into a certain college was an environment that surrounded and squeezed him so tightly he felt that the only way out was to take his own life. The only way out of a system so brutal and misguided that parents and students are willing to pay egregious sums of money to game and cheat.

    I guess the real question at this point then is who to blame. Who’s fault is it that such a system is in place in which parents can actually see worth and benefit in using their hard earned money to bribe college counselors and sell their dignity for a small name on a diploma. In the end, everyone is a pawn in this game and the only thing to blame is the game itself. Not the pawns on the chessboard, but rather the way the chessboard is designed. The way our college admissions are designed is inherently flawed which causes the buying out of college counselors to be an effective strategy. The weight on character has lessened and the weight on numbers, ranking on a varsity team, and the grocery list of achievements that must be hit to get into a good college has increased. Now, there is no clear way to combat this problem. On one hand, the argument exists that a student isn’t just a number on a transcript or standardized test but on the other hand that number is still symbolic of a certain degree of work ethic and intelligence. In order to spark the flame and change the way college admissions are perceived, a paradigm shift needs to occur starting with the parents. The parents of this generations youth need to raise their kids with good work ethic, a healthy life style, and to become intelligent and successful members of society. From that starting point, a good college is bound to follow. Right now, the situation is in complete reverse which is what is causing so many of these students and parents to be caught up in huge scandals in efforts to cheat college admissions. The mindset of all these parents and students in the scandal are that a good university will represent and show the world how good and amazing a person is rather than a student representing how good and amazing he or she is resulting in potential acceptance into a good university.

    Now, the entire college admissions process has always and will always be a confusing process for everyone. The questions of what are colleges looking for is one that will forever be in existence as long as colleges still exist. In light of these scandals, it is time to take a step back and look at this problem more holistically. How do we rewire the mindset around college admissions in a way in which parents and students will no longer see the need to cheat it. This starts with a shift in priorities on both the parents and students side. The order needs to start with building character and work ethic and end with college rather than start with college in hopes that will build character and work ethic. Who you are as a person is defined by you and not a name on a diploma or where you go to school. That will hold true for as long as you live and once people start realizing that is when the first step is taken to ensure scandals like those mentioned in the article never happen again.

    • Kevin, I couldn’t agree more with your thoughtful analysis of the current state of college admissions and its detrimental impact on students’ mental health and well-being.

      As a high school senior who has been going through the college process, I cannot say that I don’t feel that college has been the sole determinant of our identities. The past few months, college has been all I heard about from my friends. From studying for the SAT to managing their college list and focusing on their personal essays. You bring up a great point on how people take AP classes and participate in activities they may not take interest in. Even as a sophomore, people at my school would brag about the classes they were taking, as if it defined them.

      You pose a thought provoking question of who is to blame. The stigma surrounding getting into top colleges cannot be blamed by one singular force. However, I believe that a primary reason for this situation is the heavy emphasis that society places on college rankings and prestige. In the society we live in today with easy access to the Internet and with the heavy use of social media, the idea of attending prestigious colleges is romanticized. This leads many students to feel an overwhelming pressure to gain acceptance to these schools, with some even sacrificing their true passion and interest. And with others, turning to cheating. As you mentioned, I also agree that the real problem lies within the college admissions process.

      I believe that the first big problem that many had with college admission is the methods that are used. The fact that a student’s family income and race plays a role, just goes to show how many of the different little boxes a student has to tick off in order to be deemed as an “ideal” student. The recent Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard which overturned affirmative action just goes to show how problematic some aspects of this long enduring college process is.

      From critiquing students’ GPAs on a numerical scale to a standardized test that doesn’t even measure your intelligence, students are being nitpicked like products at a market. These schools are reducing students to mere statistics, neglecting their individuality and potential. This rigid system not only fails to capture the true essence of each student but also limits many from reaching their full potential. Faced with this pressure, some students may resort to cheating to improve their statistics or impress their parents.

      Another factor that you mention which plays a role into this whole “scandal” are parents. I come from a first generation family, my parents being immigrants who came to America to give me a better life and better opportunities. With this in mind, it’s not uncommon for children of immigrants to feel a profound sense of responsibility to succeed. In terms of cheating, many students will cheat to make their parents proud because after all, they did leave everything they had behind to create a better future for us. This reminds me of a giant cheating scandal that happened at my school this year. My school hosts quarterlies and midterms, with quarterlies taking place every quarter of the school year. During the spring physics quarterly, a student from second period, took their phone out and took a picture of the test, sending it to their friends. And as you can guess, the photo went around and caught a teacher’s attention. These students were AP Physics students, who were forced to take another test invalidating the first. This just goes to show how students will take their grades more seriously than anything else. This article also mentions cheating with bribery in order to gain admissions to these schools, this is just another example of how people will do anything to get into a prestigious school they may not even fit in with simply for the title, throwing away their dignity. High school students are being defined by college acceptance but not for who they are which shows the biggest flaw in society today.

      However, you also bring up a point where college is the universal goal for every child. However, I do not think that is entirely true. There are tons of students out there who want to drop out of school as soon as possible and start up a youtube channel, or a twitch-stream account, or even join the military. It is hardly a universal goal. Surely, you must be thinking about children whose parents raise them in such a way as to leave little room for any other types of considerations. Yes college is an important stepping stone to the next chapter in the lives of many people, but we do have to keep in mind that it is not entirely necessary. Yes, getting a good education is important but I believe having an identity matters more.

  2. In the three years that have passed since the college
    admission scandal, the college admission process has
    radically changed. Ironically this change was not because
    of the scandal alone, but it is an outcome of the ongoing
    Covid pandemic in combination with the outrage created
    by the admissions scandal. Pandemic has eliminated the
    SAT requirement for many top universities including IV
    leagues, and the admission scandal has created a tectonic shift in the extracurricular activist’s category; where for the first-time admission officers are taking in to account the burden low-income students face, such as caring for sibling or having to work. It’s fair to say the navigation of college admission has entered an era of unpredictability! Hundreds of articles were written about the 2022 admission rate and how the legacy and wealthy children were denied access to the top schools. Pandemic has caused many woes, however upending the admission process and opening doors for more students to have a shot at a top university, I believe, is one of the positive outcomes. I find the unpredictability of college admission a welcome change, now there is no road map, so wealthy parents are less likely to be able to bribe their way into the top universities. In addition, the expensive college counselors that have given an edge to the privilege, have also lost their superpowers, as they too are unclear on what direction the admission officers are taking. I feel for the first-time in decades college admission might be a level playing field. This equilibrium will only last for a few years before the wealthy find a way to work around the newly developed system. Nevertheless, let us mortals enjoy the very brief time in history, in which we are not invisible to college admissions officers.

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