Fallout From Exposé About Transcript Fraud

After report on abuse at school famous for sending low-income black students to top colleges, admissions officials engage in soul-searching.

December 3, 2018
 

When Inside Higher Ed wrote about the practice of some high schools posting videos of their students learning that they had been admitted to top colleges, one of the examples was from T. M. Landry College Preparatory School -- a student reacting with joy at being admitted to Cornell University.

Videos like that went viral on YouTube and resulted in considerable attention for the Landry School -- and donations that helped finance operations there. But Friday afternoon, The New York Times published an exposé about Landry. The small private school stands accused of submitting falsified transcripts and exaggerated letters on behalf of students, many of whom won admission not only to Cornell, but to Brown, Harvard, Stanford, Princeton and Yale Universities. Many journalism outlets have praised the Landry School, based on its success in admissions. Here's but one example, from CBS This Morning.

The Times article quotes students and parents about being encouraged to lie on college applications, and to do whatever Landry officials told them to do. Michael Landry, the founder and leader of the school, reportedly told students and their families that he had a special connection to Harvard officials that would help him get students admitted there (Harvard denies this).

If those charges -- which Landry denies -- were not enough, the Times article also reports that the school "fostered a culture of fear with physical and emotional abuse, students and teachers said. Students were forced to kneel on rice, rocks and hot pavement, and were choked, yelled at and berated."

While Landry denied transcript fraud, he admitted to the Times that he hit students sometimes, and defended his actions as being tough to encourage better academic performance from students. He pointed to the success of the school's graduates as evidence that his tactics work. The Times reported that some Landry alumni have indeed succeeded at the top colleges that admitted them, but others have not.

The bombshell report quickly became a prime topic of discussion among admissions officials. What did the story suggest about everything from transcript fraud to choices available to low-income students who want to go to a top college?

The Landry School "exploited key elements of the transition to college as it exists today," said David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, via email. Landry, he said, "abused the relationship between high school and college, which is built on a good faith promise that the school’s curriculum, grades, recommendations, and related information are accurate. Colleges have little ability to police the information from tens of thousands of high schools nationwide, so they rely on truthful information from high schools. Second, it took advantage of admission offices’ desire to build a diverse class of students. Such deceit is particularly unfortunate in that the ultimate victims are the students themselves."

Colleges, Hawkins said, "typically rely on key indicators to ascertain the validity of information provided by high schools, including school accreditation, experience with recruitment and enrollment of students over time, intelligence from other institutions’ admission offices, and relationships with school counselors. However, as new high schools materialize -- particularly in the private, charter, online, and for-profit areas -- each year, it can be difficult for colleges to detect bad information, particularly on the scale involved in this case. Given that institutions do not have significant capacity to investigate each applicant or each secondary school, it’s perhaps not surprising that deceit on this scale was unthinkable and therefore not easily detected by the admission offices involved."

He said he worries about the impact of what happened at Landry, both on its students and on the way colleges view similar students. "Knowing the hurdles that face underrepresented students in this country, admission officers are eager to see themselves as being in a position to assist those students in changing their lives profoundly," Hawkins said. "As such, the deceit involved in this case is especially cruel, since it punishes the very students institutions are so keen to serve. We can only hope this incident does not permanently damage the students involved, or negatively affect the incredible accomplishments of under-represented students across the country."

Michael Reilly, executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said via email that he too saw the report as drawing attention to the way colleges depend on a trusting relationship with high schools -- and perhaps in some cases need to add scrutiny to that trust.

The "story is troubling in many dimensions," Reilly said. "Foremost I feel for the students who appear to have suffered both physical and mental abuse at this school. As for the potential falsification of information provided to colleges and universities in the admissions process, these are very serious matters. The college application process is based on trust and the professionals at high schools who help students with their applications for admission exhibit an extraordinary level of integrity. When that trust is violated it does a disservice to both students and the admissions process. My hope is that this is a very troubling aberration. It does raise the issue of whether colleges and universities should pay closer attention when applications and records come from schools that are not accredited or recognized by their state higher education authorities -- in fact many universities require it. While many of these schools may prove to be reputable, an extra level of scrutiny might be in order."

The Realities Facing Black Students

Advocates for black students saw in the Landry story evidence of the limited choices facing many black students who want to succeed.

"I was shaking reading this story today. I think about every story we've seen about the get-tough schools pushing black kids to academic success, how willingly we buy into the narrative, applaud it, because we think this is what black kids need and deserve," wrote Nikole Hannah-Jones, a writer for The New York Times Magazine. "These kids were physically and emotionally abused, they were set up to fail, and for this the Landrys received national fame and attention by very good journalists because when it comes to black children we do not question the methods … But this also speaks to the desperation of black parents to secure a quality education for their children in a country that almost universally ensures that most black kids will not receive one. This story is a national shame."

Akil Bello, who has worked in organizations helping low-income students find college success, and who has written on equity issues, wrote that he too was shaken by the Times article.

He noted that the claim made by Landry about having ties to Harvard is worth considering in terms of those who make such claims (about not only Harvard but other elite colleges).

"There are many businesses built on that very statement [having a link to Harvard], most of them by/for white people or rich people or rich white people. Some of them were legit, many weren't," Bello wrote. "The Landrys' lie and its public exposure in the NYT will have repercussions in the black community that it wouldn't for rich white people, who will continue to peddle influence (both actually and fraudulent), unhurt by any individual scandal."

Bello also noted that many of the exaggerations the Landry School encouraged students to make in college applications were to stress their disadvantages and to make them appear to have suffered even more than they really had -- rather than boosting them for what they have accomplished. Bello said that this practice is by no means unique to the Landry School and he noted an essay in The Columbia Spectator in which a disadvantaged minority student wrote, "From a young age, I’d been taught that in order to become noteworthy, I must pimp out my pain. My accomplishments could never be the center of the story, and if my pain isn’t sensational, spectacular, or inspiring enough, it isn’t worth the attention of others."

Bello wrote that people should not view the Landry story as just about one school and its leaders, but should think about broader lessons.

"This touches on the charter school movements, private schools, education "saving lives" of the disadvantaged, education profiteering, test preparation as education, affirmative action and race-based admissions, merit, corporal punishment," he wrote. "So many themes and here they all have a terrible ending."

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