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:
- A conventional admissions process.
- An admissions process that relied on philanthropic giving.
- 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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Admissions based on philanthropic giving refers to an admissions process that usually involves a financial donation to the school. Daniel Golden, an investigative journalist who wrote a bestselling book called The Price of Admission, discussed philanthropy-based admissions in light of the recent scandal. In an interview with The New Yorker, he pointed to a greater trend of universities favoring big donors whereas other sources of funding–federal grants or modest alumni giving–have declined or shown little growth. Golden calls these donations those that “carry a kind of admissions tit for tat.”
Admissions based on philanthropic account for a surprisingly large portion of the admissions pie. At the many of the nation’s most selective institutions, the group of students admitted through the philanthropic process can take up as much as 30-40% of total openings!
Students admitted through the philanthropic process can take up as much as 30-40% of total openings at selective schools.
What’s important to note is that admissions based on philanthropy, though it has a financial component, is different from side-door admissions in two critical ways.
1. Admissions based on philanthropy never come with a guarantee of admissions. The nature of the college admissions process is such that no one can guarantee entrance into a particular school, and businesses such as Mr. Singer’s that sell such results should be viewed with suspicion.
2. Admissions based on philanthropy are legal and ethical. While some may argue that it is unfair to give greater consideration to applicants of means, it is very much in the spirit of the American education system to admit students of means in order to afford greater privilege to those without means. In short, admissions based on philanthropy is a legitimate and time-honored tradition that may be worth considering for certain families.
Side door admissions refer to applicants (or applicant parents) who engage in activities that are unethical or illegal.
In Singer’s case, clients committed purposeful deception that amounted to fraud:
- Students who did not play a particular sport were photo-shopped into pictures to give the appearance that they played that sport.
- College athletic coaches were paid to endorse such students.
- Test-takers were hired to take standardized tests for students or proctors to change answers on a completed exam.
- Exam administrators were bribed to look the other way.
In many ways, what the college admissions scandal reveals is nothing new. People have known for decades that the competition to get into an elite college has become exponentially competitive and at the same time, the admissions process remains opaque and subjective.
The lessons to be learned from Singer’s side door admissions scheme is that there are legitimate, ethical, result-driven options for parents that want to help their students have the best possible advantage in the college admissions process–either through a conventional process or admissions based on philanthropic giving.
If you are interested in learning more about either of the traditional paths or for a free consultation, contact FLEX at email@example.com.
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