Gaming The Game of College Admissions

That Aunt Becky was named in the complaint made it a lock that it would be front page news, but charges against 33 “affluent parents,” not to mention college coaches and others, put the lie to the cries that the only unfairness in college admissions was the dark hole of diversity. It’s a cesspool all around.

When it was time for my son to go to college, I did everything possible to “game” his admission, from prep courses to training with the best fencing coaches to enhance his interests as an athletic recruit. What I did not do is what Willke Farr co-chair Gordon Caplan is alleged to have done, buy my kid’s admission.

I didn’t even know such a thing was possible, but to be honest, if I was ever inclined to bribe someone, it would be for the benefit my kids.

While much of the indictment reflects some obvious crimes, such as team coaches taking bribes to admit kids who never sailed in their life as sailing team recruits, and proctors giving answers for standardized tests, the alleged crimes of the parents emit a different odor.

The key distinction here is not just the amount of money, but the recipient. A donation is made to a college, while a bribe is paid to an employee who, in effect, is stealing an admissions slot, hawking it and pocketing the proceeds. (To comply with tax laws, donors also cannot engage in an explicit quid pro quo with a college. The well-rehearsed pas de deux of donations and admissions must be made to appear as a voluntary exchange of gifts, not a binding deal.)

From the perspective of the obsessed parent, does it really matter who gets the money? They’re paying it out one way or the other, and the only thing they want to know is whether the investment will pay off.* Parents inclined to do everything in their power to facilitate their child’s admission to college have a cottage industry available for them, from helping students to get better SAT or ACT scores to writing their college essays.

If it’s available, and parents believe it will help, some will do it. Some will pay a great deal of money to do it. And some will pay that money directly to a guy who guarantees admission, especially when they can write it off as a charitable deduction.

The allegations underscore the urgency many American parents feel about securing a place for their progeny at a selective college. In an era when most Americans are struggling to succeed economically, many of those who have prospered are terrified that their children will not get every opportunity to replicate that success.

Is it unfair that some parents have the financial ability to give their children benefits that others cannot? There’s a laundry list of “side doors” to college admissions, even if most people don’t have a firm understanding of how they work. Most of the “tricks” add points to the student’s potential admission score, rather than provide an assurance of admission. Even a legacy applicant isn’t getting into Harvard with an 800 SAT, unless daddy can build a really, really big library.

But from legacy to athletic recruits to diversity, it’s all unfair if some other kid has a leg up on your kid.

This is infuriating for parents and students who chose to play by the rules in seeking college admission — or had no choice but to do so. But no one should be under the illusion those rules are strictly meritocratic.

Merit is not easily defined. American colleges have long valued athletic ability, a quality rarely considered in college admissions elsewhere in the developed world. Schools similarly may value artistic talent, or other forms of merit not closely correlated with grades or standardized tests. And colleges have a legitimate interest in emphasizing various forms of diversity.

To a great extent, college admissions has brought this on itself. Had it been grades and standardized testing scores alone, we could compare apples to apples. But it’s a black hole for parents and students. How does one “play by the rules” when there aren’t any rules, when no one can say with certainty that they’ll be admitted to the college of their dreams? It’s that uncertainty that pushes parents who have the wherewithal to help their children to do more, pay more, if it gives their kid the edge.

Wealthy families often spend heavily to groom their children as candidates for admissions to selective colleges. Private school tuition, tutoring and test preparation classes, campus visits and coaches who help to write personal essays are all advantages largely unavailable to less affluent students, irrespective of innate talent. Paying for tutoring is different from paying someone to take a test for you — but students without money don’t have either option.

There is a substantive difference between doing everything possible to enhance a student’s likelihood to be admitted versus bribing the coach or cheating on the SATs. That the opportunity to do so is denied poor students is a dubious way to frame the problem. Would it be better if poor students had a way to bribe people as well? As grandpa always said, rich or poor, it’s good to have money. It’s one of the reasons people strive to achieve financial success, so that they have the resources that make life a little easier for themselves and their progeny. Nobody dreams of a future of poverty for their children.

Whether students are admitted because their parents paid for a boathouse, or because their parents bribed the sailing coach, it is still the case that merit alone is not deciding the issue.

This begs the question, is there such a thing as objective “merit”? Is merit one thing, or a thousand intangibles. While wealth isn’t merit, is skin color, or country of origin, or overcoming horrible obstacles? Is it unfair that kids from wealthy families can’t write essays about their experience of being homeless that bring tears to the admissions reader’s eyes?

A handful of parents tried to shortcut the system and got nailed for it. What they stole isn’t entirely clear, as it looks little different than what every other parent tries to game in their own way. But if it’s wrong, as it clearly appears to be, what of the rest of the black box of admissions that’s no more “fair” to anyone, despite every effort to game the game to the extent they possibly can?

*For about a year of a parent and student’s life, which college they go to becomes an obsession. Whether it should, or is a delusion, is another matter.

26 thoughts on “Gaming The Game of College Admissions

  1. Richard Kopf

    The cheating parents robbed their kids of the notion of self-sufficiency. That’s the crime.

    It is one thing to hire a legit tutor for your child if an “elite” school is important to you. (It wasn’t for me or mine.) It is another thing for the child to be taught that it is OK for the tutor to answer the questions for you.

    All the best.


    1. SHG Post author

      There are a lot of things kids are taught today that are counterproductive to the notion of self-sufficiency and responsibility. Some cross the line. Other don’t. I doubt the lawful ones are much better, or the unlawful ones all that much worse.

      1. Richard Kopf

        You don’t understand.

        Every day I walked to school uphill in a blizzard both ways and consumed lard sandwiches for lunch. It made me that old man I am today.

        Never mind.

          1. wilbur

            My father was very fortunate in that his father kept his job tending an Armour smokehouse during the Depression. He told me once that his mother made him two lunches to take to high school every day. Why? One of the lunches was for his best friend. Without that he’d have nothing to eat that day.

            Their experience was not unique. I wonder what they would think of the way things are today.

            1. B. McLeod

              By and large, Depression-era citizens have adjusted well. Things were way better after the war, and have stayed better, and I don’t think anybody is sad about that. Of course, as a partial consequence, society is way up Maslow’s Hierarchy from then, and people spend a lot of time fussing over gentrified abstractions that would have no place for a person hunting jack rabbits for dinner. Things certainly aren’t perfect today, but I would be really surprised if you could find anyone who wants to go back to 1930 conditions.

        1. Jim Cline

          I was pretty lucky I guess. My dad would let me catch a ride in the back of his pickup on his way to the job. If the light was red he would even stop while I got out.

    2. B. McLeod

      That was the truly awful part of this, although it would have remained hidden but for the enforcement effort and attendant publicity. Now Caplan’s kid knows that the whole world knows Dad doesn’t think she can cut it without the benefit of bribes to smooth her way. She is probably now thinking back as well to every prize she has ever “won” and every “accomplishment” she has ever notched-up, wondering how many of those were purchased for her as well.

      1. Guitardave

        Dear Mr. McLeod, There is no doubt your older and wiser than I, and possibly, even more cynical too. I’ve had an experience of a similar situation…and made a mistake that i think i see you making here. Substitution. You’re transplanting your good-n-big heart in place of the kids. The feelings you ascribe to the kid may be correct…if the kids a human-being. The thing i witnessed, (and i still can’t fucking wrap my head around ?!?), was that the kid not only didn’t care about “how it made him look or feel”, but was right back to expecting the unicorn droppings, ASAP. Genetics!!…or as the old folk say…”most times, the fruit don’t fall too far from the tree”…but i know… you know that…

    3. Ray

      So what you’re saying is that these parents have succeeded in transforming these kids into victims. That alone should be worth significant weight in the college selection process.

      Why shouldn’t the tutor be able to answer the questions for you? School is very stressful without taking more tests. I mean the tutor is being well paid, right?

      Of course an elite school is important. Just ask President George W. Bush. He went to Yale. Or ask Chelsea Clinton who graduated from Stanford and Oxford. She has a big hedge fund job now. Geese, no wonder you’re just a federal judge. I mean if your parents forced you to study harder you might have gone to Harvard, maybe you could have been President. Just saying.

  2. Matthew Scott Wideman

    I have seen this in action first hand. The last day of school for juniors my sophomore year at an all boys private Catholic school. A mischievous young heir to a vaulabe St Louis company took his brand new Escalade to the manicured baseball field for some celebratory donuts as his first senior prank. This student was promptly arrested and kicked out of school. A letter went around the school from concerned parents about reckless and privileged kids. Every adult was outraged, and the kid became a legend (so much so I am talking about in my 30’s). The next year that same kid was let back in school and the school broke ground on a new library.

    I can’t believe this is news. This is a little like “water is wet”! This may have strayed into felony territory here, but again I don’t see how this is something special. Each one of us has a story along the same lines, there just wasn’t an FBI agent waiting to listen in on the phone conference.

  3. bl1y

    The entire system is diseased, root and branch.

    Grade inflation has long been a thing, along with passing students who ought to be failed, just to push them along to the next grade. Students who are failing classes will be withdrawn and placed into a “remedial” class where the only requirement to pass is being enrolled in the remedial class. Students who miss months of their senior years have those absences overlooked just to get them out of the school. Previously, those students who were shuffled along would eventually find themselves in minimum wage jobs or prison. Now they’re applying to colleges on the basis of their bogus high school grades.

    Then we’ve got schools in English-speaking countries which take droves of students from China who are only marginally conversational in English, and hand them diplomas that allow them to bypass TOEFL. And there’s online high schools where you can take tests by just getting up from the computer and having your “tutor” answer the questions for you.

    Extracurricular activities have long been easy to lie about. Parents, tutors, and admissions councilors will write your personal statement and admissions essays for you. The only thing that’s at all arguably legitimate in the admissions process are the standardized tests.

    …So of course we’ve got to get rid of the standardized tests. Harvard got rid of the requirement, as did Yale, Duke, Cal Tech, Princeton, Brown, Stanford, Michigan, Hoffstra, Wake Forest, GWU, JMU, Chicago, and the list goes on to over a thousand universities.

    But wait, there’s more! The problems don’t stop at the admissions process. Colleges are now increasingly staffed by contingent faculty members, where “contingent” means “contingent on getting positive student evaluations and having low failure rates.” Cheating is rampant in college, and when cheating is discovered it’s often met with little more than a stern warning (aka: “teaching moment”) at the insistence of deans and department chairs. Students who would struggle in a 099-level remedial class are passed through 101 just to avoid negative evals and complaints to the boss.

    On the bright side though, at least we’ve increased “accessibility.”

      1. Guitardave

        nice one….you shit!….I’m thinking’ “who is this person and why haven’t i heard of them..?” as i type the name into wika..oy!…’fictional character’…!!! Great song BTW…

  4. Anonymous Coward

    If admissions were purely based on grades and test scores, the colleges would not be able to ensure that the “right” people got in and the “wrong” people were either blocked or limited to a present quota. Like the recent lawsuit against Harvard, or Mayor De Blasio changing elite NYC high school admissions from the unbiased test because not enough of the “right” minorities were passing the test

    1. Matthew Scott Wideman

      When I was in law school my school hosted a debate between a ACLU lawyer and a Libertarian Lawyer. The Libertarian Lawyer argued that Affirmative Action was championed by the elites so they could get their lower achieving kids into college. EVERYONE looked at this guy like he was a little crazy. I guess he was more aware then we thought.

  5. Pedantic Grammar Police

    I went to a rich high school, and I noticed that, in general, rich kids tend to not have a very good work ethic. Why should they? They know that everything will be handed to them regardless of the effort they put forth. My parents were lower-middle-class and I made extra money writing papers for the rich kids. $50 was nothing to them but it was an incredibly huge fortune to me.

    This type of thing has always happened, and it always will. Rich people don’t want to admit that their kids are lazy losers, so they purchase what their kids will not work for. The interesting question is, why did law enforcement target this particular set of parents? I suspect that Singer pissed someone off.

  6. Hunting Guy

    Some of those parents got ripped off.

    I’m a University of Texas grad and all I had to do to get in was pay fees and tuition. No need to cheat the system.

    As for the rest of the schools, well, Yale, Stanford, Georgetown and Wake Forest might have been considered “elite schools” at some point but you have to wonder now.

    USC, UCLA, and University of San Diego, meh. I’ve met and work with grads from them. No different academically than UT.

  7. Jim Tyre

    Even a legacy applicant isn’t getting into Harvard with an 800 SAT, unless daddy can build a really, really big library.

    You gotta problem with mommy building it?

  8. Skink

    This begs the question, is there such a thing as objective “merit”? Is merit one thing, or a thousand intangibles. While wealth isn’t merit, is skin color, or country of origin, or overcoming horrible obstacles? Is it unfair that kids from wealthy families can’t write essays about their experience of being homeless that bring tears to the admissions reader’s eyes?

    Scott, the answer to all your questions is “nope.”

    People, not kids, get in “elite” schools for all kinds of dopey reasons, most of which have nothing to do with intelligence. Why should it? Schools don’t matter. The discussion is based on a false premise.

    A law degree from a “top-tier” school might matter for the first job. After that, it matters nothing: the lawyer either is or is not a lawyer. Think back to school days, do you use anything taught in law school? I surely don’t, and never have. After a few years, is a degree from Yale, Harvard, Chicago or Michigan meaningful? If you learn the trade, isn’t a degree from Swamp U just as valuable? When was the last time, in a meaningful way, someone asked where you went to law school?

    They gamed the system, so what? The “kids” get a degree. They get nothing else. Those not getting into the “elite” schools get the same in the long run, if they can do the work after the degree.

    1. wilbur

      In 38 years I don’t recall anyone, including job interviewers, asking me where I went to law school.

      But then I was such a rube I chose the law school I attended because my oldest sister happened to live nearby. I literally did not know there was a perceived significant difference between Yale and Southwest Bumfuck State. I guess ultimately I was right.

      1. Dave

        For the monied elite, the school name is what matters, like a status symbol. Also for the Yales and Harvards, it isn’t what you learn there, it is who you rub shoulders with and make lifelong connections with – the oligarchy. Of course, that means if you don’t intend on trying to climb the ladders of real power in this country, you really ought to not give a fuck where you go to school, because no one else will. So go wherever it is easiest (as in closeby) and cheapest. My law school was five miles away from where I had been living, allowed me to keep my day job the whole time I was there, it resulted in me getting the exact job I ultimately wanted, and was free. Best money I never spent.

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