Ethical College Admissions: Scandal

With admissions systems receiving more scrutiny than ever, Jim Jump wonders how higher education will respond.

March 18, 2019

Oscar Wilde is credited with the quote “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” Last week those of us wanting more attention paid to college admission in the media and among the public at large got our wish.

Beginning last Tuesday it was nearly impossible to watch or listen to any news program without hearing about the college admissions “scandal.” The scandal is more accurately a criminal conspiracy involving bribery, faked credentials and money laundering, all for the purpose of getting children of the wealthy admitted to elite colleges. On Tuesday 50 individuals were indicted, including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin and several college coaches. It remains to be seen whether there are other shoes still to drop.

There is an old adage in public relations that any publicity is good publicity. We may be about to find out. Although no admissions officers were implicated, this case combined with the trial over Harvard University’s admission practices with regard to Asian American applicants has the potential to do serious and permanent damage to public trust and confidence in the college admissions process and our profession.

A common refrain in discussions last week was the notion that this case is just an extension of other attempts by the wealthy and privileged to secure advantages for their children in the college admissions process. It isn’t. What we have here is a sophisticated, even cunning, criminal enterprise far beyond anything I’m aware of in my career.

If other practices employed by the wealthy can be described as attempts to game the system, ranging from hiring high-priced admission coaches to becoming major donors to a college or university, the conspiracy led by Rick Singer, founder of the Edge College and Career Network (known as “the Key”) is more an attempt to hack the system, to find a vulnerability and take advantage.

The scandal is really two scandals. The first involves falsified test scores. Singer’s clients were advised to have their children apply to receive 100 percent extended time on the SAT or ACT. The 100 percent accommodation is essential because students receiving that much extended time are tested over two days in their own school rather than at a test center.

Singer had paid off administrators at two testing centers, one a public school in Houston and the other a private school in West Hollywood. Singer would have his clients petition to do the testing at one of “his” two schools, telling them to claim that they were attending a bar mitzvah or wedding or that they didn’t want to miss school. An associate of Singer would then proctor the test, having the student put answers on a practice sheet, and the proctor would color in the bubbles on the answer sheet after the student had left, guaranteeing that the student would receive the desired score. The scheme worked best when it was the student’s first try at the test, because there would then be no concern about too great an increase in scores.

One of the only humorous moments in the criminal complaint from the Federal Bureau of Investigation came after Felicity Huffman’s daughter was approved for the 100 percent extended time and she learned that her daughter’s high school counselor planned to proctor the test. In an email to “Cooperating Witness-1” Huffman quoted another Hollywood star, Scooby Doo, saying “Ruh ro!” Huffman was able to move her daughter’s testing to the West Hollywood school, and the daughter’s SAT score improved 400 points from the PSAT she had taken a year earlier.

The second scandal involved students admitted to elite institutions through a “side door.” Singer had clients make tax-deductible donations to the Key Worldwide Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the Edge, and then funneled the money to bribe coaches and athletic administrators at universities including Yale, Georgetown, Stanford and the University of Southern California in exchange for their children being designated as recruits in sports ranging from sailing to track to football to tennis to water polo. Coaches would use some of their allotted admission slots for students who may have never played their sport.

For example, actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, paid $500,000 to the foundation and to Donna Heinel, the USC senior women’s associate director who served as the athletic department’s liaison to the subcommittee for athletic admissions, for their two daughters to be admitted as recruits for the crew team, despite the fact that neither girl had any experience rowing. Heinel played a key role in pushing through a number of the cases in question.

One of Singer’s employees, a former assistant soccer coach at USC, put together falsified athletic résumés for many of the students in question, making up credentials and even photoshopping head shots of the student on an athletic photo, but it is not clear that level of deception was necessary. The admissions office trusted the coach or Heinel to be advocating for legitimate recruits, and apparently there was no scrutiny of the claims made about the students’ athletic backgrounds or whether those students actually competed once admitted.

If Singer and the others charged did in fact hack the college admissions system, the question is whether the fix is a patch or a wholesale change in the system. The related question is, are those of us in the college admissions profession victims, unindicted co-conspirators or somewhere in between?

The good news thus far is that there are no allegations of any malfeasance by anyone on the admissions side of the desk. According to the FBI report, several of the school counselors were skeptical of the athletic admission claims, and at least one reached out to a college with concerns.

The biggest challenge is for our colleagues who are independent consultants. It is going to be hard for them to avoid being lumped together with those who perpetrated this fraud. We need to support the Independent Educational Consultants Association and the Higher Education Consultants Association in standing up for ethical independent practice.

The other question is whether our practices and messages subtly promote families to seek an unfair advantage. Does the continuing emphasis on increased application number and low admit rates send a message that admission is random and unachievable at many institutions, and a consequence of the increased numbers is that we don’t have time to do anything but skim applications?

Are we guilty of promoting the myth of prestige and the belief that college is a status symbol and not an experience? Is it time to revisit preferences for athletes, legacies and the children of the rich and famous? Do we want to be engines of opportunity or engines of privilege?

As a result of last week, the college admissions process and the college admission profession have a perception problem. That is far from a tragedy -- the plane crash in Ethiopia and the shootings in New Zealand are tragedies. It is a challenge, and it is an opportunity. How will we respond?

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Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Va. He has been at St. Christopher's since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women's basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.


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