Admissions Checklist: ACT, GPA, and a Couple Hundred-Thousand Dollars?

Gina Wiste ‘19, Current Events Section Editor

    College. Every student at Benet Academy feels the stress of college admissions from their parents, their peers, or even themselves. The ordeal of getting into a college, especially a prominent or “elite” college, can almost be maddening at times. Thus, this spring’s college admissions bribery scandal no doubt was a topic of great importance to many Benet students, especially this year’s seniors who recently have gone through this rigorous process firsthand.

    On March 12, 2019, United States federal prosecutors disclosed a conspiracy in which at least 50 people took part to illegally influence college admissions decisions at several prominent American research institutions. Thirty-three parents of college applicants are accused of paying more than $25 million to William Rick Singer, the admission scheme’s head organizer, between 2011 and 2018. Tactics to get students into these elite colleges ranged from paying doctors to falsely diagnose students with learning disabilities to having someone else to take a student’s exam to bribing college sports coaches to give a student a spot on the varsity team despite the student having no previous experience in the sport.

    The scandal itself first came to light thanks to Morrie Tobin, who was under investigation for a separate security violation and charges of fraud. In exchange for leniency in this unrelated case, Tobin offered information that the head women’s soccer coach at Yale, his alma mater, had asked for $450,000 in exchange for helping Tobin’s youngest daughter gain admission to the school. The FBI then wiretapped Tobin’s conversations, which lead them to discover Singer, the ringleader of the admissions scheme. Wealthy parents allegedly paid Singer to illegally arrange to have their children admitted to elite schools by bribing admissions officers, testing officials, and athletic staff. These payments were made to Key Worldwide Foundation, Singer’s nonprofit organization that was granted charity status, allowing parents to deduct their “donations” from their own personal taxes while also concealing the illicit transaction.

    Much of the reason the scandal has caught and kept the public eye is because of the people involved in it, notably actress Lori Loughlin and her husband Mossimo Giannulli, among other prominent business people. Sixteen of these college parents, including Lori Loughlin, were indicted for felony conspiracy to commit money laundering, which could lead to a maximum of 20 years in prison. In addition, the names of the elite institutions that are involved in taking these bribes have received extensive public backlash. The eleven schools involved in this case are as follows: Georgetown, Harvard, Northwestern, Stanford, UC Berkeley, UCLA, University of San Diego, USC, UT Austin, Wake Forest, and Yale.

    As dishonest, immoral, and illegal as these actions are, it must be understood that the college admissions process has never been entirely fair. In many ways, these illegal methods of paying proctors to take exams and coaches to admit unqualified athletes are extreme extensions of other legal methods already in play in college admissions. The process in and of itself is skewed toward wealthy applicants, those who can afford to take standardized test prep classes and attempt the ACT multiple times. Sports, which require expensive equipment and coaching, also help wealthier students gain admissions to more prestigious universities, an advantage many individuals cannot share. In addition, parents pay guidance counsellors who know the admissions system to heavily edit their children’s essays in order to optimize their appeal to universities. Last, especially well-off parents can even donate vast sums toward a new building at the university and therefore virtually guarantee their child’s admissions, a fact so well-known it was even spoofed in the classic 80s comedy Back to School. None of these methods are inherently immoral; however, it steepens the playing field against those families who cannot afford to undertake these methods, strengthening inequality and increasing stress for numerous applicants.

    The most egregious abuse of this system, though, comes from the controversy of modified test taking. As seen with some of Singer’s clients in this scandal, parents have paid doctors to falsely diagnose their children in eleventh and twelfth grade with learning disabilities in order to gain extra time or a proctor’s help on standardized tests. This is not uncommon, nor is it exclusive to Singer’s clients. In fact, around 50% of students from Greenwich, CT, and certain areas of Los Angeles, the most expensive zip codes in the U.S., take untimed standardized tests. Until the mid-1990s, the scores of students who took exams with any accomodations were reported with an asterisk next to the number. This was subsequently found in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the asterisk was removed. Now, colleges have no way of knowing under what conditions a test was taken, and many wealthy families take advantage of that fact to bolster their students’ scores and increase their appeal to colleges.

    In conclusion, the college admissions scandal that took the nation by storm in March should not really have been a great surprise. The college admissions process is and has been broken for the longest time, full of loopholes and inequalities in desperate need of reform in order to both ensure that the most qualified applicants are getting into colleges and to lessen the stressful burden placed on high school students. Hopefully, the celebrities involved and the scandal itself will draw attention to this problem and galvanize change.