What About the Teens in the College Admission Scandal?

Lawnmower parenting might clear a path, but it leaves a trail of debris.

Posted Mar 14, 2019

Pamela Paresky
Source: Pamela Paresky

Parent: ...it works?

Singer: Every time… and they’re all families like yours, and they’re all kids that wouldn’t have perform[ed] as well, and then they did really well… and it was so funny ’cause the kids will call me and say, “Maybe I should do that again. I did pretty well and if I took it again, I’ll do better even.” … And they just have no idea that they didn’t even get the score that they thought they got. Which is great, that’s the way you want it. They feel good about themselves…

Parent: …this is, to be honest, it feels a little weird.

Singer: I know it does. I know it does. But when she gets the score and we have choices, you’re gonna be saying, okay, I’ll take all my kids, we’re gonna do the same thing.

Parent: Yeah, I will. 

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni once wrote that the “competitive frenzy” of the college admissions process “warps” students’ values. Clearly, they’re not the only ones. In what is now being called the largest college admissions scam ever prosecuted, more than 30 parents are alleged to have paid enormous sums to William (“Rick”) Singer for “admissions consulting” in order for their children to gain admission to colleges to which they would not otherwise be admitted. In total, 50 people are implicated, including an accountant, a private school counselor, two standardized test administrators, an exam proctor, a college administrator, and nine athletic coaches at elite schools.

Admission to highly selective, elite, liberal arts colleges today is less likely than it has ever been. To put it in perspective, in 1979, roughly 27% of Freshmen applicants to Yale were admitted.1 In 2000, Yale’s admission rate shrunk to about 18%. In 2018, only 6.3% of applicants were admitted. Last year, many colleges’ acceptance rates plummeted to half what they were a decade ago—and some have fallen to even less than half.2 

Until fairly recently, students who were intellectually gifted but had learning disabilities such as ADHD or dyslexia were denied access to highly selective schools because standardized testing presented a barrier. Now that accommodations are available for these “twice exceptional” test-takers—such as the ability use computers rather than paper tests, to have questions read aloud, and to have extra time to complete tests—schools can accurately assess a wider range of students’ academic abilities and increase the applicant pool. But these accommodations also create opportunities for the unscrupulous to take advantage of the system, and this is how the recent cheating was accomplished.

Singer, the mastermind of the complex fraud and deception, appears to have capitalized on parents’ fears that the game isn't fair, and that other people are cheating to get ahead. He told parents that “all the wealthy families figured out that if I get my kid tested and they get extended time, they can do better on the test. So most of these kids don’t even have issues, but they’re getting [extra] time.” Singer helped parents find a doctor who would recommend the their children be provided accommodations for extended time. This allowed their teens to take standardized tests over two days instead of one. After unsuspecting teens took the test on the first day, Singer’s “proctors” used the extra day to change students' answers. In other cases, proctors gave teens answers or even took the tests for the teens. Once these completed tests were submitted to the testing companies, the scores reflected whatever the parents wanted. Parents paid between $15,000 and several million dollars for Singer's “help.”

Often, people who cheat believe that it is what everyone else is doing, so if they don't cheat, too, they will be at a disadvantage. They justify their own cheating by telling themselves that they are actually making things more fair. In the current climate of extreme competition for college acceptance—what former Yale professor William Deresiewicz called “the resume arms race”3—persuading these parents that other wealthy people were tilting the playing field might not have been difficult.

To level the playing field, Singer told families that he created what he called “side doors.” The “front door,” he explained, is how students get into college on their own. This is a statistically unlikely path. The “back door” is how wealthy families get an advantage: by making substantial legitimate donations to schools. This option has been publicly derided as another way for families to cheat, albeit legally—a difference in degree, not in kind. However, as a scholarship recipient recently pointed out to me, for many students, the opportunity to attend highly selective, elite, liberal arts colleges is available as a result of donations from wealthy families. Singer warned parents, however, that this would cost “ten times as much money.” Also, colleges want to ensure that the students they admit are capable of succeeding there, so making donations, Singer explained, is “no guarantee.” And the families he worked with wanted guarantees, so Singer provided a suite of illicit services in addition to cheating on standardized tests, including creating fake athletic profiles, bribing coaches to "recruit" students for sports teams (even if those students didn't play sports), facilitating donations to athletic departments, writing application essays, and even taking online classes for students in order to raise their GPAs. 

Court documents reveal that in many cases, parents deceived their children into believing that they had earned their test scores, and earned their own admission to college. One applicant was unaware that his father was paying to get him into the University of Southern California, and had sent a photo of him that would be photoshopped onto a picture of a football kicker as part of a fake profile of the student as a superstar athlete. Told that acceptance was 90% guaranteed, the father expected that his son (who did not play football) would be admitted as a recruited football player before he even applied. The father agreed to pay $250,000 for this athletic "side door" in addition to $50,000 for a phony ACT score of 34 (which his son appeared to believe he had earned). This father made it clear that he wanted everything to be done for his son “in a way that he doesn’t know [what] happened.” Given the boy's obliviousness to the scheme, he separately sent an application to Northeastern University, not realizing that it included an inflated ACT score he did not legitimately achieve.

Another set of parents refinanced their family home in order to pay $100,000 for the recruited athlete scheme in order to get their daughter into USC. Apparently, however, the daughter had not even decided that USC was where she wanted to go. The father fretted to Singer that his daughter was “extremely upset as to why [her father was] pressuring her to make a decision” about going to USC. Although she didn't know about the fraud, the father worried she was becoming suspicious that she wasn’t getting in “on her own merits.” 

One teen appears to have had so much anxiety about what she believed was “high stakes testing” that her mother reported “she was gonna throw up,” and during the testing session, “started having heart palpitations but she said [the scam proctor] was so sweet, he let [her] walk around the hallway.” This young woman earned a composite score on the ACT of 23 (69th percentile). The score she was led to believe she earned was 35 (99.9th percentile), high enough to apply to elite schools. According to court documents, Duke University appears to have been the goal. After paying $50,000 for the fake ACT score, the student’s parents paid an additional $75,000 for Singer to have someone alter her daughter’s two SAT subject tests. The scores reported were 710 on the English literature test and 800 (a perfect score) on the math test. (Her actual scores were in the mid-600s.) 

Singer claims to have "helped" over 700 students. There may be college applicants, current college students, and college graduates who are wondering whether they were unwittingly part of this scam—or are finding out now that they were. Even in an era of what’s known as “lawnmower parenting,” in which parents believe that their job is to clear all obstacles from their children’s path, the parents involved in this scheme completely lost all perspective. Yet, today there are students enrolled at Georgetown and USC (and potentially elsewhere) who were admitted as a result of this fraud. At least three of them seem to have knowingly participated.

Meanwhile, student athletes who, for years, spent countless hours every week practicing, playing, and hoping to be recruited were denied the opportunity for which they worked so hard. And other students were rejected who would otherwise have been admitted. It is unsettling that these parents chose to trade their integrity, their reputations, their careers, and even potentially their freedom for their children's unearned college admission. This choice is especially perplexing because although attending an elite college can have a significant impact on future earnings for students from low-income backgrounds, it has virtually no effect for people from affluent families. 

No doubt these parents thought they were doing something that would benefit their children. But although those parents who kept their children in the dark clearly intended for their children to be innocent beneficiaries of their parents' cheating, those children are now their parents' innocent victims. If those children thought their parents were people of integrity, they are discovering that their parents were willing to cheat. If they thought their parents were truthful, they are learning that their parents were willing to lie. If they thought their relationships with their parents were founded on honesty, they are understanding that they have been betrayed. And for those teens who believed that they were admitted to college as a result of their own efforts, they may be grappling with the idea that they are not exactly who they believed themselves to be. What must it be like for these teens to find that their parents created fictional versions of them that they presented not only to colleges, but in part, to the teens themselves? What message does a young person take from this? 

Teens across the country who applied for college admission this year will be hearing from many colleges on April 1st. Instead of looking forward to transitioning to college along with their classmates, the students caught up in this scheme will be grappling with acceptance and rejection of a different kind. Georgetown announced that they are "reviewing the details of the indictment and will be taking appropriate action." USC announced that no applicants connected with this admissions scandal will be admitted this year, and that the school will undertake a case-by-case review of such students who are currently enrolled. Meanwhile, the online mob is poised to attack. But as a USC spokesman thoughtfully noted, some of the teens who got caught up in this scandal "may have been minors at the time of their application process."5 

What must it be like to come from one of the families in which children actively colluded with their own parents who encouraged them to cheat? What must these students' worlds be like right now, as their friends find out the path that brought (or would have brought) them to campus? Is it possible for these kids to learn from the mistakes they were taught to make? Will they be able to forgive their parents—and themselves?

Some thoughts for the teens involved: A student who achieves a score of 35 on the ACT is not a better person than a student who achieves a 23, and going to an elite college is not better than going to a college that is less well-known. This episode will likely be extremely challenging. It will take tremendous fortitude, maturity, and self-reflection to get through it, and there may be times when things seem overwhelming and bleak. I hope you can remind yourself that people are imperfect, that “this too shall pass,” and that this will not define you—if you don't let it. Moral failings, whether your own or of loved ones, can bring tremendous opportunities for growth—and for forgiveness. ♦

“If the mind is to emerge unscathed from this relentless struggle with the unforeseen, two qualities are indispensable: first, an intellect that, even in the darkest hour, retains some glimmerings of the inner light which leads to truth; and second, the courage to follow this faint light wherever it may lead.”  Carl von Clausewitz

Pamela Paresky's opinions are her own and should not be considered official positions of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education or any other organization with which she is affiliated.


― Carl Von Clausewitz, On War: Volume 1