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College & Workforce Readiness

‘Side Door’ Routes to College Admission No Surprise to Counselors

By Catherine Gewertz — March 14, 2019 | Corrected: March 15, 2019 6 min read
The University of Southern California in Los Angeles is one of many colleges and companies moving swiftly to distance themselves from employees swept up last week in a nationwide college admissions fraud. In the wake of the scandal, the university fired senior associate athletic director Donna Heinel and water polo coach Jovan Vavic, according to the Associated Press. USC's interim President Wanda Austin said about a half-dozen current applicants affiliated with William Singer's college-advising service will be barred from admission.

Corrected: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized Marietta High School. It is a public school in a charter system.

The revelation this week that dozens of players ran a huge college-admissions bribery scheme sent ripples of shock and outrage through the country. But the counselors who work with students applying to elite colleges weren’t surprised.

Adults on the frontlines of the high-wire process of selective college admissions have long known that wealth and privilege buy access. Parents get that access not only through regular channels—the savvy prepping, drafting, and monitoring that fuel the process—but by the “backdoor,” as the lead player in the bribery scheme called it: making big donations, using alumni connections, or capitalizing on their children’s athletic prowess.

The “side door” of admissions unveiled in the indictment—costly systems rigged to falsify admission-exam scores or pass off applicants as recruited athletes—struck many veteran counselors as being only a hair’s breadth away from the loopholes savvy parents routinely exploit to get their children into top schools.

“Those people in the indictment? All they did is take standard practice and make it a little more grotesque. They jumped the line from gross to illegal,” said Marie Bigham, the director of college counseling at the Isidore Newman School, a private K-12 school in New Orleans, and the founder of ACCEPT, a group that aims to revamp college admissions so it’s equally accessible to students from all walks of life.

“Paying someone to cheat on a test is only slightly different than families who can pay for years of expensive test prep or pull strings to get [undeserved testing] accommodations,” she said.

Counselors all over the country told Education Week that parents often ask them for help working the admissions system to their children’s advantage. And most frequently, though not exclusively, the requests come from well-off, college-educated parents.

From Prosaic to Extreme

In documents released Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Justice, more than 50 people, including parents, college coaches, and television stars, were charged with taking part in a bribery scheme led by William Singer, a well-connected college admissions adviser. The agency charged that Singer sold two forms of fraud to corporate executives and wealthy Hollywood elites, in which adults falsified students’ SAT or ACT scores, or bribed college coaches to fake athleticism.

The requests that Bigham receives, in comparison, run the gamut, from the prosaic—essay-writing tips or calling a “friend” in an admissions office—to the extreme, such as finding a doctor who will certify that a child with no learning disabilities is actually disabled and needs more time on the SAT.

That accommodations loophole is “not even a quiet secret,” Bigham said. In some circles, “it’s common cocktail party conversation.”

Even the open secrets of college admissions are hidden from many parents. Counselors report that social capital plays a big role in who knows the rules of the game and who doesn’t.

“Wealthy families socialize with other wealthy families where everyone’s child has been going to college, where they’re aware that students’ academic records, their test scores, their extracurricular activities are incredibly important,” said Judi Robinovitz, who runs Score at the Top Learning Centers and Schools, a college-planning service based in Florida.

“Families who don’t socialize with other families whose kids have gone to college might not even know that students need to write essays to get in. Their friends aren’t talking about how they reviewed their child’s essay and helped them improve it.”

Parents’ backgrounds also influence who they can reach in trying to gain college access for their children.

“Students whose fathers are Ivy League-educated white males from upper-middle-class backgrounds, who are CFOs of companies, are going to have different access points than students whose fathers are Egyptian immigrants who work in restaurants,” said one college counselor at a New York City public school that serves low-income, immigrant families.

Rafael Figueroa, the dean of college guidance at the Albuquerque Academy, a private school in New Mexico for grades 6-12 that serves families from the homeless to the affluent, said a few of his wealthier parents bring a mindset to the college-application process that is shaped by their backgrounds.

“It’s a sense of entitlement that we are part of this [socioeconomic] class, and this is what we have, and this is what our children deserve because of what we have,” Figueroa said.

Geographic Differences

But he has noticed a geographic pattern to that sense of entitlement. It often accompanies parents who have moved from large urban areas like New York, Los Angeles, or Dallas.

They typically call when their children are rising 9th graders, “and they approach it like, ‘What are you going to do for us? How can you advantage our students?’ ” said Figueroa. “And it’s not enough when we describe how we serve all of our students. They want more.”

Brandi Smith, a college adviser at Marietta High School, a large, diverse public school outside Atlanta where three-quarters of students come from poverty, said that parents in her community rarely push to manipulate the college-admissions process.

“For most of my families, that is such a first-world problem,” she said. “They’d never think to game the system because they wouldn’t think they have the clout to do it.

“Our families are working two or three jobs, living paycheck to paycheck, trying to raise their kids. Most of them don’t know about how they’d get a good letter of recommendation or get so-and-so to call this high-up official somewhere.”

Smith said that most of her students’ parents can’t imagine cutting corners in the admissions process for their children, and not only because they don’t know how or lack the funds.

“People want to believe that if you work hard and do right, it will pay off, and so they don’t need to do things like bribe people to get what you want,” she said.

David Rion, the director of college guidance at the Loomis Chaffee school, a private boarding school in Connecticut, said he rarely sees even wealthy parents try to work the system aggressively for their children. “I’ve seen just as many wealthy, well-educated parents say they just want their kids to be happy,” Rion said.

“When something like [the indictment] happens, we focus on ‘this kind of parent,’ but they’re a small subset. Even if they hoped for a highly selective school to brag about, once they get involved in the process and visit schools with their student, they see there are lots of good options.”

Colleges’ Shifting Focus

No one in the college-advising world believes that admission is a “perfect meritocracy,” Rion said. It’s been long and widely known that making a multimillion donation to a college’s endowment, being a standout athlete or a “legacy” candidate can boost admission chances.

But he thinks colleges are paying increasing attention to the difference between applications that look good because of parents’ privilege and those that shine without it.

“Say one student’s family has connections, and they get an internship with NASA for the summer, but another student, who has no connections, picks up the phone and calls the local community college and arranges to work with the physics professor that summer,” Rion said. “I think colleges are starting to look more and more at the value of not just what you do but how you got to do it.”

Robert J. Massa, who recently retired from a career overseeing enrollment at institutions including Johns Hopkins and Drew universities, agreed with Rion. Admissions teams, he said, are paying more attention to student characteristics like taking initiative, or good character, that aren’t linked to their parents’ financial resources.

A version of this article appeared in the March 20, 2019 edition of Education Week as Admissions Excesses No Surprise to Counselors

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