Opinion: College Admissions Scandal is Unsurprising

By Michael Tseng

The College Application

Two days ago, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents and the U.S. Attorney’s Office exposed a national scheme where upper-class and celebrity figures have been accused of using bribery and other forms of fraud to gain admission into highly selective colleges. According to federal report of the case, published by Special Agent Laura Smith, parents used deceptive methods including: Bribing standardized testing employees to provide answers to examinations or take the test themselves, submitting falsified grades to college admissions, and bribing the athletic administration to designate admissions slots for students (even if they did not actually play the sport).

Among the schools affected were Yale University, Stanford University, the University of Texas (U-Texas), the University of Southern California (USC), the University of California – Los Angeles (UCLA), Georgetown University, Wake Forest University, and the University of San Diego (USD).

The race to be a part of America’s prestigious university system is increasing in fervor, as many colleges are reporting increased numbers of applications, yet drastically lower acceptance rates. Last year, USC reported a three-percentage point drop in admissions, while some colleges have even scarier numbers. New York University (NYU) reported a 28% acceptance rate in 2017, but the next year, it had already dropped to 19%.

Admissions into highly selective colleges has been a highly controversial topic, especially with the 2018 Harvard Asian-American discrimination case. The ethics of affirmative action are being questioned, as plaintiffs allege that Harvard is admitting lower qualified minority applicants in favor of highly qualified Asian-Americans students. The tension in this case has placed international attention onto college admissions, and investigations into application fraud at elite universities and other similar cases are being conducted. Journalists at Reuter’s have also identified common practices where international students in China send fake recommendation letters and grades to college admissions.

The competition to get into a prestigious university is already high enough, and practices like bribery and fake examinations are commonplace. It shouldn’t be so surprising that this large scheme has been exposed.

HS2 Academy
HS2 Academy is a for-profit college consultation company that helps prepare students with classes, extracurricular activities, and college application essays. (Source: Yelp)

Common Practice

The practice of third-party college consultation has been steadily increasing over the years. In 2013, marketing firm Lipman Hearne reported in their study that around 26% of college applicants have a third-party private college consultant. Since then, popularity of such firms has increased, with the birth of new businesses like IvyMax, HS2 Academy, and Alpha Science Education Institute. These businesses claim that they are the “Gateway To Your Dream College” and over various packages to support students in their college application.

According to Shin Wei (in 2015), CEO of IvyMax, parents could pay from $2,900 to $4,900 on a “Global Philanthropy Leadership Program,” where students spend 15 days in a foreign country helping those in poverty, and use those experiences as fuel for their college essays. In 2017, the U.S. Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) reported that parents were spending up to thousands of dollars, with an average of $4,620 per package, for comprehensive guidance on their whole college application package. Other types of assistance provided by these firms include extracurricular guidance, where they help students find and join competitive academic teams, and personal essay editing.

The price of a college tuition has spiked, and so has the cost of assistance to get admitted. Upper-middle and wealthy families are relying on this consultation process to boost their chances of being accepted into elite universities. Although this method focuses more on the individual work of each student, the pressure induced by increasing competitiveness has forced wealthy parents to take more drastic measures.

Many alumni and wealthy parents will give large monetary donations to colleges, often under the mask of altruism, to raise the chance of admission for their children. Research done by Economics Professors Jonathan Meer and Harvey Rosen from Stanford and Princeton University found that alumni donate larger amounts of money during the child’s college application season, and continue doing so until the end of their undergraduate career. One famous example is the legacy of the Trump family, as Trump himself and his three daughters all have graduated from the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn).

Other examples, which begin conflicting with legal territories, include T.M. Landry Prep College. The private school in Louisiana was originally lauded for its 100% college acceptance rate and high count of elite university admissions. However, state police are now investigating the school, citing abuse and fraud. Allegedly, the school had falsified transcripts and forced students write about extracurricular activities that they had never participated in.

The pressure brought about by competitive college admissions has lead students, parents, and administrators to lie and commit fraud, often doing so to boost reputation and status. They are often not satisfied with lower-ranked schools, as noted by Mossimo Giannulli, one of the defendants named in the scandal. He told his daughter’s college consultant that he wanted, “the game plan and make sure we have a roadmap for success as it relates to [our daughter] and getting her into a school other than [Arizona State University] ASU!”

Olivia Jade and Lori Loughlin
Olivia Jade Loughlin (left) and Lori Loughlin (right) have been swept up in a recent college admissions scandal involving fraudulent qualifications. Jade is currently a student at USC and has faced criticism from the community. (Source: NBC News)

The USC Application

So what does this all have to do with USC? A few students at USC, such as Olivia Jade, daughter of actress Lori Laughlin and fashion designer Mossimo Giunalli, have come under controversy for attending the school through means of fraud.

Athletic officials Donna Heinel and Water Polo coach Jovan Vavic were fired after facilitating admissions for Jade. Heinel allegedly took a $500,000 bribe to declare Jade as a member of the USC crew team, and Vavic took a $250,000 bribe to bring two other students into the water polo team. Former USC soccer coach Laura Janke and current coach Ali Khosroshahin have also been indicted by a federal grand jury in the District of Massachusetts for receiving bribes up to $250,000 and submitting false sports profiles to USC admissions.

Each of these cases required fraud in the form of fake profiles and had to backed up with both monetary bribes and “numerous academic honors.” In the eyes of the law, both these actions are illegal. However, it is possible and entirely legal for wealthy parents to make monetary “donations” to the university, in exchange for acceptance into the school. It seems shortsighted for a wealthy family like the Giannulli’s to choose to make illegal bribes instead of legal monetary donations, as it would have achieved the same result, yet avoided this scandal.

Falsifying academic records has been occurring for a much time, with many historical precedents to this specific case. It should be unsurprising that the number of both legal and illegal transactions done to facilitate the college admissions process is rising, as competitiveness among students reach an all-time high. USC received a record of 64,000 applications last year, and other colleges reported similar occurrences. Nevertheless, college application assistance is a booming industry, and its demand is continuously growing due to decreasing college acceptance rates.

The value of a college degree is increasing, and parents are desperate for their kids to attend prestigious universities. However, this competitiveness just leads to inaccurate representation of students and fraudulent profiles. Ironically, Lori Loughlin gives some good advice on parenting.

“If you give it your all, and do the best you can, then that’s all you can do, and that’s enough.” said the actress.

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