In March, federal prosecutors issued a blockbuster criminal indictment, charging 50 people with engaging in a series of fraudulent college admission schemes. The charges have embarrassed prestigious universities, led to new scrutiny of the college admissions system and sparked a broader debate about the pressures and fairness of the admissions process.
The Justice Department’s investigation exposed a vast network in which well-off parents allegedly paid an admissions consultant, who then fabricated academic and athletic credentials and arranged bribes to help get their children into prestigious universities. Parents allegedly paid the consultant, William Rick Singer, to have a proctor correct their kids’ incorrect answers on standardized testing. Singer also was paid to bribe coaches at elite schools to designate applicants as desired athletes.
In one instance, a California family allegedly paid $1.2 million to Singer, who used a charitable organization to launder the bribery payments to Rudolph Meredith, the women’s soccer coach at Yale. Meredith then claimed to Yale’s admission officials that the family’s daughter was a coveted soccer recruit, contrary to her actual athletic ability.
In another scheme, a senior business executive conspired with Singer to trick admissions officials at the University of Southern California into believing his son was a kicker for the football team. His high school did not even have a football team.
Singer has admitted to illegally facilitating college admissions for children in more than 750 families, making it the largest case of its kind to be prosecuted by the Justice Department.
In April, court hearings began for the 50 defendants involved in the case. Some of the parents charged in the scheme have started plea negotiations with prosecutors, while others are likely to go to trial. Children of the parents have not been charged because the FBI said that some students were kept in the dark about the crimes that their parents were secretly committing on their behalf. Yale and the University of Southern California have said they will deny admission to all applicants linked to the scam.
The charges provide a sordid portrayal of privileged families committing crimes to get their students into selective colleges. “This case is about the widening corruption of elite college admissions through the steady application of wealth combined with fraud,” stated Andrew Lelling, a Justice Department official.
Stephanie Niles, the President of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, said, “This is an unfortunate example of the lengths to which people will go to circumvent and manipulate the college admission process, particularly to gain admission to highly selective colleges.” Niles added that the charges represent an “extreme response to the commodification of the college admission process—one that is focused on college acceptance as an end unto itself.”
At Georgetown Day School, the college admission process can place intense pressures on students and their families. Emily Livelli and Jenni Ruiz, Co-Directors of College Counseling, recently discussed the college admissions scandal and its impact on GDS. Livelli does not believe a similar scandal could occur at GDS. “We are a part of a number of different national organizations that have codes of ethics,” Livelli said, “and we are obligated under those guidelines to practice college counseling ethically.” Livelli stressed the close relationships the counselors at GDS have with students and with college admissions offices around the country. “There is not a way that we could go through this process and not know the details of [students’] lives,” she said. “We also have great contacts with admission officers around the country and can easily check in to make sure that the right information is provided.”
Nevertheless, Livelli said, “There are a lot of legal ways that people try to game the system.” Numerous methods used by the rich in order to gain an advantage in the college admission process come from opportunities due to their school and class. These methods may be unattainable for less privileged students who lack such opportunities. Whether through private music lessons or various tutors for school and standardized tests, wealthy families may be able to gain an advantage when applying to exclusive colleges.
These opportunities make a difference in practice. The top colleges take more students from families in the top one percent of earners than they do from the families in the bottom 60 percent. Ruiz said, “It is not like life is not fair, and then, all of the sudden, college admissions is fair.” Ruiz added, “We both have a recognition that there are inequities in the admission process.”
As counselors, Livelli and Ruiz recognized the full scope of private practices available at a fee to benefit the children of wealthy families. “There is a whole industry that’s cropped up around getting kids into college,” Ruiz said. “I am not surprised that they are using these predatory practices.”
In addition to these smaller advantages, legacy admissions and donations are two other factors that benefit wealthier or better-connected parents seeking to improve their children’s odds of being accepted into select universities. Legacy admissions perpetuate economic inequality by improving the chances of acceptance if a family member is a alumni of that school. For example, Harvard’s undergraduate acceptance rate is 5.9 percent for non-legacies, while it is 34 percent for legacy students. Affluent families also can donate to a school by financing construction on a new building or backing a university’s scholarship fund, which admissions offices acknowledge improves the chances of acceptance for the families’ children.
In reflecting on the admission scandal, Ruiz emphasized the importance of placing it in a broader context. “We are talking about a very elite sliver of power and privilege, and I could turn around and talk to many kids who can not even go to college because they can not afford it,” she said. “What is the real tragedy?”
Will Olsen ’21