Behind the Curtains of College Applications
By HENRY HSIA
It’s been four years of studying hard, pulling all-nighters and getting involved in extracurriculars. Only at the culmination of all this, you receive the devastating words, “With genuine regret.”
Amidst today’s hypercompetitive college admissions process, students use whatever means possible to gain a leg up on their peers. In fact, privileged students pay for advanced tutoring, college counselors, and even donate buildings to the university. Yet, despite the advantages they can already afford, such privileged families were still involved in one of the most high-profile corruption scandals involving direct bribery of college officials in the nation.
Dubbed Operation Varsity Blues, the scandal involved William “Rick” Singer collaborating with dozens of wealthy parents to illegally manipulate the college admissions process. The two main fraudulent techniques that Singer employed were cheating on college entrance exams and bribing college officials. Singer’s operation was disguised under his 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, Key Worldwide Foundation. As a result, the famous parents’ “donations” to the deceitful company were not taxed by the federal government and deducted from their own taxes. With the revelation of this long-running scandal, many are wondering how many qualified students were denied admission as a result of this scandal.
Objectively, universities have very limited spots in their freshmen classes. In the fall of 2016, Stanford University admitted 2114 students into its freshman class. 2210 freshmen were admitted in 2017. 2040 freshmen were admitted in 2018. Most universities do not change their class size from year to year, so one fraudulent admission ultimately denies a spot to a legitimate admission. This problem is further amplified in prestigious institutions, including the universities involved in Operation Varsity Blues, all of which rarely have class sizes exceeding 3000.
The requirements for entrance to prestigious universities has increased dramatically within the last few decades. Applicants are expected to maintain near-perfect grade point averages, score in the top percentile on standardized tests, hold leadership positions within extracurricular activities, and still somehow differentiate themselves from tens of thousands of other qualified applicants who have also spent all four years of high school preparing their applications. The fraudulent admissions orchestrated by Singer undermine the effort of tens of thousands students across the world, at a time where college admissions to top universities are already looked at with uncertainty. The various methods Singer employed in his operation only highlight the existing problems with our modern college admissions system.
The first method Singer used to secure his clients admission was cheating on standardized tests. Throughout the history of the SAT, studies have always shown a strong correlation between high scores and wealth. More affluent families can afford proper preparation materials, expensive tutors and other advantages. The SAT and other standardized tests were originally designed for this as well, intending to separate well-off students from the crowd without violating federal laws. Yet as the years progressed, an increased number of students, including those from low income backgrounds, are able to score high and the SAT became an actual measure for college preparedness.
Despite recent progressive changes to the SAT however, the SAT is still highly correlated with income and parental education levels according to the Washington Post. For example, a student with a parent finishing a graduate degree scores on average 300 points higher on the SAT than a student with a parent finishing only a high school diploma.
The continued practice of standardized testing representing wealth and privilege rather than actual college preparedness calls the validity of the American dream into question. How can studious students expect to escape from poverty when they do not have access to resources and tutors? How can students overcome a tumultuous background when they are heavily influenced by their environment? I am not saying that it is impossible for low-income, first-generation students to succeed in the college admissions process, but one does have to admit it is significantly harder.
And again, the classic American dream so often championed by the media, coming from rags to riches, falls apart upon deeper inspection. The discovery of Operation Varsity Blues only reinforces this suspicion. If a student from a rich parent truly cannot obtain a sufficient score on the SAT, Singer tells us the student can literally just use bribe his way to a desirable score. And the methods Singer employed to achieve this are truly despicable.
Singer took advantage of the accommodations afforded to students with disabilities to cheat on the SAT. According to Singer, he would pay $4000 to $5000 to psychologists to falsify medical records, allowing his clients special accommodations such as extra time. Taking advantage of privileges intended to even the playing field for children with learning disabilities is truly reprehensible. However, Singer is not alone in this scheme. According to National Public Radio (NPR), there is a massive discrepancy between students in wealthy and poor neighborhoods when it comes to these learning disabilities. Students coming from wealthy school districts account for 10 to 15 times more accommodations than their less fortunate peers. This calls into question the actual validity of students receiving the accommodations, and further illustrates the discrepancy in resources when comparing different socioeconomic backgrounds. Regardless, after this college admissions scandal has come to light, it will be more difficult for students actually requiring the accommodations to receive them.
Additionally, Singer bribed coaches in the targeted university, often paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to ensure acceptance into prestigious universities. Coaches in the University of Southern California (USC), the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), Yale University, and Georgia Tech, along with famous celebrities like Lori Loughlin all participated in these under-the-table dealings. Coaches for these colleges can only submit a small number of names for increased favorability in college admissions, so this scandal most certainly denies spots from qualified, hard-working athletes.
Perhaps the most aggravating aspect in this incident is the indifference of the primary beneficiaries in this scandal. Olivia Jade, the daughter of Lori Loughlin, has commented multiple times on her apathy toward school. She mentions in her YouTube vlogs that she probably was not going to try at USC, and that the majority of her time in the university will be in the party scene.
Jade was born in a well-off position in society and most likely did not need to attend university to succeed. She already had a very successful social media presence before her acceptance to USC. The fact that she would deny another more qualified student a spot at USC and not even try in the university is truly aggravating.
All in all, this notorious college admissions scandal is absolutely reprehensible. Singer and his associated denied spots from more qualified students across the world, and undermined the integrity of the entire college admissions process. However, this incident only highlights the already unfair college admissions process. Low-income students struggle on the SAT and are not even aware of the accommodations provided to them. It is time to advocate for students across the country, and truly call out the problems with college admissions in the United States. The concept of the American dream might truly be a dream after all.