Notes on a College Admissions Scandal

College Admissions Scandal, Admissions Scandal, College Scandal
Below we share our thoughts on the college admissions scandal that broke this week (photo credit: David Emmerman).

We’ve been writing about college admissions for decades and, as our loyal readers know well, we’ve reported on a number of scandals at elite colleges and in elite college admissions offices over the years but, no, we’ve never quite seen a scandal like the one that broke yesterday involving a truly desperate housewife and a “Full House” star who might be headed to The Big House. So we thought we’d focus today’s post not on every breaking development in this story but rather on the big picture of how this case — while it certainly makes for riveting reading — marks an exception to a rule in elite college admissions rather than the rule.

Does elite college admissions favor the elite? Yes, unequivocally. Do the privileged have a baked in advantage in college admissions: the ones who can pay for great SAT / ACT tutoring and college consulting? Yes, just as they do in every other aspect of life beyond admissions. But there is a right way and a wrong way to beat an unfair college admissions system at an unfair game. We at Ivy Coach do it the right way. So too do many college consultancies. This case marks an example of individuals who did it the wrong way.

The Utter Outrageousness and Chutzpah of These Bad Actors

As U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said today at a press conference, ” “We’re not talking about donating a building so a school is more likely to take your son or daughter, we’re talking about deception or fraud, fake test scores…bribed college officials.” Let those words sink in. These people bribed college athletic coaches — paying these college employees who work for colleges that receive public subsidies — to designate recruiting slots for the students on their teams (even when the students didn’t play the sports!). These people got their students extra time on tests not because they needed it due to legitimate learning disabilities but so the students could take the tests under the supervision of a paid-off proctor who would either change test answers or take the tests for the students. These people even claimed their bribes as tax write-offs, funneling their money through a sham for-profit college consultancy that was registered as a non-profit. It’s utterly outrageous!

There’s a Right Way and a Wrong Way to Beat an Unfair System at an Unfair Game

Is the highly selective college admissions system perfect? No. Does it favor the wealthy, the folks who can afford great SAT or ACT tutoring, the folks who can afford great private college counseling? Yes, and these are services we offer and have offered for decades, though it may come as a surprise to many that our clientele is not exclusively wealthy since we devote much of our energy each year to our pro bono work. Is it unfair that the wealthy have an advantage? Yes. But paying for an outstanding SAT tutor to coach a student to perform better on a test is markedly different from hiring someone to change answers on the test or take a test for a student. Paying for great advice on the kinds of activities a student should get involved in and the way to tell one’s story so as to stand out in admissions is markedly different from bribing officials at colleges to illicitly secure spots.

Now that doesn’t mean it’s fair that the privileged elite can donate money to colleges to improve the cases for admission of their children. In fact, we’ve been arguing from atop our soapbox in college admissions for years that even donating a building to a college should be a violation of tax law since one isn’t supposed to receive anything in return for tax-deductible donations — and yet these families are receiving preferential treatment for their children in admissions. But donating a building to a college isn’t illegal. There is no guarantee of admission for the children of these donors; there is no quid pro quo. Can it help? Yes.

You see, these people are giving money to colleges — not to officials at colleges unbeknownst to the colleges. And for folks who work with us at Ivy Coach, well, they don’t need to pay for buildings at colleges. We can’t think of a single former client who made such a donation. It’s simply not necessary. They can pay us a whole lot less for our expertise to give their children the best case possible for admission to their dream schools by presenting outstanding — and honest — applications.

We Are Very Proud of Our Body of Work

There is, as we have said, a right way and a wrong to beat an unfair system at an unfair game. At Ivy Coach, for over a quarter of a century, we’ve helped students beat an unfair system at an unfair game by making sure they’re in the right coursework, by making sure they’re taking the right tests, by brainstorming activities that they’re interested in that they can get involved in that’ll set them apart and present them as singularly talented rather than well-rounded, by helping them share their unique stories with admissions officers. We help Asian American students — who face well-known discrimination in the admissions process — overcome the implicit bias in admissions whether admissions officers admit to this discrimination or not. We annually help select veterans — always on a pro bono basis — earn admission to elite universities (typically from community colleges) after their dutiful service in uniform.

Over the last twenty-five years, Ivy Coach has worked tirelessly to tell it like it is, to make the college admissions process more transparent for parents and students. On this very blog, each and every day dating back nearly a decade (even on Yom Kippur, Christmas, and every holiday in between), we dispense advice on the college admissions process and this advice is for everyone, including for folks who we fully recognize will never become our clients. For those who do become our clients, we help them ethically and honestly earn admission to the colleges of their dreams during this intensely stressful time. We hold hands and we end fights between parents and children.

If a child wants to be the best pianist and you have the means, you hire a great piano teacher. If a child wants to be a top tennis player, you hire a tennis coach or a personal trainer. If a child wants to improve in math, you hire a math tutor. Or a physics tutor, or a Spanish tutor, or a swim instructor, or a ballet instructor, or a research mentor. And if a child wants to earn admission to the college of their dreams — and it’s a legitimate possibility if approached correctly — you hire a great private college counselor. And that’s what we pride ourselves on being at Ivy Coach. Our approach is simple (some of it just plain old common sense),  and it’s probably why it’s effective.

A Defense of the Good Private College Counselors Everywhere

There are thousands of private college consulting firms. Some are good, some are not so good. Some charge a lot, some not so much. Most are ethical. This is the case in any industry — be it finance, real estate, medicine, or plumbing — and the bad actors should not besmirch an entire industry. These bad actors mark an exception to the rule, not the rule.

As an example, several Division I coaches were involved in this admissions scandal. Does that mean that most Division I coaches are bad actors? Of course not. For every Rick Pitino — who happened to get caught up in another college scandal — there are wonderful Division I coaches in swimming and field hockey and baseball and football and so many other sports who care deeply about their student-athletes. And just as Rick Pitino does not reflect every college coach nor does he cast a shadow over all of college sports, this unscrupulous college consultant does not reflect every college consultant nor does he cast a shadow over all of the private college consulting industry.

Know When to Run and Run for the Hills

We’ll leave our readers with a little story. When some folks who are not our clients but are rather prospective clients call in, they ask, “Do you have connections with admissions officers?” Sometimes we just hang up because we don’t have the patience to address such a ridiculous question. The times we don’t hang up, we say, “No.” There’s typically an awkward pause, as though we didn’t give the parents the answer they were looking for (oh well!).

We then break the silence, “And if any private college consultant should boast of connections with admissions officers, we suggest you run, run fast, and run for the hills. Why on earth would you want a college consultant interfacing with admissions? Do you think an admissions officer is going to be inclined to root for a student whose parents paid an expert to improve their case for admission? Think about it.”

We work exclusively behind the scenes as any good private college counselor does. We hire folks who previously — not currently — worked in admissions to help optimize our students’ cases for admission. We don’t interface with colleges. We don’t interface with athletic coaches. We don’t interface with development offices. Of course, if a college consultant should suggest they do interface with these folks, you know what to do…run! It seems Felicity Huffman, Lori Loughlin, and company didn’t run.

While you’re here, feel free to hear our comments about this admissions scandal offered to: “The Huffington Post,” “The Atlantic,” “The New York Times,” or “The Daily Pennsylvanian” (and here too). Or listen to us on “iHeart Radio” and check us out on ABC News’ “Nightline” (seen below as well) or on “Business Insider Today.” Or watch Ivy Coach’s Lori Sundberg on HBO’s “Vice News Tonight.”

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3 Comments

  • Mary says:

    The division 1 coaches are like Gods and Goddesses in the eyes of perspective students and their families. They have the scholarship checkbook and power to guarantee admission of a student. On the other hand the coaches are underpaid. While the professor are making 150K, the salary of a college coach is at the same level of UPS delivery guy ,30 to 50K. So the set up is crying for corruption!

  • GN says:

    Sports, education, and movies have all turned from their original purpose into simply a business. Like any business, it needs and involves money. When and where money is involved, ethics becomes questionable and hence the rise in such activities. It is ridiculous to think about the ballooning student loans. Why are the colleges charging the same amount for different degrees when they know for a fact that it doesn’t represent a level playing for students from all majors when they graduate? Education is supposed to enhance one’s knowledge so as to build confidence and be a contributing member of a society, not burden with lifelong debt. What will be the motivation for children to graduate or even apply to schools when they know they are going to be saddled with debt? As adults, would/can we buy a home without income? Graduating with debt feels like closing on a home without income. Its a feeling of emptiness.

    I agree almost with everything that is said here, except one which is the topic of donating a building to a school. What is the intent of this donation? Is it philanthropy, altruism, or magnanimity? No, the intent is to influence college admissions, for colleges to rake in millions to build football stadiums in return for a great chance of admitting their kid, all “legally.” I’m curious to know if anyone has donated a building to a college either knowing very well that their kid will not be accepted or donated to one college and sent their kid to another college without sending a single dime to the latter. Do they donate to 10 colleges and send their kid to attend a completely different college when they got admission from one/many of those 10 colleges? Do they donate to a college when none of their kids are no longer in college, assuming they themselves or their kids didn’t attend those colleges? So, this is a crime, in millions of dollars granted by law. These parents, either by fame or money, are trying to influence just like those who are donating buildings. While it is still a crime, as defined by law and also by ethical/moral standards, donation of buildings is not a crime, as per law and the wealthiest are able to influence even more and are successful while being lawful but is it ethical? The wealthiest donated money to create these laws that favor them and so of course, it is legal to donate a building! So many double standards in the system. These parents deserve punishment but let’s also have a big picture.

  • Neri says:

    International students from China have been doing this exact practice of cheating to get into elite universities for years. They even go a step further by having their schools’ transcripts altered, in addition to having standardized tests corrected or taken by others.

    How are elite and premier schools dealing with this? Every admitted applicant takes away the spot from another, regardless of whether the applicant is domestic or international. Most schools have quotas for domestic and international students, but the absolute number of the entering class is predetermined.

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