College & Workforce Readiness

National College Fraud Scheme Highlights Flaws in Admissions Process

By Sasha Jones — March 12, 2019 5 min read
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Federal prosecutors charged 33 parents, along with two SAT/ACT administrators, an exam proctor, nine coaches and three organizers with involvement in a college admissions fraud scheme on Tuesday.

Documents released by the U.S. Department of Justice assert that William Singer, a well-connected college admissions adviser, sold two forms of fraud to wealthy Hollywood elites and corporate executives, in which students would cheat on their SAT/ACT exams, artificially inflating their scores, or bribe college coaches to fake athleticism. Some would utilize both options.

In the first, students would either have another student take the exam in their place, or have proctors change their answers after taking the test. In some cases, applicants were told to provide a fake reason, such as a family wedding, in order to take the exam in one of the two testing centers that Singer could bribe.

“In many instances, the students taking the exams were unaware that their parents had arranged for this cheating,” according to the federal complaint, which was filed in Massachusetts.

In the second option, Singer would bribe coaches at elite universities. He would then provide a fake profile of the student, at times including falsified information of the students’ sports experiences and photoshopped photos of the students playing the sport. Coaches would use the profile to internally convince administrators to accept the student.

The scheme operated from 2011 through February 2019, and parents paid an average of between $250,000 and $450,000 per student to participate. Between 2011 and 2018, the complaint estimates that approximately $25 million were paid to bribe coaches and administrators.

In a press conference, U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling called the findings of the yearlong investigation a “conspiracy nationwide in scope,” and that “it remains to be seen whether we charge any of the students.”

The investigation remains active and prosecutors suspect that more individuals have been involved and may be charged in the future, according to the press conference.

According to a 2015 survey by Kaplan, 25 percent of college admissions officers said they have “felt pressured to accept an applicant who didn’t meet [their] school’s admissions requirements because of who that applicant was connected to.”

Additionally, 16 percent of college admissions officers said applicants to their school who are the children or sibling of alumni have an advantage over those who are not.

David Hawkins, the executive director for educational content and policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said he was surprised that the figure of 25 percent was not higher.

“The admissions office is really limited in how they can detect this kind of fraud,” Hawkins said. “If someone is determined to try to cheat on an admissions exam, it’s really down to the testing agency.”

According to Hawkins, admissions officers can flag inconsistencies or information that appears out of alignment with the rest of the application, however, in this case, the applicants’ scores were not inflated to the extent that would generate concern.

“Today’s arrests resulting from an investigation conducted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts send a clear message that those who facilitate cheating on the SAT—regardless of their income or status—will be held accountable,” The College Board said in a statement. “The College Board has a comprehensive, robust approach to combat cheating, and we work closely with law enforcement as part of those efforts. We will always take all necessary steps to ensure a level playing field for the overwhelming majority of test-takers who are honest and play by the rules.”

Schools involved in the investigation include Georgetown University, Stanford University, the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of San Diego, the University of Southern California, the University of Texas at Austin, Wake Forest University, and Yale University.

The University of Southern California announced in a statement to the Washington Post that it will cooperate with the government investigation, as well as conduct an internal investigation, and take employment actions as appropriate. Similarly, in statements to NPR and WTOP, Yale and Georgetown said they would cooperate with the federal investigation. Stanford also told the Mercury News that it will be conducting an internal investigation into the school’s head sailing coach, who was indicted in the case.

The University of Texas at Austin has placed its men’s tennis coach on administrative leave amid the federal investigation, according to a statement sent to KXAN-TV. Wake Forest University has also suspended its head volleyball coach, according to the Associated Press.

“These parents are a catalog of wealth and privilege,” Lelling said in the Tuesday press conference. “They include, for example, CEOs of private and public companies, successful securities and real estate investors, two well-known actresses, a famous fashion designer, and the co-chairman of a global law firm.”

Among those charged is “Desperate Housewives” actress Felicity Huffman and “Full House” actress Lori Loughlin.

“We demand greater accountability and transparency in the admissions process on behalf of the thousands of exceptional applicants of color who seek admission to our colleges and universities each year and yet have their qualifications called into question as the result of race-conscious admissions,” The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, said in a statement. “This is a moment which calls for our institutions of higher learning to review their admissions processes, expose fraudulent practices, and commit to addressing the various ways in which privilege and bias have unfairly infected admissions determinations for far too long”

According to Hawkins, although it was not necessarily used in this incident, one of the most common ways wealthy parents place pressure on the admissions department is in development cases, where parents donate to grow the school, with the implicit agreement that their children will be accepted into the university in return.

“We have to do a better job of stressing the importance of fit in the process, not that [acceptance into a selective university] will make or break your life,” Hawkins said. “Your future success will depend more on how you will take advantage of your college education rather than where you got in”

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.