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How some wealthy parents game the college admissions process

The multimillion-dollar bribery scheme unveiled by the Justice Department this week has sparked equal parts outrage and incredulity over the astonishing lengths some wealthy parents have gone to get their children into the prestigious universities of their choice.

It’s the largest such scam ever to be prosecuted in U.S. history, ensnaring Hollywood actresses, university coaches, exam administrators and others. In some cases, students faces’ were photoshopped onto athletes’ bodies to create fake profiles to suggest aptitude in sports in which they had no skill or did not play at all. In others, standardized test scores were faked, by proctors or by people who stood-in to take the tests on a student’s behalf.

But, while the actions uncovered in the indictments were blatantly illegal, it’s far from the first time affluent Americans have used their status to secure seats at some of America’s most elite colleges. In fact, observers of higher education argue this scheme simply reveals existing legal pathways for gaming the college admissions process that the rich have used for years.

Are admissions rigged for the rich?

In announcing charges against 50 people, prosecutors described the outlandish ways well-connected parents illegally circumvented the college admissions process and
got their children admitted into top-tier schools. From using photoshopped images to falsely justify an athletic recruitment, to claiming their children had learning disabilities and needed time extensions during standardized testing.

In a news conference Tuesday, U.S. attorney Andrew E. Lelling explicitly acknowledged — and differentiated this case from — the legal ways wealthy parents are able to pull strings in their children’s favor.

“We’re not talking about donating a building so that a school is more likely to take your son or daughter,” he said. “We’re talking about deception and fraud.”

Daniel Golden, author of the 2006 book “The Price of Admission,” says these fraudulent strategies stem from advantages that wealthy Americans already have in the admissions process.

“Those of us that have observed higher education for a very long time and seen how these advantages for the wealthy already operate are not at all surprised that essentially there’s a pay-to-play situation here, because it already exists,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education policy at Temple University.

Richard Reeves, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan think tank Brookings Institute, calls the bribery scheme the “criminal tip of an iceberg… the rest of the iceberg is the rigged system of college admissions in general.”

A “back door” into schools

At the center of the admissions scandal is a fixer named William “Rick” Singer, who federal prosecutors said advertised his bribery scheme as a “side door” that could guarantee admissions.

“There is a front door, which means you get in on your own,” Singer said in a phone call to a parent recorded by the FBI. “The back door is through institutional advancement, which is 10 times as much money. And I’ve created this side door in.”

He contrasted his services to the legitimate but “back door” ways wealthy parents try to gain preferential treatment for their children through sizeable donations to their desired school. It’s a practice that Golden says has become pervasive as the percentage of alumni donations to universities has shrunk and universities have become more dependent on big donations from a relative few. It’s those large donations that come with expectations of a quid pro quo, Golden said.

Golden famously reported in “The Price of Admission” that White House senior adviser (and presidential son-in-law) Jared Kushner’s father Charles promised a $2.5 million donation to Harvard in the late ‘90s, not long before Jared was admitted. Golden interviewed officials at Kushner’s high school, who reportedly said that neither his SATs nor GPA seemed to warrant a spot at the Ivy. Golden writes that a spokesperson from the Kushner family’s business rejected the idea that there was a connection between the gift and acceptance to Harvard.

According to data by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, charitable giving to universities has increased in recent years, reaching $47 billion in 2018. Historically, alumni giving has made up some of the largest contributions supporting higher education, and last year it accounted for 26 percent of donations to colleges and universities.

Kevin Carey, vice president of the education policy program at the left-leaning think tank New America, said using donations to get a leg up in the admissions process has become an “integral part of upper class culture in the United States where essentially 100 percent of the children of wealthy educated parents go to college.”

A 2017 study by the Equality of Opportunity Project found more students at elite colleges in America came from the top 1 percent of the income distribution than from the entire bottom 60 percent.

Legacy admissions

Anotherwell-known mechanism is a preference for admitting children of alumni, which critics argue generally benefits white, affluent students.

The impact of legacy preferences varies between institutions, but at Harvard, for example, legacy applicants are five times as likely to get in as other applicants. At some schools, the Wall Street Journal found last year, legacy students make up as much if not more of an accepted class than those who are the first in their families to attend college.

“Sometimes universities have a point system and there’s a certain number of points you get for being a legacy, but it’s ultimately a matter of judgment and [schools are] free to consider these factors and weigh them however they like,” Carey said.

Overall, the percentage of legacy admissions has gone down, according to Golden, but its impact on admissions remains significant. Roughly 40 percent of private institutions and 6 percent of public institutions consider legacy a factor in admissions decision, according to a 2018 survey by Inside Higher Ed.

Allowances for athletes

Among the dozens of parents facing federal charges are “Full House” actor Lori Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, who allegedly paid bribes totaling $500,000 to have their daughters recruited as crew athletes at the University of Southern California though they were not part of the team.

According to Golden, Loughlin and other parents who engaged in bribery found ways to exploit an admissions system that already gives preference to student athletes, particularly in low-profile sports such as crew or sailing, for which skill can be more difficult to assess.

Admissions preferences toward these types of sports largely benefit students from affluent backgrounds, said Goldrick-Rab, because “many of these sports are actually very expensive to play and hard for parents to afford.” And given that the majority of athletes in these upper-crust sports are white, as the Atlantic reports, it is also white students who benefit most from this preference. According to the 2018 National Collegiate Athletic Association estimates, 65 percent of student athletes in the Ivy League schools last year were white.

Is donating your way into college different from cheating?

While multimillion-dollar donations can give children of wealthy parents a leg up in the higher education system, Golden believes there’s a clear difference between donating large sums of money and engaging in bribery and cheating.

“Theoretically the money that goes to the university may [be put] to a good purpose like financial aid…instead of going to bribe individual coaches and test administrators, which enriches this private college counselor and doesn’t seem as socially redeeming,” he said.

Others, such as Reeves, say that writing a check to a school is not the same a bribing a coach, but “the result is similar in that it means people in positions of economic power are able to turn the economic power into a better chance of their child getting into college.”

Ultimately, both scenarios impose a cost on qualified applicants who are displaced for not having the same advantages as undeserving ones. And the perceived denial of a fair admissions process is now fueling a lawsuit, filed Thursday, against eight elite universities in response to the scandal.

Rhana Natour contributed reporting.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to remove a reference to an article first reported by Gawker and based on information obtained in the 2014 Sony hack. Reporting on that incident, which was linked in this story, has since been taken down by the Chronicle of Higher Education as well.