College Cheating Scandal Exposes Underbelly of Cutthroat Admissions Process

March 13, 2019

By Carlo Versano

When news broke this week that dozens of wealthy, high-profile parents ー TV actresses, fashion designers, CEOs among them ー became ensnared in what appears to be the largest college cheating scandal in history, social media lit up with questions. Was there really much of a practical difference between paying a bribe to ensure your kid got into the school of their choice and, say, openly donating $2.5 million to said school?

For Christopher Hunt, a former journalist and author who works as a college essay consultant for high school students, the wide-ranging federal case was not shocking. "It's sort of an extreme example of the things that go on in the current competitive admissions environment," he told Cheddar in an interview Wednesday, a day after prosecutors charged 50 people with cheating the admissions process at prestigious universities like Yale, Stanford, and USC.

Hunt said the scandal is a reflection of a simple fact: admission rates at elite schools continue to drop ー from around 20 percent a couple of generations ago to often less than 10, or even five percent now. (Harvard went from taking one in 9 applicants in the 1990s to about 1 in 20 now, according to ProPublica.)

That's led to a cutthroat, anything-goes attitude for some ー particularly those with the means to gain an unfair edge.

The man at the center of the current scandal, Rick Singer, worked as a college consultant for the rich and is alleged to have turned his business into a lucrative scheme in which he facilitated cheating on standardized testing, bribes to college coaches, among other fraudulent acts, at the behest of parents willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for their children to gain acceptance to top-tier schools. Singer has pleaded guilty to racketeering charges and is now cooperating with prosecutors.

Singer recognized a weak point in the system and took advantage of it, Hunt said, calling it the "ultimate temptation" in a field where college prep now starts as early as eighth grade.

Still, according to Hunt, the overall college admissions process has a lot of fundamental problems, but still maintains "integrity."

"You can't bribe a normal admissions officer because there's too many layers above them," he said. Which is why the ultra-wealthy tend to go through the tested ー and perfectly legal ー method of donating money.

Others expressed shock at the apparent breadth and audacity of the scandal. Val Ackerman, the commissioner's of the NCAA's Big East Conference, told Cheddar that she was "disturbed" by the allegations. "It didn't seem like it was possible to pull that kind of a stunt off," she said, arguing that it points to structural deficiencies in the higher education system itself.

For full interview click here.