On Tuesday, March 12, 2019, fifty people were indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice on charges of college admissions fraud. This scandal involved a diverse range of interested parties, including famous or wealthy parents, standardized test proctors, and athletic coaches at elite universities across the nation.

The CEO of the college prep company that perpetrated the fraud, William Singer, engaged in two types of illegal activities:

  • Helped students cheat on their standardized tests.
  • Bribed college athletic coaches to recommend students with fake athletic credentials.

Singer, who pleaded guilty to all charges in federal court, once identified three ways of getting into college:

  1. A conventional admissions process.
  2. An admissions process that relied on philanthropic giving.
  3. A “side door” admissions process that allowed parents who were unwilling to invest in philanthropic giving to find an illegal way to buy entrance into a particular university.

While the first two admissions processes consist of long-standing practices that are acknowledged by colleges and universities, it is this third category of side door admissions that has generated the uproar around this news story. For that reason, it is important that prospective applicants and their families clearly understand the distinction among the three categories of admissions.

The Conventional Admissions Process

The conventional admissions process refers to students who get into college through a face-value application. They are evaluated on their performance in high school, extracurricular activities, standardized test scores, recommendations, application essays, and character.

Colleges recognize that even the face-value applicant usually has access to a range of resources. Such resources may include tutoring and standardized test prep, meetings with school guidance counselors or professional college coaches, personal essay editing, and application review. Colleges are well aware that a good portion of their applicants are getting some degree of professional guidance in the application process.

In other words, college coaching does not preclude a conventional admissions review. In many cases, it is assumed.

What is shocking about the conventional admissions process is that, while it seems to be the norm, the group of students admitted under its auspices may take up as little as 25-30% of total openings. In other words, at a highly selective university at which the overall admit rate is, say, 10%, the conventional admissions admit rate is effectively 2.5-3%.

Admissions based on philanthropic giving refers to…

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